Authors: Harriet Rutland
That settles it, thought Smith savagely. He shall be murdered, even if I have to do it myself!
The Hardstaffe family are not the nicest people in the world. In fact, he â schoolteacher, lothario and bully, she â chronic malcontent â and their horsey unmarried adult daughter seem to be prime candidates for murder. A writer planning these deaths, on paper at least, and a young girl, chased by old Hardstaffe, are the only outsiders in a deliciously neat, but nasty, case.
was the last of Harriet Rutland's mystery novels, first published in 1942. This new edition, the first in over 70 years, features an introduction by crime fiction historian Curtis Evans.
â(A) newcomer of exceptional promise'
“Story! Lord bless you, I have none to tell, Sir!”
The Needy Knifegrinder
, the third and final detective novel by Harriet Rutland (the pen name of Olive Shimwell), was published in November 1942, almost three years after the appearance of the author's second mystery,
, which itself had contrastingly followed hard upon the heels of her debut,
Knock, Murderer, Knock!
The first two detective novels had been well received on both sides of the Atlantic--in the seminal genre history
Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story
(1941), American critic Howard Haycraft included Harriet Rutland on his list of English character-driven mystery “new-comers of especial promise”--and doubtlessly the author's publishers in the United Kingdom and the United States eagerly anticipated the timely receipt of a third Rutland tale. This makes the long delay in Olive Shimwell's delivery of
surprisingâbut only at first blush.
Certainly at this time there was much in Olive Shimwell's life that might have driven the rising detective fiction writer to distraction. Most obviously there were the dire events of the Second World War, but also her raising of an infant son and apparent marital difficulties that soon would lead Olive to a divorce from her husband, microbiologist John Lester Shimwell. In 1939 the Shimwells had moved from Ireland, where they had resided for most of the decade, to London, where in October Olive gave birth to the couple's son. In September 1940 the Nazis commenced their punishing and prolonged aerial bombing campaign against the United Kingdom, launching over seventy raids on London alone over the next eight months. Olive and her son may have evacuated England's capital, with all the ensuing dislocation that would have entailed. Yet amidst all these challenges the author managed to complete a final mystery under the Harriet Rutland name that is fully up to the high standard set by the first two detective novels, albeit rather darker all round, reflecting the trying times in which the book was conceived and written.
Set in the cleverly-named Nether Naughton, in “Northshire” (Yorkshire?),
dispenses, when murder strikes, with the investigative services of Mr. Winkley, the sleuth of Harriet Rutland's first two detective novels, in favor of Northshire's Superintendent Cheam and Scotland Yard's Chief Inspector Alan Driver, the latter assisted by the inconveniently-named Sergeant Lovely. The central observing character in the novel is Arnold Smith, a fifty-year old novelist who has fled wartime London for the more pacific charms of Nether Naughton. Smith, an author of “novels of weak adventure, sugared with ladylike romance,” has decided, at his agent's behest, to try his hand at another, now more popular, form of escapist fiction: the detective novel. In Nether Naughton he unexpectedly finds copy for his book in his strife-ridden lodgings: the home of the Hardstaffes, husband, wife and daughter.
Mr. Hardstaffe, the Headmaster of the village school, is a choleric, lustful sadist, his wife a tiresomely neurasthenic hypochondriac, and Leda, their thirty-two year old daughter, a horsey and hopelessly hearty countrywoman familiar from classic English mystery fiction, clad in tweeds “of a colour which must surely have been the least attractive of any woven by the islanders of Harris.” Soon Arnold Smith finds himself enmeshed in a real-life death drama as murder overtakes this most unpleasant household. Suspects abound, for the Hardstaffes are indeed a singularly aggravating family.
Like the first two detective novels,
is rich in Olive Shimwell's characteristically sardonic humour, although in this final mystery the mirth is even sharper-edged than in the previous two books. Leda Hardstaffe keeps a kennel of rambunctious Sealyhams and insists on letting the brutes overrun the house, though they are not quite so well housetrained as one might desire. Most strikingly jaundiced is the novel's view of marriage, especially that of the senior Hardstaffes. Mr. Hardstaffe only wed Mrs. Hardstaffe for her money, we learn, and, though in his sixties, he is currently pursuing Charity Fuller, a teacher in his school young enough to be his granddaughter and easily the most alluring woman in Nether Naughton. (“Charity always begins at home,” is how one village wit summarizes the young woman's romantic escapades.) The negative portrayal of marriage and restrictive divorce laws in
may have reflected unpleasant circumstances in the author's own life, for not long after the novel was published Olive and John Shimwell divorced. John remarried in 1947 and with his new wife had a daughter in 1948, the year Olive herself remarried. In his professional life, at least, John could be disagreeable, according to a 1992 article in the Journal of the Institute of Brewing, often finding himself at “the centre of acrimonious scientific exchanges,” for “he did not suffer fools gladly.”
However much the author's intimate personal circumstances may have influenced
, unquestionably the novel includes an abundance of fascinating wartime social detail, especially concerning the household challenges posed by domestic rationing and servant scarcity, the changing roles of women in English life and the entry into the country of desperate war refugees from continental Europe. Reflecting on British women's disinclination to don formal evening attire for the duration of the conflict with Germany, Shimwell with a feminist flourish declares: “This was war-time, and you could not deal effectively with incendiary bombs, or stand by with a First Aid Party, in a gown which swirled around your ankles. There was, in fact, little scope at all for femininity in Total War, which for the time being, and possibly for all time, had destroyed the slogan that Woman's Place is in the Home.” Conversely the traditionalist matron Mrs. Hardstaffe laments how the war has given female servants new options in life and made them, in her judgment, uppish in their attitudes toward their domestic superiors. Briggs, the lone maid to whom the Hardstaffes had recently been reduced--their other young woman, Mary, having left them to work in a munitions factory--has only lately been supplemented by a scatty young German Jewish refugee named Frieda Braun. “Girls are quite above themselves nowadays, with all these uniforms and high wages,” complains Mrs. Hardstaffe. “I shudder to think what they'll be like after this war. Our other maid [besides Frieda] was christened Victoria Alexandra [after the British queen and a later queen consort]. Did you ever hear of such names for a village girl? Of course, we call her Briggs.”
