“I regard this house as a nightmare, no more, no less. It belongs to a past period, and no family is ever likely to live here again. If Anne had any sense, she’d sell it and go and live in the Mediterranean; but she prefers this house and arthritis with it, and it’s her funeral, isn’t it?”
As Inspector Julian Rivers acknowledges, “Some houses are a problem.” In the case of Dene House, that’s an understatement. Massive and ugly, it molders away in the Devonshire countryside. It’s the only place elderly invalid Anne Tempest is willing to live, to the annoyance of her niece Isobelle, who is dying to get back to London. Then Isobelle has a brainstorm. Her young niece and nephew, Jane and Roland Tempest, have been at loose ends since the end of the war. With the housing shortage, they might be willing to move into the servants’ cottage and help with Anne’s care.
Isobelle’s plan works a little too well. Anne’s fondness for the young people makes her maid jealous and her other relations nervous for their inheritances. It will be Anne Tempest’s funeral, all right, and that funeral is coming sooner than she thinks.
It’s Her Own Funeral is another excellent mystery from Carol Carnac, steeped in rural misery. Early on, the reader, like Jane and Roland, is drawn in by the golden glow of the countryside in early autumn: the simplicity of a freshly white-washed cottage, a garden of one’s own, a charmingly eccentric old aunt, a mansion lit by candles.
In the mellow sunshine, beech and wild cherry, oak and maple, blazed in a riot of gold and rose and orange and purest yellow. [Roland] turned and looked at her. “It simply can’t be true,” he said.
With the approach of November, however, things start getting very real, from the freezing, damp air of Dene House (where the boiler is always broken) to Rivers’ endless woeful tramps between the homes of his suspects. In fact, it gets a little too Cold Comfort Farm at times, as the list of potential killers expands to include tenant farmers, gypsies, and feral children.
The beginning of the book is quite cheerful, as Jane and Roland take over the cottage and carry out all sorts of improvements to the house and farm. Of course there are tensions. Their grandfather, Anne’s brother, became estranged from the family after attacking his father with a knife, but the entire Tempest clan is famous for their temperamental natures. The pampered Isobelle is like “a luxurious cat,” spending hours before the mirror each day tending to her face as she tries to stretch the remnants of her youth out for a few more vital years. She is always most scrupulously fair to those she most dislikes. Her cousin—and possible lover—Guy can’t keep his hands or his fists to himself, which leads to fireworks when the equally impulsive Roland is around. Even Anne is a controversial figure in the area, shunned by the neighbors for her arrogant, domineering ways.
“The Tempests. ‘Like name, like nature,’ they say around here…They’ve been famous for two qualities, tantrums and generosity. Unfortunately, the tantrums were remembered when the generosity was often forgotten. But there’s a bad streak in them, and you never know when it will emerge…”
“When you say a bad streak, what do you mean, exactly?” asked Rivers. “Arrogance, or something deeper?”
“Something deeper—and uglier.”
Anne’s servant Maggie Paling, though devoted to her, is deeply resentful of Jane and Roland. Not only have they displaced her and her husband from their cottage, forcing them to move into the main house (“if you’d lived in this house, you wouldn’t have stayed a month”), Jane replaces Maggie’s faithful oil stove with a new-fangled gas cooker. Maggie is convinced it will be the death of them all, and she’s nearly right. Someone leaves the gas tap on overnight, leading to the Palings’ illness and Anne Tempest’s death. The more Inspector Rivers investigates, the more convinced he is of murder.
This is all quite enjoyable until the introduction of Kathie Bolton, the wild young daughter of the Tempests’ tenant. Kathie’s backstory is chilling: the child got lost in the woods one night and came out different. Her parents, spooked by the change in her behavior, avoid their changeling daughter as much as possible. Unsuprisingly, considering that she is neglected and even outright abused at home, Kathie prefers to hang around Dene House, where her presence is at least tolerated. She could be a valuable witness if Rivers can earn her trust. As sad as Kathie’s situation is, she and her parents take up far too much of the story. A potentially intriguing investigation gives way to endless streams of dialect, domestic drama, and backwoods superstition.
The solution has some interesting aspects (though it’s not at all clear how Rivers manages to learn where a vital piece of evidence is hidden). Even this, however, is overshadowed by the Boltons, as they wind up at the center of a dramatic, action-packed climax, shrouded by fog. It’s an effective scene that throws a wrench into what the reader thinks they know about the mystery—yet it’s so much more vivid than the actual solution that I had to stop and really think to remember the minor detail of who the killer turned out to be.
It’s Her Own Funeral is at its best when focusing on Dene House and its inhabitants. Both the grandeur and the ruin of the moldering old house are splendidly evoked, as are the various Tempests who love and hate the place. It’s hard not to root for Jane and Roland, a pair of orphans trying to make a life for themselves in a strange postwar world. Even the tragedy of Kathie and her family is sadly realistic; I could just do with a little less of it. All of these characters lead complicated lives, and few of the complications are wrapped up neatly at the end. It’s Her Own Funeral is highly enjoyable as it is, but it could have been even better if more attention had been paid to the murder itself.
Anthony Boucher, New York Times, July 20, 1952
Miss Carnac is so associated with just this type of unspectacular but satisfying Scotland Yard story that her admirers will feel no disappointment in her latest. Under both this name and that of E.C.R. Lorac she has produced a long and steady series of books solidly rewarding in quality, with a wise blend of ingenuity and plausibility, a nice balance between the detective problem and the subtler problems of character and background.
Saturday Review, November 22, 1952
Characters agreeable or nicely disagreeable; slow-motion in spots, good pace at the end. Plodding but pleasant.
It’s Her Own Funeral is out of print, with one used copy available at this time. It was reprinted as a Detective Book Club volume along with Dead Men’s Plans by Mignon G. Eberhart and Death Begs the Question by Lois Eby and John C. Fleming.