Saturday, July 26, 2014

Death Has a Past: Anita Boutell


Rich Westwood at his blog Past Offences (classic crime reviews and news) has challenged readers to blog about a book or movie from 1939 during the month of July. This review of Death Has a Past is my second submission to the 1939 book challenge.

This very fitting quote from a poem titled Love's Grave by George Meredith is on the title page:
In tragic life, God wot,
No villain need be! Passions spin the plot:
We are betray'd by what is false within.
Death Has a Past by Anita Boutell is the gradually unfolding story of five women who are in effect subjugated by Claudia Hetherton, who has inherited all the wealth of the Hetherton family. Each woman either needs money that only Claudia can supply, or depends on her good will for her future happiness, or both. 

Claudia has invited them all to her home for a "women only" week, following on the tradition of her mother-in-law, Emily Hetherton. The week has been traditionally called "Emily's Week," and they go along with the tradition for one last year.

The story is bookended by two brief conversations between the story teller and a young friend. The conversations set up the outline of the story and further explain its resolution. Preceding each section, there is a fragment of a confession to a murder, so that the reader knows that someone has died, maybe Claudia, maybe another one of these women. Each piece of the story provides a hint of who could be so desperate or so hurt to be driven to commit murder. There is a twist at the end and I did not expect it.

The story is mostly limited to the six women taking part in Emily's Week; there are servants present on Claudia's estate, and two males make brief appearance. Even so the relationships and the stories of the lives of the six women gets complex. My copy included a family tree, which I referred to often. The story is clearly set (and written) in the late 1930's at a time when women could be beholden to others for their livelihood and survival. Yet at times I forgot that and was sometimes surprised by evidence that the story was written that long ago. 

This description of Claudia, as she begins to unravel, is chilling:
     Claudia sat squarely in the big winged chair than had been old Emily's. She had taken now as her right, and in tacit recognition, the others left always vacant for her use. She sat rigidly upright, her angular shoulders held stiffly from any contact of the back or sides.
     Pippa thought: She sits on it as though it were a throne.
     For an instant, the thought crossed her mind that her aunt was not quite sane. Wasn't this desire to dominate, this overbearing possessiveness of hers, just a little mad?
The author, Anita Boutell, is entirely new to me. I discovered the existence of this book at Clothes in Books, and Moira in turn had seen a review at Martin Edward's blog, Do You Write Under Your Own Name? I have looked and looked and found only snippets here and there about this author. One interesting fact about the original hardcover edition (not the copy I have) is that the dustjacket art was by Philip Youngman Carter, husband of Margery Allingham.

She published these mysteries:

My copy of this book is a hardcover edition published by Books, Inc. in 1944. Unfamiliar with this publisher and curious about why there would be a new hardcover edition five years after the original publication, I did some research. I found an article about a series of mystery reprints called Midnite Mysteries at Mystery*File. The back cover featured on that page is very similar to the one on my copy of this book.


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Publisher: Books, Inc., 1944 (orig. pub. Michael Joseph: London, 1939)
Length:     245 pages
Format:     hardcover
Series:      n/a
Setting:     UK
Genre:      Mystery

18 comments:

  1. Oh, there is something gripping/captivating about mysteries that feature "madness." Margaret Millar's Beast in View is one such story *ahem* I've never heard of this woman writer either and will see what I can find and read. The boon to finding and reading older mysteries is to find out they read very well today (and I am reading one such author now but more on that later). This is your second entry? Hmmm. Too late for me to try to find another one. This was a fun challenge because it made me read Raymond Chandler.

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    1. Keishon, I enjoyed this challenge too. The books provided a picture of what life was like at the time.

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  2. Tracy - Oh, this does sound unsettling! And some of the themes resonate, even 75 years after the novel was written. It sounds as though this focuses at least as much on characters as it does anything else. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. You are right, Margot. I think the focus on the characters was what I liked.

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  3. It sounds as though you enjoyed this one Tracy, and I'm pleased in the circs! I did think it was a good book, and much more substantial than I was expecting - it is a kind of trick, the clever way it's written, but still had strong characters. Lucky you to have a family tree - I struggled with remembering how they were all related to each other! The advert is intriguing, that's a good list of books, many of them still around....

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    1. Yes, Moira, when I went back and read that you did not have the family tree, I could understand where that would be a problem. Especially since they used different versions of some of the womens' names at times. The dynamics of Claudia's power over the women was interesting; I have seen that in families but not due to money.

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  4. This is a new author to me and the book does sound intriguing. Also the list of Midnite Mysteries is mouth-watering. Thanks.

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    1. Neer, I am going to have to look up some of those books. I recognize some authors but not the books.

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  5. Oooh, very interesting and completely new to me too - well done on tracking it down! Very envious :)

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    1. Sergio, it looks like all the editions of this book (there are not that many) have lovely covers, all of which I would love to own. But I am sure I could not afford the original hardcover edition. The paperback has a great cover too.

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  6. Hmm.... rather you than me TBH Tracy. This one doesn't grab me at all. I can't say I was blown away by the book I dead read actually!

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    1. You're right, Col. Not your kind of book.

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  7. Tracy, echoing what everyone has said, this novel does sound very interesting. I don't recall reading a story dominated by women characters. The author is new to me as well.

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    1. Prashant, that was another thing I liked. The focus on women characters.

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  8. Very original challenge: choose a month and year ...discover a book or film! Why don't I think of these things? I'll look at the blogpost by Past Offences, thanks! Now, a reason I read your posts even though I read very little crime literature is your style. By reading between the lines I see your enthusiam for the genre but also your curiosity to search for the one tidbit of information ( publisher, cover, illustrator...) that adds a touch of magic! Bravo! ( ps: when I give one of the cats a cuddle I sing "I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy" to him....he loves it!

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    1. Nancy, I love the idea of singing I'm a Yankee Doodle Dandy to the cat. I love seeing pictures of your cats on the blog.

      Thanks very much for the kind words. The books for a specific year challenge has been fun.

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  9. It end to love mysteries that also serve as character studies, and this sounds like if fits that bill.

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    1. It does, Ryan. It was disturbing to see people so dependent on others for money and interesting to see how they dealt with it.

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