Death Answers the Bell (1932) by Valentine Williams

Death Answers the Bell by Valentine Williams

4 Stars

“I’m a guest in this house, Rod, and if folk choose to hide guns about the place, it seems to me it’s none of my business. And, as far as I’m concerned, it’s no business of the police, either.”

Aline has been warned that neighbor Barry Swete is an incorrigible womanizer, but to her he’s always been just as sweet as his name. So even though it’s after midnight, she doesn’t think twice about dropping by to show him the new gown in which she has just been presented at court. To her horror, Barry lies dead, his blood soaking the hem of her white dress.

In a moment of panic, Aline accepts the offer of a false alibi from her hosts’ son Rodney Rossway. Only later does it occur to her that Rod’s own whereabouts at the time of the murder are also unaccounted for. She soon learns that the seemingly blameless Rossway family is hiding countless secrets behind the walls of their Mayfair mansion.

Death Answers the Bell is noteworthy only for how very ordinary it is. This is exactly the sort of soothing, undemanding book that one can read on a train or tuck oneself into bed with after a tiring day. More to the point, one could also leave it on the train or fall asleep in the middle without regret. It has all the basic ingredients required (a beautiful heroine under suspicion, a closed circle of aristocratic suspects, and an up-to-date scientific detective) and happily strings them together into a satisfying, but entirely orthodox, pattern.

Aline Innesmore is an American millionaire’s daughter, visiting London to be presented to the king at court. The details of her presentation add a dash of giddy excitement to the early chapters, but they also exemplify the uneasy mingling of old traditions with modern society. This was once a night when innocent young girls were introduced to society. Now, debutantes must tear themselves away from nightclubs long enough to be presented, before racketing off to be photographed for the morning paper.

Aline is not the only outsider staying on the Rossway property. The victim Barry Swete rents the mews behind their home, Frant House. This is for social rather than economic reasons, as nobody in this story is hurting for money. Lady Julia Rossway comes from a proud old family, while her husband Sir Charles, lovable as he is, earned his fortune in trade. It is quietly understood that Lady Julia only consented to the marriage to refill her family’s coffers, but the Rossways have now been married for many years, apparently happily. Those around her perceive Lady Julia as noble in all senses of the word, a figure out of her time.

Fashions were not for Lady Julia. Yet she always looked perfectly turned out—neither of the mode nor behind it, but something apart […]

It was all very Edwardian, Aline decided—this accumulation of possessions, this splurge of silver, this pictorial parade of friendship—photographs stiffly posed, old snapshots of race meetings and garden parties, with the men looking like undertakers in their top-hats and frock-coats, and the women in immense toques and the oddest frocks with puffy sleeves. Now, as Lady Julia let her eye rove absently over the collection, you would say she could see the whole of her life in retrospect.

Their older son Sholto roams around the colonies while his wife, Gerry, remains behind in a state of discontent. Younger son Rod just stands around disapproving of everyone, occasionally taking a break from this to write a book. Devoted butler Larking and super devoted secretary Murch round out the household.

Despite the fact that a charming cad like Barry must have enemies all over town, Scotland Yard zeroes in on the Rossways and their associates. Cambridge-educated police officer Trevor Dene at least has an unusual specialty, being a crime scene officer specializing in fingerprints. Unfortunately, he doesn’t do much with the prints. More fatally, despite a big build-up, Dene only makes three brief appearances in the book and has nothing to do with solving the crime (nor, really, does his colleague Inspector Manderton, though Manderton at least gets a little more page time.) Dene is last seen on page 210 of a 313-page book. Surely this is one of the few cases in which the detective himself turns out to be a red herring.

Like its characters, Death Answers the Bell has one foot in the past and one in the future. There are some genuinely modern touches, such as its casual reference to homosexuality and sympathetic portrayal of female adultery. “Nowadays, nobody minds very much what anyone does,” Gerry asserts. “One’s morals are one’s own affair, and, anyway, people are not so nasty-minded as they used to be.” Rodney is initially stand-offish with Aline because he’s afraid she’ll be a vulgar, stereotypical  American flapper, but the murder makes him realize that he should judge others by more than just their bloodline.

You see, we’re all pretty snobbish in this house—I’m a bit of a snob myself—and the people who come here are mostly of the snobbish variety—you know, vastly pleased with themselves and their own little set, and never asking questions if one has the right sort of name, knows the right crowd, and does the right kind of things. I’ve been thinking a lot during the past few days, and it seems to me that we’ve all been living in the past here at Frant House, slaves to a—what shall I call it?—a defunct point of view. Look at my mother—her whole life’s happiness has been sacrificed to it…

Yet there is still a tendency to get sentimental about the aristocracy. At its core, this is still a book that counts wealthy Americans and university-educated policemen as diversity.

There is other crime fiction from this period that provides more interesting snapshots of social change between the wars, with more challenging mysteries—Before the Fact by Francis Iles and Have His Carcase by Dorothy L. Sayers were published during this same year, to name just two. It’s likely, however, that many readers valued Death Answers the Bell for precisely the comforting, commonplace reading experience it offers. It’s a book for those who don’t really want to be challenged.

Availability

Death Answers the Bell is out of print in the US, with a fair number of used copies available. Elsewhere, it is available as an ebook from Black Heath.

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