Reviewed by Harriet
First published in 1946, Suddenly at his Residence is a wartime novel. You wouldn’t necessarily think so at first – the novel is very much a country house mystery with a couple of locked rooms thrown in – but a few scattered references do make it clear, and moreover, the novel’s shocking denouement is very much a product of its time.
The novel takes place in a grand manor house in the Kentish countryside. A helpful family tree at the beginning of the book has ten names printed in bold, and there’s a note underneath: ‘Among the ten people whose names are here given prominence were found two victims and a murderer’. Seven of the ten are family members: Sir Richard March, the head of the family, his second wife Bella, and his four grandchildren, Peta, Philip, Claire and Edward, plus Philip’s wife Ellen. Making up the ten are solicitor Stephen Garde, Brough the gardener, and his wife Mrs Brough. All this sounds relatively simple, but the relationships are more complicated than they seem. The parents of Peta, Philip and Claire are all dead as is their grandmother Serafina, Sir Richard’s first wife, and Edward is Bella’s grandson, whose mother was born when Bella was Sir Richard’s mistress and so illegitimate. As Edward’s parents also died when he was a baby (they were a very unfortunate generation), Bella has brought Edward up.
Sir Richard is elderly and has a heart problem, but the doctor is keeping an eye on him and thinks there’s no reason why he shouldn’t live for a long time. He’s also a difficult man. Some years ago he had decided to make Peta his main heir, leaving fair legacies to the rest of the family. However, from time to time he has lost his temper and changed his will, only to change it back a few days later. And as the story begins, he announces that he’s made a new will – everything will go to Bella and everyone else will be disinherited – there’s even a clause forbidding Bella from aiding them all in the future. Needless to say this promises massive problems for just about everyone. Philip and Claire have fallen in love and he has been planning to leave Ellen (who doesn’t seem to mind), but won’t be able to afford to if he doesn’t inherit. Peta is in love with Stephen, the family solicitor, but he’s broke and won’t be able to support a penniless wife. Bella doesn’t want the manor and the responsibility – she was much happier in her ‘bijou house in Yarmouth with frilly net curtains and little pots of geraniums and a couple of nice wooly dogs’. So when Sir Richard is found dead the next morning, everyone is frantic to find out where the new will is and whether he actually signed it or not.
But that’s only the beginning. It becomes clear that Sir Richard has been murdered, but there’s a problem. The lodge he died in, a little way from the main house, is surrounded by freshly sanded paths and there are no footprints, so it’s impossible to work out how anyone could have managed to administer the fatal overdose of the medicine that killed him. Inspector Cockrill, who Bella knows, is called in to help:
Small, brown and bright-eyed, a dusty little old sparrow arrayed in a startlingly clean white panama hat, he was soon, sparrow-like, at the centre of all interest and activity, hopping and darting this way and that, in search of crumbs of information.
Needless to say, once it’s established that the crime must have been committed by someone in the house, everybody comes under suspicion and soon they are all accusing each other. One person is actually arrested and spends a night in prison, but is released when another murder takes place that same night. Someone else confesses, but did they really do it? I must say I didn’t guess the identity of the perpetrator, and was completely taken in by the various red herrings Brand strews along the way.
So yes, in addition to the massive event that comes at the end, the war does make itself felt during the novel. Claire has a good job as a librarian, but knows she will lose it once the men are back and needing employment. Philip has been unable to get the catch on his medical bag fixed owing to wartime shortages. And one character is woken by the noise of a flying bomb on its ‘relentless flight’ towards London, ‘there to disappear in a mushroom of mauve-grey smoke licked through with flame – with flame and destruction and pain and death’.
Christianna Brand is a fine writer, and this novel is lively and engaging throughout. The solutions to the locked room mysteries are ingenious and just about within the realm of believable. Altogether a most enjoyable read.
Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny New Books.
Christianna Brand, Suddenly at His Residence: A Mystery in Kent (British Library, 2023). 978-0712354233, 240pp., paperback original.
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