I recently reacquainted myself with this book courtesy of my fellow GAD blogger at the excellent crossexaminingcrime who yesterday discussed another book (The May Week Murders) by Douglas G. Browne. I was prompted to comment and confessed that I didn’t quite remember the details of this book. But later that afternoon I saw my copy of the Dover edition in a stack of books, picked it up, and was very pleased to remember the pleasure I took in this book when I first read it. So I thought I’d make a few comments here to let you see if you were interested in reading it yourself.
Please be warned that this essay concerns a work of detective fiction; part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read any further, you will learn something about the titular novel and perhaps some others. I do not reveal whodunit, but I do discuss elements of plot and construction. If you haven’t already read this novel, it will have lost its power to surprise you to greater or lesser extent, and that would be a shame. So please go and read this book before you spoil your own enjoyment. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own.
What is this book about?
In Too Many Cousins, a 1946 story by Douglas G. Browne, six cousins are the surviving descendants of a wealthy Victorian who inherit when his last wife finally dies. (The elderly Mrs. Shearsby was much younger than her late husband.) Mrs. Shearsby has a life interest in his fortune which upon her death devolves per stirpes to multiple branches of his family. It might be that not all the cousins are content to wait patiently for their inheritance; as the story opens, three of the cousins have died in recent months and the other three are nervous. The three deaths may have been accidental but it’s an unusual coincidence even so.
Harvey Tuke (who apparently bears a striking resemblance to Mephistopheles) is a powerful official in the public prosecutor’s office and learns of this string of deaths through an odd gentleman who is a master of obituaries; he prepares them in advance and follows them, and is the only one to have noticed the Shearsby coincidence. Tuke investigates and learns the story of the cousins, investigates the deaths, and gets to know the surviving cousins, at least one of whom has escaped accidental death recently.
Mr. Tuke has also been spending time with the three cousins, who are not much involved in each others’ lives. One of them is Mrs. Tuke’s assistant in her war efforts; Mlle Cecile Boulanger helps the aristocratic Yvette Tuke (neé Garay) work on behalf of the French Navy (it’s the end of the war, perhaps 1945). Immediately after Tuke’s encounter with the concerned obituarist, Cecile tells him about having received a hard push into traffic and escaping death by the skin of her teeth — she proves to be one of the three prospective heirs.
Another of the three surviving cousins, Mortimer Shearsby is a chemist at a company that produces artificial fabrics — currently for the war effort, although they began by producing artificial silk. He and his wife Lilian have both worked at Sansil and come into contact with an unusual poison, sodium nitrite; which is of interest because another of the three deceased cousins apparently poisoned herself accidentally with sodium nitrite. But Mortimer and Lilian insist that sodium nitrite is easy to get hold of, and unfortunately that seems to be the case. (Its poisonous properties here I think must be imaginary, or else Browne has misattributed the effects of one chemical to another for reasons of public safety.)
Mortimer and Lilian are vulgar little middle-class bourgeois, but the third cousin is more to the social taste of Tuke and his beautifully-dressed wife Yvette; Miss Vivien Ardmore is well-dressed, well-mannered, and everything about her is in good taste. Yvette Tuke and Vivien recognize kindred spirits and become friendly. Vivien is very social and entertains a lot; she seems to have a lot of impromptu parties.
Oddly enough, one deceased cousin, a professional writer, recently produced a story called “Too Many Cousins” — and then called it back from his publisher, insisting that it could not be published. So there’s a hunt for the manuscript. There’s also a hunt for Uncle Martin, another potential heir, who vanished long ago and is generally considered deceased except … Mr. Tuke may suspect something to the contrary.
After establishing the characters, the book segues into six separate skeins of investigation: the suspicious deaths of the three cousins and the possibility that one of the remaining three may have had something to do with any of those deaths. So the full attention of the law is turned upon all six threads, and Mr. Tuke stays in touch with the survivors.
The second half of the book is very much concerned with who could have been where when, and how they might have traveled there. Timetables are generated; alibis are tested. In the course of tracing someone’s movements, the police become aware that a petty criminal has somehow become involved at the periphery of this case, possibly because he’s blackmailing one of the principals. When his body, poisoned with sodium nitrite, is found in a storage room during a party at Vivien Ardmore’s home, it doesn’t take long for Tuke to point the police in the right direction; although the victim has prudently done so as a precaution and the case would have been solved anyway.
In the traditional manner, Tuke explains the details to the interested obituarist; the elderly lady dies, and all the remaining heirs come into their long-awaited money.
Why is this book worth your time?
If I may be permitted to quote myself from someone else’s blog, here’s the comment I left about this book yesterday at crossexaminingcrime.
