From the dust jacket flap of my reprint edition, this is the setup for the crime and the events that follow:
In war-time London, wardens are checking for lights in the blacked-out streets, but inside Cecily Lightwood's flat, behind its thickly curtained windows, a party is in progress. Talented, vibrant Cecily has invited people from the literary and artistic world in which she moves. ... Everyone is waiting for the arrival of Aubrey Ritter, the handsome and famous playwright who has just moved into the flat upstairs following the suicide of his wife.
Ritter's non-appearance dominates the evening, distressing or annoying guests in differing degrees -- until the party is finally shattered by a voice shouting wildly on the stairs and the discovery of Ritter's savagely murdered body.The protagonist of this novel, Alice Church, is a guest at the party. She is a friend of Cecily's but all of the other guests are strangers to her. Cecily has invited her expressly to meet Janet Markland, a successful businesswoman who works in publishing and is a partner in a literary agency. Janet is the only person who leaves the party before the murder and when she returns her behavior is strange. The evidence indicates that no one else could have murdered Ritter. Her actions following the discovery of the body are suspicious. Thus she is quickly arrested, brought to trial, and eventually convicted of murder.
Yet Alice cannot believe that Janet is the murderer and she cannot leave the issue alone. She finally decides to question some of Janet's friends from the party. She is on a quest to understand why Janet killed Aubrey Ritter or find another solution to the crime.
There are so many things I liked about this book. Some of them are characteristics of other books I have read by Ferrars and some are unique to this book.
The book is set in London during the second World War and was written around that time. The effects of the war and the situation in London at the time are very much a part of the story.
[Janet and Alice are talking at the party.]
"Was it still raining when you got here?" Janet went on, attempting in the midst of some preoccupation to sound interested in what she was saying.
"No," said Alice, "it's cleared up, it's a rather beautiful night at the moment. It's very starry. I found a warden and a policeman discussing astronomy on the doorstep."
"Astronomy?" said Janet. "Really?"
"Yes. That's something good that's come out of the black-out, isn't it?" said Alice. "All sorts of people have suddenly gotten interested in astronomy."What people are wearing is usually described in detail in Ferrar's novels, and in this case, is of importance to the mystery plot. As is noted in Whodunit?, edited by H.R.F. Keating, "Her people are notably real. They eat; they choose clothes."
Alice later found that she had no difficulty whatever in remembering her first impression of Kitty Roper. Probably few people ever had.... She came into the room ahead of Cecily, smiling already and full of interest and pleasure. She was a big woman, shaped with a splendid, healthy plumpness, she was rather untidy and more than a little flashy. Her coat was of a grey Indian lamb, worn over a scarlet woolen dress which was held in round her far from slender waist by a belt of gilded leather. She had a heavy gilt necklace round her throat and chunks of gilt screwed on to the lobes of her ears. With her fair hair, done up in a gaudily striped turban, showing on her forehead in a cluster of dishevelled curls, with her fresh, fair skin, blue eyes and soft, full lips, gaily daubed with few haphazard strokes of lipstick, she was like some magnificent doll, come to exurberant life.Ferrar's books are more about the people than the crimes. The crime exists and it certainly was always in the back of my mind while reading this book, but in this case it provides a framework for Ferrars to delve into the psychology and the buried motives of the characters' behavior. This story is much more a part of the psychological suspense sub-genre than Ferrar's other books that I have read. The first one I read, Skeleton in Search of a Cupboard (1982) is a straightforward mystery plot; the second, The Small World of Murder, is more of a psychological thriller.
For me, this book had some of the problems of amateur sleuth mysteries; how does Alice successfully get all these people to talk to her, people that she barely knows? Of course, she isn't really trying to solve a crime, although she does have doubts. She seems to be more obsessed with figuring out who Janet was underneath her persona. A good deal of the story is Alice's conversations with other people. Eventually her husband agrees that are are serious questions to be asked and gets involved.
Although this type of story is not for everyone, I do recommend it highly, primarily for the look at London and its people during the war, but also for the character development and revelations.
H.R.F. Keating also included this book in Crime & Mystery -- The 100 Best Books. There he says:
"During the course of her hesitant inquiries she comes across facts of life likely among a somewhat bohemian set of people. It is a mark of the realism Elizabeth Ferrars achieved that her regular publishers declined the book on the grounds that detective stories could not be this seamy."
Elizabeth Ferrars was born Morna Doris MacTaggart. In the US her books were issued under the name "E.X. Ferrars." She was a very prolific writer.
See other reviews at Pining for the West, In Reference to Murder, and A Hot Cup of Pleasure.
This book is a submission for the Golden Vintage Scavenger Hunt in the "Staircase" category.
Publisher: Constable, 1987 (orig. pub. 1946)
Length: 191 pages
Setting: UK, mostly London
Source: I purchased this book.