SWING LOW, SWEET HARRIET: Blue Murder, by Harriet Rutland

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Thanks to Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp, I was introduced to Harriet Rutland, who had the gall to: a. be a good mystery writer, and b. only write three books. (That tends to be the sort of author Curtis comes up with!) Thanks to the folks at Dean Street Press, all three novels are available. I devoured her debut novel, Knock, Murderer, Knock, and wrote a praiseworthy review of it. And while I hoped to space out the next/last two of her books, I had a feeling that, as I put it then, “I would gobble them down and grieve afterward.”

That was over three years ago.

Honestly, I don’t think anyone was exactly pining for me to get to Bleeding Hooks – we all have plenty of reading to occupy our time – but the truth is that I tried to start that novel about murder amongst fly fishermen three times and finally decided that I would have to be in the mood for such matters. That mood has yet to arrive. Meanwhile, my friend Kate at Cross Examining Crime has told me that Blue Murder is the very best of the three and has nothing to do with the first two – different detective and everything. And so I decided to skip ahead and read it.

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Blue Murder (1942) is a village mystery, and many villagers float in and out of the setting. In that sense, Rutland provides a fine portrait of rural England during the war, both economically and socially. Living on ration books is a constant challenge, the influx of refugees from Germany and bomb victims from the city test the limits of British country sensibilities, and everybody’s role in society is undergoing a change, as when locals harbor suspicions against a male schoolteacher who has not gone to fight until he reveals that he is missing a leg. The changing role of women has special significance to the plot as many females leave traditional domestic roles behind, along with social niceties:

This was war-time, and you could not deal effectively with incendiary bombs, or stand by with a First Aid Party, in a gown which swirled around your ankles. There was, in fact, little scope at all for femininity in Total War, which for the time being, and possibly for all time, had destroyed the slogan that Woman’s Place is in the Home.

Knock, Murderer, Knock took place at a hydro hotel, which Rutland filled with a wealth of finely drawn eccentric characters, and even though there were a lot of them –too many, some have argued – they all came to life on the page. Blue Murder very much centers on one household, and this much smaller cast is just as well delineated. The Hardstaffe family is comprised of an elderly father and mother, and a middle-aged daughter. On the outside they are not only respectable, but laudable in the work they do. Mr. Hardstaffe is the headmaster of the local school, his wife is a homemaker who knits for the boys at war, and daughter Leda bustles about filling her days volunteering at everything from war work to girl guides and takes in evacuees from London as paying guests to boot. Later on we will meet an estranged son (and his wife); the son serves as a volunteer guard.

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All well and good, but what kind of mystery would this be if they didn’t all turn out to be terrible people? Mr. Hardstaffe is much despised by his staff and the rest of the village, and his treatment of the students comes from the Wackford Squeers school of discipline. He also harbors openly lustful thoughts for Charity Fuller, a pretty schoolteacher who is a third his age and may be either an innocent or a shameless gold-digging hussy! Mrs. Hardstaffe is a wealthy, unpleasant hypochondriac, given to non-stop complaints about her family and her lot in life.

Daughter Leda is an alarming woman, loud and horsy, whose first entrance finds her accompanied by a brood of Sealyham terriers whom she has allowed to take over the house in the most disgusting manner. She reminded me of another inappropriately named village spinster: Aimee Griffith in Christie’s The Moving Finger (which appeared the following year). And sure enough, we find darker notes emerging in both women as their respective stories develop.

For example, Leda and her mother are frightful with the servants, especially Frieda Braun, a Jewish escapee from the camps who comes in for some nasty anti-Semitic treatment from the entire family. The language they use against the girl – never calling her by name, only spitting out the word “Jew” as if it was an epithet – is appalling to read, and Rutland is trying, despite some of her language here, to illustrate the horrible lot of Jewish refugees during the war.

Into this household appears Arnold Smith, an author who has suffered in the London bombings and has opted for village life in order to complete his magnum opus – a classic detective novel. One of the most delightful aspects of Blue Murder is getting into Arnold’s head as he tries to develop his plot, much of which emerges from his intense dislike to his hosts. It becomes clear that Arnold is technically incapable of creating a workable murder plot – at least on the page. For the ideas he starts to develop for his book begin to occur in real life . . .

As one murder follows another, the local constabulary remains at a loss and does what local constabularies have done throughout the Golden Age: they summon Scotland Yard, which arrives in the person of Inspector Driver, a very human and humane example of the species, who despairs of the criminal shenanigans exploding about him.

It’s all the fault of these crime-books you see on every library shelf. Now that every Tom, Dick, and Harriet has turned to writing about murder, the general public is as full of misleading ideas as old Lord Haw Haw himself.

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(Lord Haw Haw was William Joyce, a British citizen born in the U.S. and a creepy looking individual – see above – who shamefully broadcast Nazi propaganda from Germany, using the opening line “Germany calling, Germany calling,” which might remind you of Christianna Brand’s Green for Danger, written two years later. It seems that there was quite a bit of detective fiction focused on the war, and our Harriet brings her own brand of wit to this effort.)

Driver has a Sergeant named Lovely, and again Rutland mines this eccentricity for every bit of humor she can. Like her first novel, Rutland proves to be a very funny writer, but here she turns quite dark as well. Curtis Evans provides some reason for this in his excellent introduction: Rutland’s marriage was falling apart as she wrote this. (So many parallels here, but I find it fascinating how different authors are inspired by the tragedies in their lives. Agatha Christie’s marital woes produced The Mystery of the Blue Train; Rutland’s blues resulted in a much better book.)

As more frightening events occur to the Hardstaffe household, Driver and Lovely assess the events and work hard to catch the killer. However, I had been given hints that this book ends with a remarkable surprise, which admittedly colored the way I read it. Ultimately though, the twist is like nothing you would expect in a 1942 mystery. I will say no more about it, except that Blue Murder is a book that you will finish and put down uneasily. The great tragedy here is that, having writ three books, Harriet Rutland wrote no more.

At some point, I will go back and attack Bleeding Hooks, (maybe with a plate of salmon before me as I read). I think it more resembles Knock, Murderer, Knock in structure and tone. With Blue Murder, Rutland provides more than a satisfying whodunnit – not, as Kate also remarked, in terms of clues and deductions, because they really aren’t here – but because in terms of the classic mystery this really is a transitional novel, rich is psychological acumen and devilishly dark. It’s a damn shame that we won’t discover what Rutland might have accomplished next.

3 thoughts on “SWING LOW, SWEET HARRIET: Blue Murder, by Harriet Rutland

  1. What strikes me, Brad, is the portrait of the times that the book offers. I think a realistic, authentic backdrop adds much to a novel. Of course, it doesn’t make up for a weak plot, so it’s good to hear that the plot worked for you. Interesting how it’s different from the other two books, and, yes, it’s a shame there are only three.

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  2. Yay! You’ve finally read it! To be honest I had given up hope slightly, given how many books are competing for your attention. Pleased you didn’t rumble to the ending, because you are annoyingly good at that at times. I agree with you that it is a shame Rutland didn’t keep writing, as if she could have continued this more mature writing style and characterisation, but combined it with a few more physical clues, then she would have written one heck of a novel.

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  3. I just finished Bleeding Hooks (and Knock, Murder, Knock last year), but after reading this I’m ready to jump into Blue Murder! And don’t give up on BH. While it’s definitely not the strongest of the three, it is still quite good.

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