“There is a willow grows aslant a brook…” – Death in the Morning by Sheila Radley

April 12, 2009 at 6:00 pm (Anglophilia, Book review, books, Music, Mystery fiction, The British police procedural)

morning In my ongoing fit of enthusiasm for Felony & Mayhem – the Press, not the activities!  –  I’ve been buying and reading various books from this worthy enterprise’s burgeoning list of offerings. One of them is Death in the Morning by Sheila Radley.

I could find very little background information online about this author.  According to the proprietary database Biography Resource Center, “Sheila Radley” is the pen name of Sheila Mary Robinson. Born in 1928 in Northamptonshire,(England), Robinson/Radley obtained her BA degree from Bedford College, University of London. After penning several romance novels, she turned to crime fiction, beginning with Death in the Morning, published in the U.S. in 1979. Eight more novels featuring DCI Douglas Quantrill followed, the last being Fair Game, published 1994.

[ Biography Resource Center and Literature Resource Center are made available by many public and academic libraries via their websites. You will probably be required to enter a library barcode number in order to access these resources. Here is the link to the Howard County Library’s List of Databases.]

Death in the Morning opens with an eerie, compelling scene strongly reminiscent of the Queen’s description of Ophelia’s death in Hamlet: a beautiful young girl lies face down, unmoving, in shallow water. She is identified in fairly short order as eighteen-year-old Mary Gedge.  But other questions prove harder to answer: how did she die, and how did she come to be on the weedy bank of the river Dunnock?  Questions beget questions; it is up to Quantrill and his team to find out the truth.

This novel offers many pleasures, chief among them the opportunity to immerse oneself yet again in that beloved classic form, the English village mystery.  And Douglas Quantrill, himself country born and bred,  makes an appealing protagonist. Having left school at the age of fourteen, he is most definitely not in the mold of the highly educated, highly literate policemen one encounters in the novels of P.D. James and Colin Dexter, among others. In fact, when someone likens the scene of Mary Gedge’s death to that of Ophelia’s, he responds with the query, “Ophelia who?” The nickel drops eventually, but Quantrill is mortified by the gaffe, especially since one of his interlocutors  at that moment is Jean Bloomfield, a teacher with whom he is in love.

Everything is not cute and quaint in the villages of Suffolk. Here’s a startling look inside a chicken processing plant, an experience that even a homicide investigator finds almost intolerable:

“Sickened, Tait stood as though his shoes had been cemented to the bloodstained concrete floor. The grotesque chorus line of dead birds dipped and swayed on the hooks across the shed, plunging into tanks of scalding water, entering a plucking machine, and then emerging naked to be slapped down on another conveyor belt for evisceration and packing by a team of women. In a matter of minutes living creatures were being transformed before his eyes into hunks of graded, quality-controlled hygienically packed, inexpensive protein.

Enough to put anyone off his or her grub, right? And Yours Truly had chicken pot pie for dinner last night…

So: excellent writing, evocative atmosphere, appealing characters…What’s not to like? A couple of things, actually: First of all, the Felony & Mayhem edition of this novel is 244 pages long.  From the beginning, witness and suspect interviews and various other components of the investigation are reported in great detail. No problem – my interest was thoroughly engaged. But I admit that I was disconcerted by the book’s time frame. Here’s what I mean: throughout the narrative, reference is made  to the fact that the investigators are impatiently awaiting the autopsy report on Mary Gedge.  On page 156, Sergeant Tait, Quantrill’s second-in-command, announces the arrival of the report. I had been thinking that this crucial information was a long time in coming. So, imagine my astonishment when, having gathered his team for a briefing, Quantrill makes the following statement re Mary Gedge (no spoilers here, I promise):

“‘She was last seen alive, wearing the clothes in which the body was found, at approximately eight forty-five last night in Breckham Market.’

Last night? It felt as though at least a week has gone by since the discovery of the body. Was this a problem with the novel’s structure? a problem with the reader’s attentiveness? Don’t know. I only know that I was completely nonplussed to find that barely twenty-four hours had gone by since the finding of Mary Gedge.

Was this sense of dislocation a showstopper? Not really. I was enjoying the book sufficiently to want to continue with it. As I did, I began to suspect that I knew who the killer was. Knew – but could not suss out the motive. To make a long story short, I was right about the culprit’s identity. But when the motive was revealed, I found it incredible. I mean that in the literal sense of the word: impossible to believe. So yes, I was, once again, frustrated with the novel. Still – not sufficiently frustrated to give it a thumbs down. Ultimately its virtues –  strong characters, lovely sense of place, a poignant love story – triumphed over its perceived defects.

One more gripe – and then I’m done! The British title of this novel is Death and the Maiden, a far more apt and evocative one than the rather drab Death in the Morning. I fear that  this is yet another instance of  “dumbing down” by the publisher. The String Quartet in D minor by Franz Schubert is popularly known as “Death and the Maiden.” It is one of the great masterpieces of chamber music. Here is the first movement, played by the Alban Berg Quartet:

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From The Mammoth Encyclopedia of Crime Fiction (compiled by Mike Ashley, 2002), we learn that  Sheila Radley ” believed that most people are not criminally minded but are driven to crime by overwhelming pressures.” The brief  entry further informs us that the author was “ideally placed” to observe village life from the vantage point of  the village store and post office in Banham, Norfolk. Radley ran this establishment for fourteen years up until 1978, the year that saw the publication of the first Douglas Quantrill novel in Great Brtiain.

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Hamlet is almost painfully filled with brilliance, but the line with which Queen Gertrude begins the sad tale of Ophelia’s death has, for me, always stood out as especially haunting:

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, 1852

Ophelia, by John Everett Millais, 1852

There is a willow grows aslant a brook…

6 Comments

  1. Biography Resource Center said,

    Thanks for using us!

  2. Martin Edwards said,

    I agree that Radley’s strength was the quality of her prose. A Talent for Destructiion is my favourite of the books of hers that I have read

  3. Roberta Rood said,

    Martin,

    Thanks for the recommendation. I believe that Felony& Mayhem Press has also re-issued this Radley title.

  4. Lesley Cookman said,

    I’ve got them all, and re-read them regularly. She’s partly the reason I became an “English village mysterywriter”!

    Must have a look at the Felony and Mayhem site.

  5. clone dvd said,

    It’ s the first time I have heard that in Macedonia, obits are an unusual observe. You have wonderfully written the post. I have liked your way of writing this. Thanks for sharing this.

  6. Roberta Rood said,

    Thank you for your gracious words, and for reading “Books to the Ceiling.”

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