Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Murder Among Friends: Elizabeth Ferrars


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
Format:      Hardcover
Setting:      UK, mostly London
Genre:        Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.

25 comments:

  1. Tracy, I haven't read a book by her yet that I didn't enjoy! I have several more on the shelf but not this one. Will keep my eyes opened for it. Have you read Experiment With Death and do you have a copy? I have an extra one somehow.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I have also enjoyed all of the books I have read by Ferrars, Peggy, although I have only read a few so far. I have not read Experiment With Death, Peggy, the one book of hers I have left to read is Breath of Suspicion.

      Delete
  2. You've put your finger on what I think makes Ferrars' books good, Tracy: the context. She was quite good at evoking time and place, I think. You're right about creating an amateur sleuth; that can be difficult. But still, I'm with you: Ferrars' books are worth reading.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She makes the people in her books seem so real to me, Margot. Weird sometimes, but experiencing real feelings and activities.

      Delete
  3. I enjoyed this one, I think Ferrars was very good at capturing the war time blackout atmosphere. She did have an amazingly long writing career and her books do count towards the Read Scotland 2016 Challenge as she was Scottish. Thanks for the shout out.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I had heard of the book before, Katrina, but it was your review that reminded me and pushed me to get a copy. And it was a very good read.

      Delete
  4. I've never heard of her but will go look for her books. This one sounds really good! And with Margot's seal of approval, you both have sold me. - Keishon

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She wrote a lot of books over several decades, Keishon, but she is not well know nowadays. I was glad to have been alerted to her books by other bloggers.

      Delete
  5. I couldn't read this one. They arrive at the party and are then oddly static and unreal. That chunk of description could have been revealed bit by bit as the woman passed round the peanuts, lit a cigarette etc.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The party was the least attractive part of the story for me, Lucy, but I remember liking the book, her writing, etc., even at that stage. For some reason I really like everything I have read by Elizabeth Ferrars and it is strange because none of the ones I have read fit into my normal mystery preferences. Even when I am bothered by parts of the story, I am still entertained by the way she presents it.

      Delete
  6. I've never read any books by this author, Tracy. Maybe I'll begin with this one. I like this sort of set-up, though I'm not crazy about trials, except occasionally.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. The trial is only briefly mentioned, Yvette. I am not crazy about trials in mysteries either. I have some John Grisham to try, I will have to see what I think.

      Delete
    2. I'm not normally a huge trial fan either, outside the Perry Mason books that is. One I really enjoyed was The State vs. Elinor Norton by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

      Delete
  7. Hard to resist a book after reading a review by you, Tracy, including this one, but...I'm trying...trying...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You are so kind, Mathew. I am enthusiastic about this writer, but don't know if you would like her books or not.

      Delete
  8. I've nit read a single book by this author, but I've seen the books around. Next time I'm at the used bookstore, I'll keep a look out for them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Definitely worth a try, Ryan. And there is a good bit of variety in type of story.

      Delete
  9. I'd seen the title and author on the Keating list(s), but have not read any books by her. Your review may alter that, though my TBR is long and I'm not sure when I would get to it.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I know what you mean by a long TBR, Richard. There are so many books that sound interesting and it is hard to fit them in.

      Delete
  10. Tracy, I like Alice Church's character. She seems quite vulnerable as an amateur sleuth who is brave enough to talk to people one of whom could have killed Janet. I have never read Elizabeth Ferrars but it's interesting to know more about her work.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Her books have been a welcome discovery to me, Prashant. Alice is very brave to seek out people to question about the murder. I would never do that; too shy.

      Delete
  11. Oh I can see I will have to get this one- everything I like about Ferrars well to the fore. Like you I can find it hard to justify, but I always enjoy them.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This one is definitely worth reading, Moira, even if only for the wartime setting. I have been lucky so far in that each one I have read has been different, so I don't feel like I am reading the same thing over and over.

      Delete