Tuesday, May 29, 2012

IN BRIEF: The Lord Have Mercy - Shelley Smith

Shelley Smith enters the territory usually visited by writers like Elisabeth Sanxay Holding and Charlotte Armstrong in this exploration of how gossip destroys the fabric of a small town's population. The criminal element is kept to a minimum in The Lord Have Mercy (1956) while the author spends much of her time examining the private lives and idiosyncratic hobbies of her large cast of characters.

The focus is on Editha Mansbridge, the shrewish wife of the town doctor, who is both an object of desire and a target of derision. The US paperback reprint takes advantage of this persona in an edition retitled The Shrew is Dead. When Editha dies unexpectedly of an apparent drug overdose the rumor mill begins churning up story after story. Suicide, accident and murder plots are intermingled with whispered discussions of marital infidelity and same-sex wantonness.

Smith enjoys creating a multiple vignettes with ultra minor characters. Some of the more amusing ones involve a small army of old biddies seated at their sitting room windows with binoculars and notebooks and the tea time gossip sessions that follow their Gladys Kravitz acts. Other highlights include a feuding lesbian couple, Naomi and Crispin, who spend much of their time arguing over Crispin's attempts at luring Editha into an adulterous affair; and the surprise visit of Harry, Editha's rogue brother, always in need of money and his eventual hook-up with a lonely widow who he cajoles into helping him finance a brothel.

Yet the episodic nature of the book tends to be self-defeating. It's more akin to an episode of "Peyton Place" transplanted to the U.K. than a tightly constructed crime novel. The teeming soap opera and melodrama flood the pages drowning any real suspense. All the detailed stories of the supporting players continually crowd out the main story which is that of Editha's husband, Robert, accused of his wife's murder and Catherine, a female stalker who is madly in love with Robert. Eventually the subplots are tied up or fade into the background allowing Robert, Catherine and a police inspector to take center stage.

However, when the revelation of who is responsible for Editha's demise comes it does so anti-climatically. A final ambiguous sentence left me in a daze rather than having the story resolved satisfactorily.

2 comments:

  1. I've only read a couple of Smith's comparatively few novels and liked them both - this one I've not come across. She did tend to specialise in a kind of emotional diminunuendo in the search for a more ironic finale and avoid melodramatic flourishes, which sounds pretty fatal in this case. I'm reminded of what the film critic Andrew Sarris once said about writer director Bryan Forbes (who adapted SEANCE ON A WET AFTERNOON and DEADFALL), "He perpetually pursues the anti-cliché only to arrive at anticlimax"

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    1. That's a incisive comment about Forbes' adaptation of a brilliant book. I liked what he did but he utterly missed the point of McShane's story and basically re-invented the characters for his own version.

      This is one of Shelley Smith's later books. It seems to be an attempt to be more "contemporary", striving to match what was selling among her more successful fellow crime writers in this era. Her supporting characters were a lot more interesting than her primary players whose story was lost in the teeming cast and their problems and eccentricities. I think she liked the other characters more than her leads.

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