“I was frightened, all of a sudden. I could feel a pair of eyes raised in the dark, watching me. It was in my imagination, I suppose, because scientists say there’s no such thing as thought transference, but I had the creepy and rather terrifying feeling that there was something sinister there, and that those eyes I couldn’t see, fastened on me, were narrowed and sharply malevolent.”
Miss Letty Drayton left her home in Natchez, Mississippi, decades ago. She never planned to return at all, let alone bring a gaggle of garden-club ladies with her. Yet that’s exactly what’s happened, due to the club president’s unshakable desire to view the famous gardens of Natchez. Miss Letty never could stand up for herself.
When Louise Gould comes to stay at the Drayton mansion, she winds up with more questions than answers about her friend’s past. Why is Letty living an impoverished life in Maryland when she clearly comes from wealth? What is the source of the bad blood between the Draytons and their next-door neighbors, the Heywoods? And is that shadowy figure in the night a ghost, or a more human danger?
Murder with Southern Hospitality is an amusingly self-aware Had-I-But-Known tale that allows Leslie Ford to have her cake and eat it too. First-person narrator Louise is wise to the conventions of romantic suspense:
I don’t know what would happen if women started taking their husbands’ advice, but I know what wouldn’t have happened if I’d taken Tom’s. I wouldn’t have gone to Natchez for the Garden Club Pilgrimage, not with Cornelia Cartwright and Letty Drayton, anyway. I wouldn’t, moreover, have had my picture in every newspaper in the country as a friend of the murdered club woman. Nor would I have had to explain the headlines “Doctor’s Wife Reveals Hidden Love” to everybody who assumed it was my hidden love—including, for one pretty uncomfortable moment, Tom himself. It did have one advantage, however. Everybody in town developed sudden and inexplicable ailments and rushed to the office, so that we’re putting the new wing on the house this year instead of next. All things being equal, I think we’d rather have waited.
Having gotten that off her chest, she proceeds to happily indulge in a tale of murder and forbidden love that, at times, veers awfully close to the Gothic cliches she laughs at. Still, Louise’s good humor and sometimes cynical eye go a long way to making this simple plot enjoyable.
Much of her irony is aimed at the garden club, especially its president, Cornelia Cartwright, who runs the club like a Medici court. Determined to visit the gardens of Natchez during the city’s pilgrimage season, she browbeats Miss Letty into putting them up at the Drayton mansion, Antigua. Letty’s reluctance to return seems tied to a locket she always wears, and Cornelia is determined to learn her secret.
The Draytons and the Heywoods have been mortal enemies since the days of the Civil War, supposedly due to a star-crossed romance that ended in death. Now, young Steve Heywood is visiting Natchez for the first time to meet Letty’s niece, Anne Drayton. According to the terms of his cousin Minot’s will, he will inherit six plantations if he marries Anne before his next birthday. Otherwise, they will go to her. The run-down plantations are seemingly without value. That makes it all the more strange that Judge Drayton is determined Anne should marry his son Lawrence, so that he may gain control of the properties. Another doomed love triangle appears to be brewing between the two families.
Ford plays this nonsense absolutely straight, but it’s hard to be emotionally invested in a romance that has been going on for only a day. The suspense scenes are serviceable, if rather few and far between. The identity of the murder victim is shocking, however (though it makes perfect sense in hindsight), and the mystery of Miss Letty’s past turns out to be more affecting than the modern-day dramas.
Though the beauty of historic Natchez is enchanting, Ford does not shy away from less picturesque aspects of the region. The community’s clannishness, racism, and obsession with lineage leads to injustices large and small. Local police initially arrest an innocent black man for the murder, even as Louise discredits the only evidence against him. They hold him in jail for some time (admittedly, none of our white characters think to bail him out), desperate to pin the crime on an African-American outsider. Later, police decline to act when suspicion falls on a white person, on the grounds that “no [member of that family] has ever spent a night in jail.” The book does try, in a hamfisted way, to introduce positive representations of African-Americans, and Anne has at least one moment of self-awareness when she reflects, “Sometimes I think we get a lot more loyalty than we deserve” from their black employees.
Ford also satirizes the heritage industry. These crimes are unfolding during the Natchez Pilgrimage, a month-long event that is still sponsored by the local garden club, in which tourists descend upon the city to tour its historic homes and gardens. Upon arrival, Louise is touched by the candlelight ball, which seems to evoke the romance of the old South.
The whole atmosphere was one of lilting gaiety, as if every one had caught, to believe in for a moment, the brief illusory reality of this escape from the present world.
For an instant, I was caught in it too, and then I became conscious of the cars crowded behind us in the drive, trying to find a parking space, and of the other visitors like Miss Letty and myself in modern dress. It was we who gave it the air of make-believe, not the make-believe itself.
The more she pays attention, however, the more she becomes aware of the assembly-line nature of these historical reenactments. Every day, Anne Drayton trudges from one stately home to another, telling other families’ stories as if they are her own. The tour guides pull a mishmash of “period” costumes out of the mothballs year after year, without being very particular about what the period is. Their visitors aren’t terribly concerned about historical accuracy, either. Instead, perversely, they seem to have traveled great distances simply to reassure themselves that things are really better at home. The Pilgrimage backdrop is the most unusual aspect of the book. Ford’s take on the commodification of history makes me interested to read one of her other works, The Town Cried Murder, which is set in Williamsburg during the period when it was becoming a living-history attraction.
While the modern-day romance and mystery at the center of the story are less than intriguing, Murder with Southern Hospitality largely makes up for those shortcomings by finding humor and pathos in unexpected places. Miss Letty’s wasted life is a genuine tragedy, one that it may be too late to undo, and it is her story that is most powerful.
New Yorker, February 7, 1942
This is the nasty way we’ve always hoped to see someone deal with Southern hospitality.
Murder with Southern Hospitality is available in paperback from Wildside Press.