Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston

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Reviewed by Harriet

It’s been a while since we reviewed a British Library Crime Classic on here, so it’s a pleasure to write about this recent one, the only novel written by vaudeville artist Billie Houston. Published in 1935 and said to have been scribbled in her dressing room between shows, this is a lively, clever country house mystery, which moves at a great pace through the twenty four hours of its narrative.  

Each chapter is headed with the time when the event described happens. So the Prologue takes place at ‘Four A.M.’.  Bill Brent – who will become the central figure of the novel – has heard disturbing sounds in the night and has come downstairs to investigate. Entering the room he thought the sounds came from, he finds the French windows open, a thunderstorm raging outside, and the figure of a man slumped across a desk.

It was Manning, dead, and with the cause of death sticking up from between his shoulder blades – the white ivory handle of a carving knife. Whoever had put it there had struck with fierce energy, for the blade was buried to within two inches of the handle.

The narrative now goes back twelve hours, to 4 pm on the previous day. It’s a sunny summer afternoon, and two men are facing each other across a table. One is rather foolish, blustering Sir Anthony Fane, and the other is the famous scientist Horace Manning. Fane’s son Tony has just proposed to Manning’s daughter Helen, and Sir Anthony has come to prepare the ground for his son to ask his would-be father-in-law’s permission to marry her. He is hugely relieved when Manning simply says ‘Excellent!’: everyone had expected him to refuse or make difficulties. His only provision is that Sir Anthony’s whole house-party comes over that evening for dinner. Surprised and pleased, Fane sets off to alert his family and guests, leaving Manning bent over what looks like a photograph album. Alone, his eyes half close and a tiny smile appears on his lips:

Horace Manning, brilliant scientist, acclaimed genius throughout the civilised world, was indulging in his favourite pastime. He was thinking back to the woman with the frightened eyes; thinking down the years as the child grew up; thinking of the girl now awaiting her lover fifteen miles away…thinking of her frightened eyes.

Manning is quickly revealed to be a man of extreme cruelty. His lovely, delicate young daughter is terrified of him, though she can never say exactly why. He does, in fact, appear to be more or less insane, as is revealed by a event later the same evening when he calls the whole party into his laboratory to demonstrate the excruciatingly painful death of a kitten, to which he has subjected a poison gas of his own invention, the secret of which he is guarding from spies from foreign parts. Horrified and shocked, the spectators file out, one of them shouting at Manning as he goes, ‘You ought to be killed for that’. 

Needless to say, almost everyone is a suspect: Mrs Geraint, the sleep-walking housekeeper who hated her master, and was spotted carrying the murder weapon into the dining room; young Teddy Fraser, who shouted the death threat at Manning; the dodgy butler Strange, who Manning had just exposed as a German spy; angry Kay Fane ‘nineteen, Eton-cropped, red lipped, too saucy altogether about the face, and making one think how piquantly attractive she might have been with the big crop of unruly curls which would have grown on her head if only she would let them’; Tony Fane, furious with Manning for the way he treats Helen; even gentle Helen herself, who, after her father’s exhibition in the lab, tells Tony she can’t marry him for fear of inheriting her father’s insanity. Hardly anyone has an alibi. As the hours go by, there are at least two confessions, quickly shown to be false. 

Of course the identity of the murderer is finally revealed – and I hadn’t guessed who it was. Their motive clears up some puzzling details that have cropped up along the way, and resolves some issues that were standing in the way of a happy ending. Meanwhile there has been a surprise sub-plot involving Alice, one of the maids, which leaves the whole cast in an extremely dangerous situation from which they only escape owing to the bravery of one very determined young man. The novel ends at 4 am, exactly twenty-four hours after the Prologue, with an unexpected but wholly satisfying conclusion.

The Houston Sisters: Billie and Renée

Billie Houston and her sister Renée took to the vaudeville halls as teenagers after their parents were no longer able to support them. Their double act as the Houston Sisters was extremely popular – they even performed at a Royal Variety Performance. They generally performed as children, with Renée as the girl and Billie as the boy. Billie’s poor health led to their break-up in the mid-1930s; Renée went on to have a long and successful acting career, and Billie married. Though she planned another novel, it was never completed. How lucky then that this one  – very well received at the time – has been rescued from obscurity. I hope it will delight other readers as much as it delighted me.

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Harriet is a co-founder and one of the editors of Shiny.

Billie Houston, Twice Round the Clock (British Library, 2023). 978-0712354035, 256pp., paperback original. 

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1 comment

  1. This sounds marvellous! I’m not sure I’d cope with the kitten scene, but could always skim past that.

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