“Won’t the murders put people off coming here as paying guests—what do you think, Bunny?”
Bunny shrugged. “I haven’t a clue. Considering how people read crime fiction, one would think that they might be attracted. Why not exploit it—revise the booklet and put, along with baths and table wines, ‘murder included’?”
Twilight is falling fast for the aristocratic d’Estray family. Sir Charles d’Estray’s new wife Bunny, a bohemian writer, is determined to keep the family’s head above water by turning their ancestral home into a bed and breakfast. It’s not easy, even before the murder.
When a demanding guest is poisoned, Bunny realizes how precarious her position is. She and her daughter Lisa are outsiders, and it’s up to her to keep them from becoming suspects. She never dreams they might end up as victims instead.
Murder Included is a biting satire of social class in postwar England. It spares absolutely no one. Its skewering of class differences is so highly specific that many of the details were lost on me; the worldview is very English and very 1950, and maybe even very particular to Joanna Cannan. I was always entertained—the mystery is a good, fair one, generously spiced with a wicked wit. Nearly every character is limited in some way by the perspective of their class, causing them to miss vital clues.
Bunny’s in-laws the d’Estrays are a pretty dismal bunch. Though practically bankrupt, none of them have the faintest idea how to work or economize. Even after Aston Park opens for business, they can’t bothered to pitch in, leaving Bunny to run herself ragged. Stepdaughter Pat at least tries, even if she remains an overgrown schoolgirl well into her twenties. “‘What corners I had were duly knocked off at St. Olaf’s.’ She smiled, evidently recalling humorous incidents connected with the loss of her individuality.” Bunny’s spineless husband Charles and hunting-obsessed stepson Hugo simply sit around complaining about the quality of their guests. For them, there is a distinct line between guests who are “the right sort” and those who simply have money.
Elizabeth Hudson is decidedly in the former category. In fact, she’s a cousin, which makes her status as a paying guest awkward. She often oversteps the line with her bluntness, so it’s no great surprise when she is murdered. The d’Estrays and their old friend the County Constable would prefer that one of the vulgar paying guests be arrested—ideally Flight-Lieutenant Marvin, a neurotic war vet who was “taken up” by Elizabeth. Failing this, the Jewish Roses or tacky Scampnells would do nicely.
Local police appeal to Scotland Yard, hoping for “a peer’s nephew, or if he’s dull himself, he’ll bring a friend who’s a peer, or an Oxford professor, who laughs very loudly and drinks gallons of beer and quotes from Restoration comedies.” Instead they get lower middle-class D. I. Ronald Price, who says “pardon” and “serviette” and wishes he were at home in his suburban villa instead of freezing to death in a stately home. Price is a bit of a whiner who, though resenting the class system, buys into it from a completely different perspective than the d’Estrays.
While his tone is not at all endearing, many of Price’s criticisms are reasonable in their substance. With all the fawning over the gentry, it’s hard not to sympathize with his confusion at being dropped into the nearly feudal atmosphere of this case. Everyone is related to everyone else, and they all defer to the local aristocrats.
“Have to dine early now,” said the Chief Constable. “We’ve only got Mrs. Witts in the kitchen, and she likes to get washed up and finished.”
“Too bad, sir,” said Treadwell.
“Oh well,” said the Chief Constable, and Treadwell knew what he meant and thought, not for the first time, how well they were taking it, these doomed and done-for ladies and gentlemen; but Ronald Price thought, dine early! It would do him good to get his own dinner and wash it up too, the old bastard.
While Price seems to rub everyone the wrong way, he is especially condescending to the servants and “lower classes,” who pay him no mind. They are just as secure in their own rightness as Price or the d’Estrays.
Even the good-natured Bunny, who initially seems to reject the English social system entirely, realizes too late that the system will judge her whether she participates in it or not. She can never fully escape it. By the time Bunny and Price meet, the gulf between them seems uncrossable.
In response to Sir Charles’s request that she wear “something dark,” she had put on a little black frock, in which she looked small and chic and quite out of place in an English country house in the middle of the morning; and Price “placed her” at once as an adventuress, who had “caught” Sir Charles off his guard in the lax atmosphere of the Riviera. Bunny, for her part, saw a sharplooking young man, obviously cut out for snooping, smug in his private life, neat, law-abiding, close-fisted…A wave of hostility quivered in the air between them.
All of the characters get little moments that flesh them out and make them human—not always sympathetic, but human, as when the family lawyer delights in the idea that “some women get queer in their forties […] for his wife, saying that he was a stuffed shirt, had left him in ninteen-twenty, and it pleased him to think that she now had her difficulties.” Only if the characters are able set their various prejudices aside, however briefly, and really listen to each other will they unlock the mystery, but there is no guarantee that this will ever happen.
It’s the aftermath to the crime that sets Murder Included apart. “Thank God,” says one suspect when the case is finally concluded. “Thank God, it’s over.”
“But it isn’t,” another protests. “This has happened. It isn’t one of your detective stories; you can’t shut the book with a snap when you’ve found out who dunnit.” Murder investigations bring out the worst in people. They lie, they suspect each other, they make accusations. They spy on their nearest and dearest. This is ugly behavior, and the memory of it doesn’t just go away after an arrest. Despite her expert dissection of social attitudes, Cannan recognizes that, in the end, murder isn’t really about class or society at all: it’s about people and relationships. The ending of Murder Included maintains the book’s tone of pitch-perfect dark comedy while also emphasizing that murder has consequences for everyone it touches.
An interesting effect this class bias has on the plot of the novel is that there is no assurance of whether truth and justice will prevail, adding to the tension and interest to the story. Whilst these class issues may irk some readers, I found it enjoyable to read as I thought Cannan depicted the issue well in her book, avoiding presenting it as black and white, highlighting the ambiguities and murkiness of the subject.