“Father was a bully, a sadist, a vain, selfish man. He liked to feel that you and Catherine and I were in his power. He’s kept you chained to his heels for years, he’s made me feel a worm ever since I can remember, and he’d have mucked up Catherine’s happiness if he could…The man who put him out did a good deed which benefits all of us. I don’t know who he was and I don’t care, but if I knew, wild horses wouldn’t make me tell. I hope he gets off scot free.”
To most of the world, Anthony Medway is one of England’s greatest painters. His family sees him very differently. To his mother, he’s the man who has given her a home, but no love or freedom. To his only child Philip, he’s an abusive father who hates having a crippled son, yet refuses to let Philip access his own money for medical treatments. And to his wife Catherine, he’s the man who loves only her beauty, viewing her as just another work of art.
Anthony has brought these three people, his nearest relations and fiercest enemies, to Cyprus for a new beginning. They soon realize, however, that Anthony will never really change. When he is found dead in his studio, any one of them could be responsible. Every picture tells a story, but Superintendent William Austen will need an artist’s eye to spot this killer.
Prussian Blue is a thoughtful character-based whodunnit focused on a small closed circle. There are a few other suspects in addition to the Medways, but Anne Hocking is mostly interested in exploring the effects of murder within one tightly-knit yet dysfunctional family, and that story is just as compelling as the murder mystery.
It all begins when sheltered country girl Catherine marries up-and-coming artist Anthony Medway. Her dreams of a blissful marriage are quickly swept away when she meets her angry teenage stepson Philip and mother-in-law Mrs. Medway, who seems almost clinically detached from the daily fights that rock the house. Catherine tries to make peace between her husband and his son, but soon realizes that Anthony’s house “would never feel like home to her, and she knew it. Home wasn’t a place where a father taunted his invalid son and the son baited his father to the best of his ability.”
The onset of World War II provides a crucial turning point for the family. After Anthony joins the military, Catherine, Philip, and Mrs. Medway begin to dream of a real future for themselves. The end of the war means Anthony’s return, however, and once again Anthony’s art comes before everything else.
[Catherine] had to take his word that England was and would be impossible; that Cyprus was probably the back door to heaven; that if they lived there for a year or two after the war was over, they could have a considerable degree of comfort without worrying about money; but, above all, she realized that he wanted to go there and felt that he could work there, and she hadn’t been an artist’s wife for so many years without appreciating that that was the cogent argument; that if one of the tiresome and irrational tribe says “I can work here” or “I can’t work there,” it isn’t just an annoying and groundless piece of so-called temperament, but as much a fact as if one were to say “this place is hot” or “this place is damp.”
What Anthony fails to realize, however, is that the family that begrudgingly joins him in Cyprus is not the same family he pushed around for so many years. After experiencing freedom, one or more of them might go to great lengths to regain it…even murder.
Murder is rare in Cyprus, but Catherine’s friend Alan Wyatt knows just the man to solve the crime. Scotland Yard detective William Austen, stationed in Cairo, is easily persuaded to come to Cyprus on his leave to assist local police. The Medways think they may be able to control an outside investigator, but Austen soon disabuses them of that notion. “When I’m detecting, so to speak, I’m a machine,” he tells them. “I have a job to do and I do it irrespective of consequences…No considerations of friendship or liking will muzzle me. I don’t shield murderers.”
The more he looks into the family, the more motives and suspects he discovers. Alan Wyatt, for example, whose feelings for Catherine may extend beyond friendship. Or Viola Charters, who was supposedly being painted by Anthony, even though he was strictly a landscape artist—though the lovely Viola certainly provides quite a landscape herself.
Docked of its excrescences, of the “Oh! It must sound dreadful, Mrs. Medway, but you’re so broad-minded, I know you’ll understand,” of the “I really can’t help it, you know, and I don’t want to sound conceited, but men do fall for me. They say I’m so sympathetic,” it really boiled down to the old familiar story. Her husband didn’t really understand her—”after all I was the most absolute babe when we were married”—and he had a job in the Sudan, where the climate “isn’t really fit for a delicate woman, Mrs. Medway,” and she really had to have a change every now and again, or she “really couldn’t have lived.“
Using solid, evidence-based police work, along with a little showmanship, Austen comes through with a convincing solution. Prussian Blue is almost precisely divided between the long lead-up to the crime and Austen’s investigation. This, along with the very small group of suspects, may frustrate those who prefer clues to personal drama. The incisive character studies are always fascinating, however, and paint a sobering picture of life with an emotional abuser. By the time the murder is committed, the question is no longer “who did it?” but rather, “what took them so long?”
Saturday Review, May 22, 1948
People rather than plot are important here—though latter has its points. End guessable but story interest holds up nobly.
Prussian Blue (also published as The Finishing Touch) is out of print, with only one used copy available.