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.
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:
She published these mysteries:
- Tell Death to Wait
- Cradled in Fear
- Death Brings a Storke
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.
Publisher: Books, Inc., 1944 (orig. pub. Michael Joseph: London, 1939)
Length: 245 pages