originally published 1946, by Michael Joseph, Ltd.
Now, here's something entirely different -- we're still in the English country house murder phase with Death and the Pleasant Voices, but at least it's a new take on an old theme.
This book was written by Mary Fitt, AKA Stuart Mary Wick, both pseudonyms of Kathleen Freeman (1897-1959), a classicist who, in a field that belonged more or less to men, "used her excellent brain to make the Greeks intelligible and accessible to every man and woman in the English-speaking world." When she wasn't working for the war effort, she turned her hand to writing mystery novels as well as ghost stories, some of them featured in The Second Ghost Book and The Third Ghost Book, anthologies edited by none other than Lady Cynthia Asquith, whose own ghostly tales are often featured in old ghost-story anthologies. Death and the Pleasant Voices is her tenth novel out of nineteen to feature Superintendent Mallett, who plays only a small role here.
Death and the Pleasant Voices itself starts out like a ghost story, in that the narrator of this tale is driving through a blinding rainstorm, complete with lightning. Coming to a fork in the road, he takes the wrong turn and before he can turn around, he discovers he's arrived at a mansion of "dark grey stone." The door is opened by a manservant, who seemed to expect him, not even asking his name. He is greeted by a young woman, Ursula Ullstone, who refers to him incorrectly as "Hugo," and introduces him to the others in the room. The narrator is actually Jake Seaborne, and as he proffers his real name, discovers that one of the party knows his brother. This is Sir Frederick Lawton, a "great surgeon" and Jake's brother's hero. Jake is also a medical student, now on a short holiday. As Lawton escorts Jake to another room for a little chat, Jake hears Ursula ask "But where is Hugo?" , a question that will be answered quite shortly upon Hugo's arrival. It seems that Hugo is the son (via first marriage to a high-caste Indian woman) of the late Mr. Ullstone (the father of Ursula and her twin brother Jim), and up until three weeks prior, no one in the family or in the household had even heard of him. Strangely though, Hugo is now the owner of Ullstone Hall, the now-deceased Mr. Ullstone having made him his heir after refusing to ever allow him to come into contact with the rest of the family. Obviously they've never seen Hugo, since they all mistook Jake for their half-brother. The problem, as so neatly outlined by Sir Frederick, is that
"...all these people who thought themselves securely in possession for the rest of their lives are now going to be dependent upon the caprice of this young man. And as none of them has ever had to earn a living, none of them will have the slightest idea of what to do if Hugo decides that he doesn't want their company."In short, the Ullstone family destiny is in the hands of a complete stranger. Jim and Ursula were left an annuity of three hundred pounds a year, "a sum that to most the inhabitants of this island would seem to give freedom from financial anxiety fro the rest of their lives," but Hugo has the bulk of the estate. Lawton is there as a "sort of buffer" for Hugo against the family; he must leave and is overjoyed that Jake has arrived, and asks Jake if he wouldn't mind staying until Lawton returns to act in the same role. Because of Jake's connection to Lawton, he agrees -- and ultimately Hugo arrives. That's when the first hint of trouble raises its head -- and before long, three people will end up dead.
Death and the Pleasant Voices is a novel about people, each with their little secrets and lies they have to maintain -- while the plot is decent enough, the heart of this book exists in its characters. As an example, Jim and Ursula have "conditioned" by their upbringing to never have to bother with the mundane task of working to make ends meet; their house guests are sponges who are there for long periods of time, one of them, a physician, has more or less given up on his practice, leaving it in the hands of his locum, for a life of leisure and secret love. The author makes a critical point here that not everything one sees is the way it actually is -- and it is the characters who eventually enliven this theme as the story progresses. The book also has a lot to say between the lines -- the author writes about class, about prejudice, about family relationships, about the roles of women and the follies and foibles of love -- but considering that the book was published in 1946, there's surprisingly very little, in fact nothing, said about the effects of the war that had concluded just a scant year earlier. Frankly, to me, this is quite a surprising omission. Everyone seems to have gone about his or her business somewhat unscathed after such a horrific war -- there is no rationing, the family still employs servants, and it's almost as if the war danced around this little slice of the English countryside.
It's a good enough little read; coming in at just over 200 pages, it will definitely give a crime reader a few good hours of entertainment, and I can attest to the fact that there is a true puzzle to solve here. I thought I had guessed the culprit by page 80 and as things progressed, I realized not only was I wrong, but my choice was not even close. As usual though, if it's too easy, it's no fun. Definitely a keeper, Death and the Pleasant Voices is book #6 in my ongoing obscure women crime writers project, and I would recommend it.