Thursday, December 8, 2011

IN BRIEF: Fear and Miss Betony - Dorothy Bowers

Emma Betony, former schoolteacher, is contacted by an ex-pupil, Grace Aram who is now the headmistress of a girl's school housed in an old nursing home. Although most of the elderly patients were removed when the building converted to a school , two of the occupants of the nursing home are still residents and one of them is suspected by Grace to be the victim of a murderous plot. She asks Miss Betony to accept a teaching position at the school and use her free time to help Grace sort out the dastardly doings at the school. The memory of Miss Betony's Aunt Mary hovers over the story teasing the reader.

Bowers is one of the few 1940s era practitioners of the fair play detective novel who might have become the only real competition for Agatha Christie. She certainly wrote a lot of books about poison murders. I would guess she must have some medical knowledge based on the way her nurse and doctor characters speak about disease and drugs.

The book is literate and cleverly plotted with one of the best uses of misdirection in a detective novel of this era. I wouldn't call the book "ingenious" (as Tom & Enid Schantz do in their introduction to the Rue Morgue Press paperback reprint) since the device is something Christie herself employed repeatedly in the 1930s. Bowers wrote her book in 1940. Nevertheless Bowers nearly fooled me.

There are some genuine surprises here, all of the characters are very well drawn, suspicion darts between a handful of them. There is a fortune teller who dabbles in black magic featured in the plot and those scenes are some of the best in the book. The puzzles and mysteries surrounding the odd goings on at the school-cum-nursing-home never fail to keep the reader involved and intrigued. The book really is fascinatingly well written, engaging from page one to the last word. Bowers' policeman detective Chief Inspector Dan Pardoe turns up in the final three chapters.

NOTE:  The UK edition's original title is Fear for Miss Betony. The change in title for this US edition seems completely unnecessary to me. But I guess Americans don't often use the imperative mood for the verb "fear" which is how the title is meant to be read, and not as if someone were handing Miss Betony a plate of fear, so to speak. The Rue Morgue Press edition is the most easily found and in some cases can be purchased for under $9 if you are an assiduous book hunter.

3 comments:

  1. I've noticed one quirk in many of Bowers' books (NOT this one, though): she follows a formula in several of them which, once you've read a couple, makes the killer obvious simply because of the way that person is introduced. However, I do like her books. Her plots are good; her characters and settings are memorable. You're quite right about the scenes with Ambrosio being some of the best in the book. And the twist at the end, when everything falls into place, is truly excellent, IMHO.

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  2. That's a keen observation, Les. I'll keep that in mind and not read them in a batch as I tend to if I like a particular author. I have all but one of her books and they've all been tucked away in some boxes. I'll have to look for them this weekend when I have time. SHADOWS BEFORE is the one I want to read next. The only one I haven't found yet is DEED WITHOUT A NAME. Curt Evans likes BELLS OF OLD BAILEY the best.

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  3. My fave is Deed Without a Name. Nice review, and Les makes a very good point.

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