book: Who Else but She? (1934; vt Black Widow) by S. Fowler Wright

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Originally published in 1934 as Who Else but She?, this is I think the first S. Fowler Wright book that I’ve read, although a vague memory nags that I may have read one of his adventure novels forty or fifty years ago. I do remember that, when I was a callow youth (as I still am, although time has passed), grown-ups around me recommended Wright as a “jolly good read.” They were the same people as recommended Edgar Wallace to me. They were really quite a lot older than I was.

Chief Inspector Pinkey of the Yard is called to a rural town to investigate a murder there. The local rozzers reckon Sir Daniel Denton was knocked off by his wife, Lady Adelaide, and all the evidence seems to point that way. However, the county’s Chief Constable knows Lady Adelaide socially and requires the Yard’s intervention before a formal charge is laid. Pinkey arrives, investigates and, after Lady Adelaide’s brother-in-law Gerard seemingly commits suicide, is left with little option other than to join the rest of the herd in assuming that it was Gerard wot dunnit.

End of story, case closed.

Um, not quite.

The first three-quarters or so of Wright’s novel follows the standard pattern of a Golden Age of Detection mystery: Pinkey interviews people, fails to interview people, unearths new nuggets of evidence, forms hypotheses, scolds himself that hypotheses should always be subservient to evidence, gets famously drunk in the company of a loose lady . . .

Well, not, alas, the latter. Pinkey is as prim and proper as you could ask for. But the rest is how the first and major portion of this novel goes.

Which would have been absolutely fine with me had it been written in anything approaching readable prose. Instead, it’s a matter of . . . Put it this way, if I made the obvious comparison I’d soon be getting letters of protest from angry ditches. Every single thought process, every single trivial and obvious deduction, every single anything is chewed through at great length like so much verbal cud until — if your reaction is anything like mine was — you want to beat your head repeatedly against the desk until unconsciousness offers mercy. It’s the kind of prose for which the word “grandisonian” was invented.

Here’s a character reflecting on the fact that her adulterous fling a couple of years ago had unanticipated adverse consequences:

Let her face what she had gained, and decide whether the price might not, after all, have been no more than was fair, which she could not object that she had now to pay. It was a price that she could not have foreseen, and had she done so it might—it most surely would—have deterred her from what she did.

But she could not grumble at that. Vaguely, but sufficiently, all the time, she had known it to be a law of the traffic in which she dealt. Those who go outside the bounds of moral or human law must buy in a market which will not bargain, nor mark its goods in a plain way. They must take and use that which they seek to have, and the price will not be discovered till it must be paid at a later time. That was fair enough, for it was a market where no one was bound to deal.

Out of context, that doesn’t seem too bad. Maybe. The biggest trouble is that it comes at the head of several pages of similar guff. Damn, but I needed to think about replacing my desk after I’d gotten through those pages.

That quote is in fact pulled from the last one-quarter or so of the novel, which is by far the most intriguing part. The inquest’s over, and suddenly the novel’s no longer a police procedural/mystery piece. We’re told at the outset of this section who the murderer is (no great shock: there were only two realistic suspects, 2.5 at a stretch, and one of them is dead), and spend all but the last couple of pages of the novel inside the murderer’s head, reliving the motivations, the deeds, and more.

And it’s in the “more” that things get interesting. It’s as if what S. Fowler Wright really wanted to write was an essay on relative morality, on how deeds like adultery and even murder, instances of which you and I might sight-unseen consider unethical, could in certain circumstances be morally conscionable. Eighty-five years after Wright published his book, I think most of us might agree with his discussion of the rights and wrongs of adultery — he refers obliquely, for example, to what we’d now call open marriage. I do admire him for being (I think) so in advance of his time. I have far more difficulty accepting his (or, rather, his fictional murderer’s) ruminations about murder.

Oh, and don’t get me started about the characterization, or lack thereof, in the tale. Really, don’t. Inspector Pinkey has red hair. Lady Denton is small and has a strong jaw and is by all accounts hot. Tommy the garden boy sucks sweets the whole time and has an oafish grin. You want more by way of character insight? Look elsewhere.

Is it worth reading the first three-quarters of this novel to get to the interesting (albeit still direly written) stuff at the back?

I’d suggest probably not. There are countless mystery/detective novels of this era that are worthier of your time. That said, I was engaged enough by the later parts of the book that I might well at some stage check out a few other novels by Wright. Maybe not GAD ones, though . . .

The Borgo Press edition, which is the one I read, has a great cover (see above).

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