“It dawned upon him what an extremely simple thing it was to get an undesirable person out of the way.”
Nobody in the cathedral town of Clench appreciates Alfred Bealby. Not his shy, awkward daughter Dolly. Not his legal clients, who are defecting to Stephen Traill, the new young lawyer in town. And especially not his wife Millicent, who is so determined to keep him away from her nest egg.
They all underestimate Alfred. What none of them realize is how far he will go to in order to secure the position that should be rightfully his. None of them know about the little packets of white powder locked in his desk. They’ll soon find out.
Friday Market is an inverted mystery that is just as interested in the prospective victims as it is in the killer. It’s closer to the generous spirit of Joanna Cannan’s No Walls of Jasper than the bile of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought. Catherine Meadows portrays all of her characters with a clear eye, overlooking none of their faults, but with charity for everyone except Alfred. Friday Market is constructed less as a crime novel than as a novel that happens to include crime. As such, it takes a leisurely route to its destination that can be frustrating at times, though it is a highly pleasurable journey in the end.
The story unfolds over a period of four years, bookended by two Christmas charity balls that both turn out to be fateful events in Alfred’s life. As the organizer of the ball, this is the one night each year when he achieves the status he feels meant to have: admired, applauded, at the center of everything. The rest of the year is drab by comparison, as his old-fashioned practice slowly hemorrhages business.
One of his few remaining clients is a beautiful divorcee named Mrs. Pawle. Alfred can’t help comparing her to his wife Millicent. “Over herself and her belongings hung a home-made air, and her movements were abrupt and awkward, as though she, too, had been put together by an inexpert hand.” Their teenage daughter Dolly, is equally graceless. She senses there is something wrong in her family and yearns to escape, ideally through marriage, but lacks the social skills to make this happen. “Actual rudeness could be dealt with,” despairs her mother, “but Dolly’s manner was ungracious, unattractive.” The long timeframe of the book especially benefits Dolly, who visibly grows and matures over the years while still retaining her amusingly clueless personality.
Alfred’s recurring nemesis is his garden. Like the people in his life, it simply won’t behave as he wishes. Alfred envisions a smooth, sweeping lawn, only to be greeted by a yard full of weeds. Rather than accept what he has and work with the land as it is, he goes to tremendous lengths to bludgeon the weeds into submission, including injecting each root with arsenic. He takes to keeping little packets of the poison in his pockets so they will be handy whenever he spots a weed. One day, inevitably, a little packet is close at hand when a human enemy irks him.
Sleep would not come to Alfred. Thoughts chased round and round in his head like mice. He was frightened, but he was also angry. He was angry with himself, with [his victim], with everybody who was in any way connected with either of them; for wasn’t it actually everybody’s fault that he had done what he had done? It was as though there had been a gigantic conspiracy, whose members ranged from [business associates] to the people at the meet to his own family, to goad him into it.
It’s so easy to kill, and the offense that tips him over the line is so small, that no one seems safe after that. Every interaction of Alfred’s is tainted by some imagined insult, which means that anyone could be his next victim.
Especially vulnerable is wry, bookish Stephen Traill, Alfred’s professional rival. Stephen lives with his aunt, an affable woman with many interests. It says a great deal about how conventional the town of Clench is that her hobby of gourmet cookery astonishes her neighbors.
What an extraordinary woman, thought Millicent. That food should be wholesome and nourishing was essential, but that it should be amusing…well!…Amusing food would almost certainly be indigestible if it were nothing worse. She was wondering what in the world she could say to such peculiar remarks.
Miss Traill has no patience for Alfred’s treatment of his wife and daughter. As cathartic as it is for someone to give Alfred the scoldings he deserves, it’s also uncomfortably apparent that both Miss Traill and Stephen are moving higher and higher up on his enemies list.
The years fall lightly on these characters (the surviving ones, anyway), who go about their commonplace lives, only occasionally aware of how closely they live with death.
Presently the music started and the crowd dissolved gradually into the ballroom. Stephen stood for a few minutes by the door and watched. Nothing has changed, he thought, since the first time I came here. The room, the band, the decorations, even the music of the first dance are the same; the same people twirling around on the floor—probably saying the same things. And yet the people are different. They change and get older and die, and others take their places. But the change of people means so little; the things they do and make swallow them up and live and go on of their own momentum, regardless of them.
Friday Market is a gently ironic novel of small-town life with a few murders thrown in. It’s fond of its characters, who are mostly endearing, but that also prevents the story from exploring the darkness of the situation as deeply as it might have done.
Friday Market is out of print, with few used copies available. It can be read online for free at HathiTrust.