And Be a Villain (1958) by Joanna Cannan

And Be a Villain by Joanna Cannan

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“The fact is I find that no one in this house has been quite frank with me, and the conclusions I draw from that are necessarily significant and unpleasant ones.”

Richard Hallow may be a doctor, but his touch is far from healing. Not only is the man a compulsive philanderer who is scheming to put his mother-in-law into a nursing home, his neglect of his National Health patients has just led to a baby’s death.

When Richard is found dead of a broken neck on the floor of his surgery the list of suspects is endless. And with the misanthropic Detective Superintendent Price on the case, the path of justice is far from certain.

And Be a Villain opens with a comically precise dissection of the village of Beetham, a town where tweed-clad professionals hunker down in refurbished cottages and reassure themselves that they are more discerning than those stockbrokers in their mock Tudors down the road. They barely take notice of the working classes who move among them, never dreaming that those who serve them might have lives of their own. One of the characters we are introduced to, Richard Hallow, will be dead by the end of the chapter. Another will be responsible for his murder. Which one doesn’t matter very much to the author, which undermines an otherwise charmingly jaundiced story.

And Be a Villain by Joanna CannanThe two people with the greatest motives for murdering Richard should have the firmest alibis. His wife Eve should have been picking up her mother Laura Langley at the train station, but somehow the two women manage to miss each other, leaving them with no alibi at all. The whole family was supposed to meet to arrange for the recently widowed Laura’s future. To her dismay, Laura learns that Richard’s death does not affect her daughters’ determination that she should enter a nursing home. The worlds of her daughters Eve and Primrose only have room for the young and active.

A poet whose work has earned her a small reputation but very little money, Laura has many chances to reflect upon the financial and emotional costs of a creative life, especially in the vulnerability of old age.

If only you had the courage to dispense with your gleaming dentures and your charcoal-grey wool dress for the older woman […] But what would Eve and Primrose say, Laura wondered, placing her grinning teeth in a tumbler of water and Dentokleen, wrapping one of Eve’s “guest” towels round her head and surveying the result in the triple mirror, so strange a road have we taken that age must be disguised, hushed up with dyes and rinses and girdles and brassieres and pancake makeup and creams containing hormones and, when that fails, chivvied from its place in the chimney corner into the cream-and-green ante-chamber of the old people’s home.

Beetham may be a small town, but Richard has plenty of enemies there even outside of his family. My favorite is vacuous local beauty June Nichol who, only ten days into her reign, is already struggling to live up to the pressure of being crowned Miss Beetham 1956. She and her family take the title terribly seriously, to the chagrin of her fiancé David, a left-wing journalist. June begins to wonder whether David is really an appropriate consort for Miss Beetham. Maybe someone with more money would be a better choice.

June is about to begin a new job working for Richard Hallow, who pushed out his longtime receptionist Miss App to make way for her. (Miss App claims to have “invented” the doctor’s filing system. That system? Alphabetical order.) David worries that June’s virtue would be unsafe around Hallow, given that “I saw him myself picking up two girls from The Naughty Nudes at the Palace.” Could a deadly triangle have developed?

There’s also Richard Hallow’s professional rival Dr. Meadows, whose approach to medicine could not be more different from the negligent Richard.

Hygiene was his hobby-horse; his patients died with their widows open and in the odor of germicide. Few people who consulted him escaped with their teeth and to complain of a sore throat was to lose your tonsils. Young mothers whom he attended gave up all hope of rearing their infants and were quickly reduced to nervous wrecks.

While there’s no shortage of suspects, D.S. Ronald Price’s investigation is hampered by the dreadful personal crisis he is experiencing: he has discovered that he is Non-U. In the mid-1950s, the British public’s attention was captured by Nancy Mitford’s satirical linguistic survey Noblesse Oblige, which purported to sort out which words were U (Upper-Class) and which were Non-U (Non-Upper-Class, i.e., tacky).

Then to his surprise and mortification Price had learned that many, if not all, the refined expressions which in the course of years he had trained himself to use served only to proclaim his lack of breeding, that every time his mouth formed “Pardon” or “Excuse me” he had shown himself up as a hopelessly Non-U person. His wife, Valerie, wouldn’t read the book—she said it looked dry—and when, trying out this new vocabulary, he said “What?” she said, “Don’t say ‘what’ to me,” and when he belched, as he usually did after meals, and didn’t ask to be excused, she said she might as well have married a dustman.

The big joke of the first two entries in this series (and it would be a pretty nasty one if every other character didn’t come in for a similar drubbing) is how, despite his Socialist politics, Price is enormously proud of his own petty-bourgeois affectations. Now the joke has been revealed to Price, much to his distress. Throughout the book, he fights to suppress Non-U phrases, while continuing to evaluate suspects through the same myopic worldview.

And Be a Villain by Joanna CannanUnfortunately, the deck is stacked against him in more ways than one. Price has become more cartoonishly unpleasant than ever, without the occasional decent insights that previously added some dimension to the character. The fun of having a really awful detective is seeing other characters react to him, but no one pays much attention to Price, so I’m not sure what point is served in making him so irritating.

And Be a Villain is a fascinating time capsule of 1950s Britain that mostly maintains a nice balance between the characters’ absurdity and their humanity. The focus is clearly on character and social observation, all of which I enjoyed heartily, rather than the plot. With more subtlety and more detection, however, it could have been more than merely amusing.

Availability

And Be a Villain is available as an ebook from Endeavour Media.

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