The Deathless and the Dead

“They hate each other, you know. I’ve always realized that, ever since I was a little girl. They tear each other to pieces the whole time, whether there is anyone else present or not. I sometimes wonder why it is that one of them hasn’t murdered the other long ago.I suppose it’s because they enjoy quarreling so much that they’d miss it if one of them was dead.”

A few summers ago at a book sale I found four slim mysteries by a British author unknown to me, Anna Clarke, and figured that at fifty cents each they were worth a gamble. The cover calls them mysteries about crimes of passion in the tradition of P. D. James and Josephine Tey. I’ve yet to read either author (shame on me), so I wasn’t sure what to expect when I finally picked up The Deathless and the Dead, the most intriguing title of the bunch.

Poor young literature student John Broome has devoted himself to the study of [fictional] Victorian poetess Emily Witherington, who died young. He has few hopes of ever getting recognition for his work until Alice Heron, the girl he has recently begun dating, mentions that she believes her great uncle and great aunt who raised her may have met the poet in their younger days. When Alice brings him home, however, she warns him to be on his guard against Sir Roderick Heron and Lady Belle; they make the Spanish Inquisition look painless. The couple have been married for fifty years, and have hated each other even longer, thriving on insults and torment. Then there is the live-in servant, Lettie Mann, who seems to invite abuse hates Belle because she is in love with Roderick herself.

John is loathe to get involved in this hornets nest, especially because Roderick is imperiously shuts him down whenever the topic of Emily arises. For some reason, however, he can’t shake the conviction that Roderick jut may have been the anonymous beloved whom Emily wrote passionately about in so many of her poems. He makes a surprising ally in Auntie Belle when he bonds with her over her cat, and has hopes that she might know the answers instead.

Then a death occurs in the household, and John begins to wonder if someone here may know something about the accident that caused Emily’s premature death fifty years ago. He finds it virtually impossible, however, to investigate a crime from fifty years ago with no evidence, and that even the police at the time didn’t believe was a crime. Unfortunately, he’s been asking so many questions that another accident just might occur if he’s not careful.

I have a lot of respect for Anna Clarke’s skill as a writer. At first this book struck me as relatively mundane, even silly in how some of the characters behaved. About halfway through, though, the complexity of the book hit home. The plot is deceptively simple, and though it might come across as child’s play in the hands of another writer, she has kept me guessing long after I finished the book. There may have been four murders, or there may have been none; all we (and John) have to go on are the words and impressions of the characters, not all of which can be trusted. The psychological ambiguity here is just wonderful.

I also enjoy books with young lovers. John struggles a lot here with the fact that Alice comes from a background much higher than his own. He sees this break in his research as the chance to finally be worthy of her, but he’s also terrified here of Roderick, and of ruining any hopes he has of being with Alice. He also is extremely hesitant to voice any suspicions he might have about events for fear of offending her.

My one complaint is that it seems highly coincidental how John just “knew” that Roderick was Emily’s beloved. Granted, I’m sure he had read the descriptions in poems about him hundreds of times, and had Alice’s word that they had been acquaintances. It just seemed a little far-fetched to me. Perhaps the ghost of Emily really was spurring on his work, as Alice suggested. Also, if you are wondering about dates, the book seems set in the 1950s, so that those around when Emily died in the 1890s could conceivably still be alive. According to Fantastic Fiction, the author was somewhat of a scholar herself on Victorian literature.

Anna Clarke wrote over twenty five mysteries from the late sixties through the early eighties. Has anyone else heard of her? I’m curious to try the rest of the ones I bought to see if they are as good.

Published in: on August 28, 2011 at 2:59 pm  Leave a Comment  
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