Even more problematic for the Hardstaffes than Victoria Alexandra Briggs, who by the end of the novel also has joined Mary in factory work, is Frieda Braun. Some modern readers may be shocked by the casual anti-Semitism that the Hardstaffes express in
, yet as I see it Olive Shimwell was too forthright an author to shy at portraying the extreme unlikableness of these characters. A victim of the Hardstaffe's casual anti-semitism, in later chapters the novel shines a sympathetic light on Frieda, emphasizing the manifold terrors to which Jews were subjected in Germany and the daily indignities and slights that are inflicted upon her in England. Concerning her experiences in Germany, Frieda herself informs Superintendent Cheam:
You do not understand? No. Because you are not a German Jew. You say 'Itler is a bad man, must be kill. But if you are not Jew, you do not know how bad. You understand bombs and Luftwaffe, but you do not understand Gestapo and torture if you are not Jew like me. I am told to get up from my bed one night. I must go to the frontier. If I do not go, I am sent to Poland in cattletruck or to concentration camp.
Unsophisticated yet essentially kinder than her employers, the Hardstaffe cook allows to Superintendent Cheam that Frieda is a “bit queer” in the head, “but so'd we be if we'd been though half what she has. I never did hold with Jews, me being a good Church of England Christian, but I don't hold with torturing an animal, let alone a decent-living human-being, and the bits of tales that girl manages to tell you would fair make your hair curl.” In a pointed commentary on the anodyne nature of escapist classic English detective fiction Shimwell has Arnold Smith, while ruminating on his detective novel, for which he is drawing on the Hardstaffe household, conclude that he must omit Frieda, because “such a passionate creature could have no place in the world of unreality which housed the scintillating figure of Noel Delare,” his posh gentleman amateur sleuth.
Writing at a time when lights were going out all over the world and frightened people cowered in the dark, the author of
dared in her detective novel to open the door to darker human passions taking part in her little parlor game of murder. Accordingly the novel makes a bracing read even for jaded modern mystery readers. Certainly contemporary reviewers noted, and frequently commended, this aspect of the book. “âBlue Murder' has a novel plot and some characters who are more interesting than attractive,” observed the
New York Times Book Review
, noting that all of the disagreeable Hardstaffes made “good prospects for murder,” pronounced that the novel offered mystery fans “a neat, nasty case.”
indeed does this, and it also serves as a memorably acerbic coda for Harriet Rutland, one of Golden Age English mystery fiction's most original and interesting writers.
Mr. Hardstaffe had reached the critical time of life when elderly gentlemen gaze at the legs of schoolgirls in railway carriages.
Mr. Hardstaffe was definitely elderly, and he looked very much like a clergyman when he read the lessons at Sunday morning services in an Oxford drawl, pitched in a slightly falsetto voice guaranteed to hit the back of the church.
But his eyes were not engaged, at the moment, in the above-mentioned occupation.
He was seated in a leather-covered armchair in front of a meagre fire in his study in the village school of Nether Naughton, to which he had succeeded as Headmaster some thirty years ago. And although the youngest and prettiest of his staff, Miss Charity Fuller, was sitting near him, wearing a knee-length skirt which showed the slim beauty of her near-silk-clad legs, his protuberant blue eyes were gazing unmistakably at her elfin-pointed face, at her green eyes, reddened lips, and waved auburn hair.
“...and if there hadn't been a war on, I should have suggested France or Italy,” he was saying. “But as I've no desire to meet Hitler or Mussolini, I think Scotland would be best.”
“I think it's a splendid idea,” said Charity. “You work far too hard. It must be a strain to return to the school again after you'd retired for three years. You deserve a rest.”
“We do, you mean. You don't suppose I intend to go alone, surely?”
Charity looked bewildered.
“You don't mean...?” she faltered. Then, seeing from his expression that she had indeed interpreted his unspoken meaning correctly, she blushed. “Have you gone mad?” she asked.
“Mad? Oh my God! That's rich!”
Mr. Hardstaffe rose to his feet, and strode across the room. Then, as if conscious that his heightâhe was barely five feet tallâmight serve to render his behaviour ridiculous rather than impressive, he returned again to his chair.
“Mad? You know I am. Mad about you! I'm like a starving dog to whom you occasionally throw a crust. I want more, more! Why not face up to it, Charity? What's to be gained by being a hypocrite? What have we to lose, either of us? We love each otherâsurely that's what really counts. Oh God!” He beat his forehead with a clenched fist. “Am I never to know the joys of being loved for myself alone? Am I to remain bound to one woman in a living death until I die? Are you going to condemn me to that, Charity? Are you? Are you?”
He stretched out his hand, and stroked her knee. His voice grew soft and persuasive.
“My dear, I have never concealed from you the secrets of my heart. You know what my life is like. You know that at home I live in hell, tied to an old woman who is too utterly selfish to consider the welfare of anyone but herself: a hypochondriac, who is never happy unless she is ill. She always keeps a copy of “Medical Hints” under the Bible beside her bed, so that she can read up new symptoms at night, and awake in the morning to simulate a new complaint.