“It really is a terrible family, Geoffrey. They’re simply awful. Those that aren’t mad are bad, and that’s about it.”
The Armours have been a scandalous family ever since their father married the governess when his wife was barely cold in the ground. No one could have predicted that oldest daughter Bertha, the most conventional Armour, would create the greatest sensation of all by becoming a murder victim. Unless, of course, poison turns out to run in the family.
There is nothing groundbreaking about Death in the Cup. It’s simply a superlative closed-circle detective story, with a strong feminist theme and a greater emphasis on character than one might expect. The plot is a nice combination of golden age elements: obtuse police, brilliant amateur detectives, footprints, disguises, and secret lovers. Despite the trappings of scientific detection, however, it is the characters’ emotional reactions that make the conclusion a satisfying one.
As the oldest child, the domineering Bertha controls the finances of her siblings. “She was a good manager, but the human element in her own family defeated her.” With her death, the other four can finally access their inheritance. The only Armour who seems unlikely as a suspect is George, their developmentally disabled brother who is mostly interested in scrapbooking. The others are all fair game. Skittish Winnie has convinced herself that the village doctor is in love with her. She blames Bertha for keeping them apart. Claire would do anything for her family, especially baby brother Mark. But has she gotten tired of being at everyone’s beck and call? Mark seems to have the best motive of all. A former gigolo, Mark now has no prospects. He has been secretly meeting an innocent young neighbor, Lucy Rivers, but marriage costs money—if that’s even what he has in mind.
When Bertha’s corpse is found to contain “a thundering big dose” of arsenic, Mark is the natural suspect. However, Lucy’s uncle, intelligence officer Geoffrey Raynham, has his doubts. Soon he is joined by private detective Hermann Glide. Due to his old age, suspects do not take Glide seriously, but they should; like Miss Marple, his unassuming exterior hides a sharp mind. Together, Glide and Raynham make an appealing detective team, combining Raynham’s more personal approach with Glide’s meticulous collection of evidence. Early on, Raynham uses the expertise he has gathered in overseas espionage missions to go undercover in the village, and it would have been fun to see more of this.
Raynham is fairly open about the fact that he is trying to prove Mark innocent for the sake of his niece, but he develops a fondness for some other suspects as well. This makes the investigation challenging, as Superintendent Brisling is constantly arresting and releasing different individuals. (The book description mentions Inspector Hugh Collier as the police investigator, but Collier does not make an appearance here.) Raynham is especially impressed by Claire Armour.
“How did she strike you? Unusual, eh?”
“Very,” said Raynham. “It comes partly from being brought up outside the social pale, I suppose. There’s something fine about her, apart from her sheer physical splendour. My God! Fancy keeping a young woman like that cooped up in a Victorian household, unmated. Like feeding a tigress on rice pudding and stewed prunes.”
As this description of Claire suggests, the most striking aspect of Death in the Cup is its modern outlook on gender and class. The conventional Victorian model of middle-class life adhered to by so many of their Dennybrook neighbors simply does not work for the Armours. Bertha and Claire have been stuck in domestic roles that did nothing to challenge their intelligence and ambitions. Claire doesn’t even own a suitcase, as she’s “never been away before.” Nevertheless, she is willing to take an bold step to secure her happiness, if she gets the chance. Winnie also yearns for a different life; despite a knack for fashion design, she can only envision escape through marriage to a man of her own social class, hence her demented pursuits of doctors and curates.
In contrast to the strong actions of his sisters, Mark is described in more traditionally feminine terms. “Beautiful—and worthless” Mark finds it hard to make a living because he has only himself to sell. Once his good looks are damaged by an injured leg, his former patronesses abandon him, leaving him destitute. All of the Armours have suffered for not fitting into a standard mold, but one wonders how their personalities would have developed if they had not grown up under a microscope due to their parents’ actions.
The only Armour who remains innocent is George, who potters about the garden and pastes illustrations into his scrapbook, oblivious to the crimes and scandals that surround him. The saddest scene in the book involves the question of what will become of George if one or more of his siblings is arrested for murder. It’s rare for the era to see such a sensitive portrayal of a character with developmental disabilities, one that depicts him as a beloved member of the family rather than a figure of mockery or horror.
Mark’s girlfriend Lucy Rivers initially seems to be an exception to Moray Dalton’s willingness to rethink gender roles. She begins as that most irritating of stock characters, the sweet, passive young girl whose reputation must be protected. When Lucy’s not crying, she’s fainting. However, as her uncle Geoffrey Raynham points out to Lucy’s father, her nervous state is due to her stultifying existence as a stay-at-home daughter.
You kept Lucy at home with nothing particular to do and expected her to be satisfied…She’s Janet’s daughter. Janet was twenty-eight when you married her, but there had been channels for her superfluous energy. She’d held down a difficult job and travelled a good bit. I don’t want to rub it in, John, but if you don’t fit a machine with a safety valve there’s bound to be an explosion.
It is not too late for Lucy and the surviving Armours to break free, assuming they can stay off the gallows. Indeed, my only complaint about Death in the Cup is that it becomes so preoccupied with the suspects’ personal situations that the investigation dwindles too much toward the end, just when it should be ramping up. The solution, while much more fairly clued than that of Dalton’s later novel The Strange Case of Harriet Hall, still comes about a little too conveniently. Nonetheless, the climax is powerful, not only because of the thrilling circumstances, but because of its effect on the other characters. (Dalton makes the smart choice to focus on an unexpected character during the climactic scene, adding to the suspense.) Death in the Cup is a pleasure to read, providing a fresh take on the traditional detective story.
Death in the Cup is available in paperback and ebook formats from Dean Street Press, who have kindly provided an ebook for review.