Rue Morgue Press, 1999
originally published 1939
"The bother about detective stories is that they're not the least like life."
They Rang Up the Police is Book #3 in my ongoing quest to read books by obscure women crime writers -- both novels and authors that have been either forgotten or never heard of in the first place. In the case of all of three, it's been the latter for me. So far I've been batting a thousand in my choices: first with Dorothy Bowers and more recently, Marjorie Alan, and now with They Rang Up the Police, which is a most unusual mystery novel published in 1939.
Marley Grange in rural Oxfordshire is the home of the Cathcarts. Unlike the older families living nearby, the Cathcarts do not have roots in the area, but rather had "made their money," a fact that sets them apart in the local class scheme. Living at Marley Grange are Mrs. Grace Cathcart and her daughters, Nancy, Sheila and Delia. There was a Mr. Cathcart at one time, but old Humphrey is "at rest now," a situation that Mrs. Cathcart prefers, since there is
"... no stamping in the dressing room, no snores, no clearing of a smoker's throat, no arguments about the number of blankets, no sounds, no movement, no will but her own."The sisters are all homely spinsters, the youngest 38, and Delia, the eldest at 43 is "the most worldly of the Cathcarts, and is referred to as "the man of the family." Sheila is "the highbrow," while Nancy is lovingly known as "our home bird," the sort of woman who would rather stay home and sew. It is a harmonious household, so it seems, and Grace has worked hard to bring up her daughters "to be as courteous and considerate to each other as they were to strangers." The sisters address each other as "darling," and Delia carefully watches over her siblings and runs the household capably, taking care of every problem down to dealing with the servants. She also hunts and breaks in horses.
As the heat ratchets up in the summer, Delia has taken to sleeping outside in a secluded area of the yard next to the house in a small camp bed. One night she goes to her "mannish" bedroom, puts on her "serviceable striped silk pajamas and a woolen dressing gown," and heads on outside for a good night's rest. The next morning, Delia has disappeared. The rest of the family is in a dither, and after Nancy drives around the country lanes to look for her, they decide to call around to see if anyone's seen her. When that proves to be futile, "they rang up the police." Then they make a strange discovery: Delia's suitcase is missing, along with a blue-flowered dress, her hat, and a pair of shoes. The police, represented at first by local Superintendent Dawes, sees a love affair in the disappearance; the rest of the women quickly shut that idea down. After Dawes, described as "common," and an "ordinary policeman" by Nancy, bids them goodbye, Mrs. Cathcart decides they'll just have to find Delia themselves. In calling around to Delia's acquaintances, they discover that another local resident is missing -- a Captain Willoughby of Lane End Farm, a horse-riding friend of Delia's. Could there be a connection? Grace has had enough -- and she pulls some family strings and gets the attention of someone at Scotland Yard. Inspector Guy Northeast, whose career literally hinges on solving this case, is called in to get to the bottom of Delia's disappearance.
While my description of the story in They Rang Up the Police may make this book sound like yet another novel in the English country murder mystery tradition, it is really anything but. Yes, there's a grand house with servants, stables, and a tennis court, and yes, there are a number of clever red herrings built into the story to keep the reader guessing. However, the hedges that keep Marley Grange out of public view off of the main road also hide something else that is more sinister (okay, I know this word is way overused, but it fits) than what's normally found in the standard, garden-variety, traditional-genre tropes. Unfortunately, the gut punch comes at the very end of the book, so I can't really go there.
Aside from the cringeworthy, nails-scraping-a-chalkboard Cathcarts, Cannan has populated her novel with some very bizarre characters one doesn't normally find in a book like this one. My favorite is Gerda Willoughby, a would-be artist, philosopher, self-proclaimed member of the intelligentsia whom the Inspector refers to as "Yet another Ancient Mariner," and "quite tiresome enough to drive a man from home without the incentive of an affair with another woman." In modern parlance, she's a total flake, and her antics are laughworthy but also sad because of how they reflect her sense of alienation among the people in this society. There's a socialist chauffeur, his boss who is a grumpy old curmudgeon, a drunken veterinarian who hides secrets of his own, and the list of suspects goes on. Cannan also has a winner in her Inspector Guy Northeast, a farm boy who did not want to be a farmer, but who instead had dreams of being a Mountie in the RCMP. After leaving home, he finds a supporter in an aunt who encourages him to follow his dream of being a policeman. After some minor successes, he finds himself on the promotion track and achieves the rank of inspector at Scotland Yard. However, he bungles an otherwise open-and-shut case so he's on the receiving end of all of the cases that his superiors at the Yard find too dull to take on themselves, and his career is definitely at risk by the time he takes up the case at Marley Grange. At times in this case he displays a definite nostalgia for farming, mostly because as a farmer no one is around to tell him what to do. He has to deal with the likes of the local policemen who can't fathom that anyone of the upper crust might possibly be involved, that the answer to the strangeness of any of the female characters is due to "sex repression," and that more likely than not, it's going to be a member of one of the working classes who is guilty. Once again, class difference is a major theme that runs throughout the entire book.
Without giving anything away, it is ultimately the psychology behind the crime which, along with the unusual character makeup, makes this book extremely readworthy and sets it apart from the work of Ms. Cannan's more well-known and more popular contemporaries. When all is said and done, all of the zaniness leading up to the ending fades away into a heartbreaking sense of sadness that left me feeling sympathetic rather than antagonistic toward the offender, something that rarely happens, but in this case just feels right.