“LOL oh my it’s been a lot of years since I read [Too Many Cousins]. I remember being surprised at whodunit but not feeling cheated … and that there was some clever characterization along the way. But I apologize for not being able to remember much more than that.”
That kind of sums it up on a superficial level. The solution is perhaps surprising but if you’ve read the book carefully, you should be prepared for it; there are plenty of clues if you are paying attention. There was indeed some clever characterization but, ultimately, the plot was not sufficiently memorable to stay in my mind for what might have been twenty years.
That being said — I enjoyed the hell out of this the second time around and I’m not sure why I didn’t remember it from my first reading.
Possibly my earlier dismissal of this volume has to do with the idea that, over the years, the things in which I find pleasure in detective fiction have changed. In my early years I was fascinated by puzzles and detection. Lately it seems as though my attention is more focused upon the period itself. I enjoy the details of everyday life in 1946, both the grand sweep of world events and the evanescent and temporary things that catch the attention of a nation and concatenate through into popular fiction. As you have probably already imagined, there’s a lot of social detail for me to enjoy in this book.
The mystery itself is not all that mysterious, although I imagine I, upon my first reading, as well as most of the potential readers of this volume upon their first encounter will have been unable to identify the murderer and that person’s methods with any degree of precision. Browne has actually constructed quite a clever murder plot but there are a couple of problems with how it is presented that make it less interesting than it actually is. They’re quite simultaneous issues: (1) that while there may be too many cousins, not enough of them have survived to make the field of suspects sufficiently large, and (2) that Browne takes the stand that really only one of the cousins is sufficiently … I’ll say “low-class” … to have actually committed a murder. Rather than spoil things for you, I’ll just say that this is either a smokescreen or an easy way to pick out the murderer without doing much thinking about the method. So it’s possible to have a strong suspect for murder and half the method without having been able to pierce the really very clever clueing and identify how the murders were committed; I expect I would have felt like I’d solved the mystery for the most part, which is a little unsatisfying, without having had either the wit or the ability to do so.
In terms of social history, there are two main threads of this book that I found very enjoyable. The first is that this book is relentless about describing people and their possessions, particularly their clothes but also their homes and accessories, in a way that lets you form conclusions about what type of person they are. I always enjoy this, although I suspect that at the distance of some 70 years the details of why smoking a Larranaga cigar makes you more discerning than if you smoke other brands have slipped by the wayside.
The other large thread of this book is some fairly explicit statements of the way that social class works in England. I don’t know that the book ever says anything about class per se. What it does is make observations about people (clothes, homes, and accessories as noted above) in such a way that (a) you know that the author is a person of the upper classes and assumes that you are too, and (b) is quite snotty about people and things who have the misfortune to not belong to the upper class. Browne indeed selects two characters, Mortimer and Lilian Shearsby, and pillories them mercilessly for the crime of being hard-core bourgeoisie.
Here’s a description of Lilian Shearsby that gives you most of what I’m talking about (a little long, but its detail is part of its charm):
“… [S]he was a tall woman. Harvey’s first impression of her was that she was also a handsome one. She had the good looks of well cut features — a short nose and upper lip, fine arched eyebrows, a pointed and determined chin. But her complexion, if left alone, would have been pasty, and her carefully waved hair was a nondescript brown. Art had been called in to enliven nature, and a lock over her forehead was bleached yellow. Behind rimless pince-nez pale grey eyes flitted about with quick little movements, like the eyes of a mouse or bird. Unlike her husband, who wore a baggy tweed suit under his overcoat, Mrs. Shearsby was a thought overdressed. Her green coat and skirt, tailored to reveal a good figure, were set off by too many clips and bracelets, her little green hat was an exaggeration of a current mode, and her high-heeled shoes of patent leather were too smart for the costume and the occasion. Under her arm she carried an enormous green bag.”
In other words she’s aping the clothing of her social betters but not getting the details right. Don’t you love the subtle bitchiness of “a thought overdressed”? Browne also gives us fashions of which he actually does approve:
“Vivien Ardmore had perhaps no claim to beauty; her features were irregular, her nose too long, her scarlet mouth too wide; but her fine eyes were widely set, and she obviously had intelligence. Her expression, a little hard in repose, was lightened and transformed when she smiled. An admirable figure was admirably set off by a tailor-made coat and skirt of light grey flannel. On her pale gold hair, elaborately waved, perched a tiny grey hat with white flowers. White gloves, a white handbag, and stockings and shoes which suggested neither economy nor utility completed an ensemble upon which Mrs. Tuke cast an approving eye. Miss Ardmore’s glance at Yvette returned the compliment.”
