Friday, February 10, 2012

FFB: Post Mortem - Guy Cullingford

Gilbert Worth, adulterous husband and acerbic novelist, is found dead in his study with a bullet in his temple and the smoking gun clenched in his hand. Much to Gilbert's surprise he seems to have survived the murder -- or rather his ghost has survived to look upon his own corpse. While the members of his family believe he has committed suicide Gilbert knows better. Someone killed him. Someone who tried unsuccessfully twice before - once with a carefully placed glass marble on the staircase, the second when his nighttime warmed milk was tainted with something bitter and palatable. He fed it to the cat and it was dead in the morning. Gilbert's spirit seems doomed to walk the Earth until he is satisfied with just who in his household hated him so much to send him off to an early reward. Though it's not so rewarding to Gilbert even if he can pass through walls and enter locked rooms without being seen.

At first I thought this was intended to be a satire of the detective novel. The victim comes back from the dead to solve his own murder?  Surely this has to be done with some sense of humor.  And it is. But Gilbert Worth is hardly a likable character and his children devoutly loathe him. Yet even though Worth tells the story of his mysterious death with a wicked sense of humor and spends much of the book spying on his relatives and the servants in some keen satiric scenes there is a pervasive somber air about the piece with hints of tragedy about the innate dysfunctionality in this loveless family.

In the early part of the book the best scenes were those in which Worth seems to make fun of his plight as a ghost. He attends his own funeral and hears a musical selection that embarrasses his family as it turns out to be an upbeat folk tune that is a particular favorite of Rosina Peck, his mistress and sex-crazed secretary. Later, he finds himself oddly moved by the sermon the minister gives and falls to his knees in guilt ridden prayer. Even Worth's own father appears to him and attempts to guide him into the afterlife but Worth will have none of that until he solves the mystery that faces him. There is also an entire chapter devoted to the servants in which we learn that the timid housemaid Ada Jenkins has a passionate hobby in stamp collecting and is belittled by her co-workers for such a frivolous, money wasting pastime. The cook Mrs Mace, another maid Jessie, and the nasty gardener Mr. Williams are all sharply drawn portraits with carefully rendered individual voices. When even the minor characters receive this kind of attention from an author you know you have a work of fiction worth some notice. Before the book becomes deadly serious and shifts into a neo-Victorian mode this was one of the highlights for me.

The humor dissipates further with Gilbert's "investigation" which he is also writing down in manuscript form. It all becomes excessively melodramatic past the midpoint and by the final scenes I felt like I was reading something by Wilkie Collins or Mary Elizabeth Braddon. Overwrought emotions are on constant display. Multiple confessions of family secrets and murderous impulses force friends and confidantes entrusted with these confessions into dilemmas of moral conscience. Several characters resort to blackmail, there are witnesses to the murder, and witnesses to the witnesses!

This is not meant to disparage the book. On the contrary, Post Mortem (1953) is a remarkable achievement -- begin like a satiric detective novel, add the element of a modern ghost story, then slowly transform the whole work into a Neo-sensation novel. The high emotion is mirrored in the heightened prose sending the story to soaring heights both metaphorically and literally when ghostly husband and haunted wife face each other on the rooftop of Turret House. A neat epilogue written by the son of Worth's publisher brings all the fantasy crashing down to Earth not in anticlimax but in a truly satisfying manner with a final twist that explains both the mystery of Gilbert's death and the riddle of a how a ghost can have written his own autobiography.

8 comments:

  1. This sounds really great John - so go on, tell me the worst, how hard is it to find a copy fo this little curio?

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  2. PS Amazingly (or Amazonly, sic), just found a copy on Amazon UK so I've snaffled it - a true testament to the sheer persuasive power of your reviews John! I see that "Conjuror's Coffin" by the same author is also available at a reasonable price - know anythign about that one?

    Cheers,
    Sergio

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  3. I'll be on the look-out for this one as well.

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  4. When I first heard of this novel, a few years ago, I was ready to pounce on it poste-haste, but that enthusiasm quickly dissipated when I unearthed a slew of unfavorable comments and reviews in the archives of the GADetection group.

    It was described as a character-driven story without a plot or story, wordy, detection free and its only good idea, a ghost investigating his own murder, fell flat – because he was unable to interact with any of the characters.

    This was very off-putting, especially since I was in my fundamentalistic period where detective fiction was concerned, and never gave this book another look, but this review has given me second thoughts. So good job!

    By the way, I acquired a copy of The Sleeping Bacchus and it's your review whom I hold responsible for making me want to have it! ;)

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  5. Sergio -

    It's fairly easy to find an affordable copy as you discovered. If you look forht ePenguin paperback that is. The US edition which I owned up until a few days ago (sold it!) is way too pricey in DJ if you ask me. I think it is seen as a "rare" book which of course always inflates the price among some disreputable sellers. It also has achieved cult status of sorts because it shows up on a lot of "Best of" lists including one put together by H R F Keating who knows a good crime novel when he reads it.

    I own a copy of Conjuror's Coffin and bought it because of the magic angle. I'm a sucker for black magic or stage magic in the mystery novel and have a huge collection of those books -- many still unread. I will probably get to the other Cullingford book later this year since I was so surprised by this intriguing book. It'll be interesting to see how she handles a crime novel that's less gimmicky.

    BTW - forgot to mention that "Guy Cullingford" is a pseudonym for Constance L. Taylor (nee Dowdy). I'm always skipping over the authorial data. I need Curt Evans to be my collaborator on these posts. He's so much better at the author bio angle. I'll to elaborate on what little I have on her life the next time I write about her books.

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  6. TomCat -

    I dislike so many of the very opinionated reviews at the GAD wiki. I often disagree with many of the write-ups. Rather than reading the book for what it is they criticize the book for what it isn't. It's a shallow way to read a book.

    I thought POST MORTEM was going to be dreary with Gilbert Worth spending most of his time spying and eavesdropping, but he does interact. In fact he plays poltergeist a bit which is very funny. I left out an awful lot because the story is very rich. How could anyone call it lacking in plot? It's loaded with plot. But I will concede one thing -- Cullingford/Taylor has a tendency to be verbose and the characters like to indulge in monologues. Nonetheless I recommend it highly. Unusual, gripping and sometimes even poignant.

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  7. John,

    You have convincingly argued on behalf of this novel and it's back on my wish list.

    And if you're interested, I found two of the reviews I referred to: the review and a response.

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  8. Long time since I read this one. I recall enjoying it but at the same time thinking it wasn't quite as dazzling as I'd hoped.

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