Douglas Browne either had a strong eye for women’s fashion or the benefit of a consultant who did; I suggest that the way in which Miss Ardmore and Mrs. Tuke each acknowledge the other’s wartime chic with approval (“neither economy nor utility” had a special meaning in the days of the “utility suit”) is not something a male ordinarily notices.
The author is also scathing upon such details of bourgeois life as being sufficiently vulgar as to name your house Aylwynstowe — no, I’m sorry, I have no idea as to why that’s vulgar, but it’s clear from the authorial tone that it is — and to fill its over-manicured garden with gnomes which, okay, that I get. Browne is particularly scornful about a garden bench inscribed “A garden is a lovesome thing, God wot”; I can understand dimly that this is a version of the house-proud lower classes of the modern day who patronize with approval any commercial establishment that begins with “Ye olde …” but for the life of me I can’t figure out why he’s so down on this particular line from the poetry of Thomas Brown (the original verse suggests that God manifests himself in gardens). Later in the same chapter he calls Mortimer’s activities in his garden “godwottery” so there must be something about that particular quotation that has an association lost to the modern day, or at least to the resources of the internet. Or else Browne is just using it as a kind of shorthand to everything he dislikes about bourgeois gardens.
Buried in all this keen observation of clothes and furniture are some actual clues to the mystery, and to be honest they are beautifully buried. If after reading this volume you think back to what you might have noticed, there’s a casual remark by a background character that could have given you the entire murder plot, if you’d only paid attention; but it is buried in a great section of keen observation about social class and you are lulled into thinking that this background character is more of the same. I like that kind of clueing a lot.
There’s also something that underlies the entire book that in a way reverses your learning about the social situation. As is clear from the perspective of 2018, 1946 in England was a time of great social upheaval. We may enjoy the sly digs that Browne makes at the middle classes and their airs and graces, but I suspect that 1946 was close to the end of an era in which such distinctions mattered as much as they do in this story. If you think of the England of 1962 in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side and how Miss Marple relates to her young employee Cherry Baker from The Development — Cherry is quite happy to be herself and doesn’t want to be of Miss Marple’s class, unlike here where Lilian Shearsby hates Vivian Ardmore because she is effortlessly aristocratic.
Ultimately what I enjoyed the most about this book was that the actions of the characters grew organically out of their personalities, and their personalities were very detailed and specific in order to let you know who could and could not have done the murder. For me, that places this book specifically at the end, or past the end, of the Golden Age; if this had been written in 1926 rather than 1946, there would have been a lot more about train schedules and the 4.03 express from Nether Puddleby and a lot less about how a viscountess can buy people’s loyalty with autographed photographs of herself. This mystery is not very tough as a mystery because the author is telegraphing his punch; there are not many suspects and only one reasonably red herring. (Tuke himself remarks at the end that the solution is simple and that he tried to overcomplicate it.) But as a novel of manners, a novel about how different social classes rubbed together at the end of WWII — delightful. And a little bit sad, because the world of upper-class privilege that Browne writes about is about to vanish along with this style of mystery.
None of the usual suspects among my fellow GAD bloggers have examined this book, and the only look was a quick one here by the eminent Martin Edwards at Do You Write Under Your Own Name?. When the President of the Detection Club says “I felt that, once the main characters were introduced, the book faltered somewhat. Never mind too many cousins, there were too few suspects,” I’d be apt to agree with him 😉 I just went on at more length, that’s all 😉
Sergeant Cuff in the Saturday Review of October 31, 1953, says: “Death takes British heirs; Mr. Tuke, govt. lawyer, plays detective, has fun. Cast agreeable, realistic; handling suave, literate. Can’t go wrong here.”
As noted above, my friend armchair reviewer at crossexaminingcrime wrote a piece on a companion volume. I found it interesting and she has enticed me to find The May Week Murders because, well, call it an idiosyncrasy but I’m a sucker for a mystery about a tontine.
If you’re interested in the details of what women were wearing in 1940, here is a resource I found fascinating on the details of the utility suit/victory suit. I swiped one of their photographs which seemed to me to echo the less-than-perfect chic of Lilian Shearsby.
A note on editions
I venture to say that just about the only edition you’ll ever be able to get your hands on is the trade paperback from Dover that is pictured at the head of this piece. It is readily available through the usual sources, possibly including your local used bookstore. I note that there is a book club edition of the American printing and this should also be easily available from antiquarian sources for a reading copy. If you want a first edition, you might expect a current (2018) price to be perhaps US$30, as always depending on condition.
No paperback editions to my knowledge exist.