Friday, July 17, 2015

FFB: Floral Tribute - C. E. Vulliamy

"Aged plagues! -- and yet you can't go to the length of sheer brutality in repelling them; and what is worse, one is driven to acts of desperate, obstinate, wearisome kindness (if that is the word) in order to cheer their solitude or relieve their petty wants or listen to their complaints or perhaps to persuade oneself that one is not such a bad fellow after all."
--Lobscot in one of his many
letters to Dulcie Archer

Well, I've left my detailed index card with my fantastic notes and penetrating insights at home. Of course. So being forced to rely on memory alone (not that good these days) this will be a briefer-than-planned overview of a very fine novel by sometime detective and crime fiction writer C.E. Vulliamy.

I previously wrote about one of his books written as "Anthony Rolls", a pseudonym he used back in the 1930s to distinguish himself from his other primarily non-fiction writing. That book, Family Matters, is one of the most entertaining and brilliantly plotted works of the subgenre known as the inverted detective novel. After the 1930s Vulliamy shied away from writing crime fiction, he served time in the military during World War 2 and focused his writing on history, biography and literary criticism. Sometime in the 1950s he began writing detective novels again which were of a very different caliber than those written as "Anthony Rolls." They tend toward a wryly satiric tone, most set in academia, and consist of a too arch sense of humor that can be off-putting to a modern reader. But Floral Tribute (1963), his final novel with crime fiction themes, is decidedly different than all those that preceded, both as Rolls and as himself.

Set in a nursing home and told primarily through letters written by a resident of the facility who is given the name Lobscot by our anonymous narrator Floral Tribute is one of those mystery novels that defies pigeonholing. Ultimately it is indeed a detective novel but ironically is one that has no real resolution. Vulliamy was known for daring experiments with the genre and this perhaps is his tour de force. He delves again into his fascination with the literary device of the unreliable narrator and shifting multiple viewpoints. There are many mysteries to be solved: the suspicious behavior of a volunteer mission worker, an unexpected death that may be murder, and the questionable sanity of one of the characters. We get no real definite answers in the end, but are left with a nonetheless satisfying novel for all the other questions and topics it raises.

C. E. Vulliamy in 1949
(photo by Elliot & Fry,
from the National Portrait Gallery)

At the core of the novel is the treatment of the elderly and quite refreshingly we get no dear old ladies bustling about with handbags overflowing with knitting. Nor do we encounter crotchety old men mumbling to themselves or gruffly brushing off everyone in an effort to be left alone. The residents of Weatherblow are a complicated mass of personalities all of whom refuse to live up to stereotypical expectations of what an old person should be like. Interestingly, the story is also about the pretenses of friendship with a bold attack on how attaining and preserving one's social status can be more of a prison than being holed up in a nursing home where one's every move is being watched over by a staff of well intentioned nurses, doctors and caretakers.

Vulliamy seems to have modeled the entire novel on a Restoration comedy. Lobscot is called a "man out of time", an anachronism who belongs more to the 18th than the 20th century. After making that statement the narrator then launches into his introduction of the rest of the residents and staff at Weatherblow. The character names seem like the Dramatis Personae in a play by Congreve, Wycherley or even Sheridan who I know wrote during the late 18th century but who seems like Restoration to me. Among the residents we have Lady Pounce, Miss Queeg, Mrs. Crawky, and Professor Beesdrop while the staff is made up of Dr. Theophilus Phudd, Nurse Widsley, Nancy Trimridge and Rev. Henry Inchpin. As in Restoration theater the names are perfect evocations of the characters types. The novel will ultimately focus on the acrimonious relationship between the haughty Lady Pounce, a supreme snob who views herself the Queen of Weatherblow, and the loathsome Mrs. Crawky, a vulgar woman with aristocratic pretensions who is hated by everyone in Weatherblow.

Oddly enough despite Vulliamy's artificially sophisticated style meant to evoke the 18th century and the slightly contrived plot situations the wealth of astonishing characters all of whom display contradictions in expected behavior make this one of the most realistic crime novels I've read from this era. Even with its sometimes coy humor and ultra sophistication it seems to me to be more gritty and reflective of truly complex human beings than most of what passes for realism in contemporary crime fiction.

For more scintillating reading on C. E. Vulliamy see these posts:

Overview of Anthony Rolls & biographical info on Vulliamy at The Passing Tramp
Scarweather by Anthony Rolls reviewed by Curt Evans

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Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space S5 - "Medical mystery or features a doctor and/or nurse"  This book fits all three criteria.


  1. Would I like this, John? I do have a fondness for Restoration comedy if you mean Sheridan and the like. :) I've never heard of this author (when will you tire of hearing this as well?) but I'm always open to new reading adventures.

    1. Yes, I think you would, knowing how much you enjoy the Appleby books. It's very much like Michael Innes in his less fantastical mode. Witty, slightly arch, whip-smart intelligent, and literate. I'm not sure how easy it will be to find even in a New Jersey library. But good luck in the hunt. If all else fails you can read my copy. It's just a reading copy with no DJ and I have no problem loaning it to my regular readers.

  2. Your insights are plenty penetrating, index card or not.

    1. Hey you! Been a long time. Hope you're raking in the dough with your writing gigs and that book on Lost Cinema is coming along nicely. Thanks for the compliment. Amazing to me that I manged to cover nearly everything on the card (I'm home now an djsut looked it over). Only missed out on the recurrent theme of apprehension and the constant talk of an oppressive atmosphere at the nursing home that gives the book a very creepy and sinister flavor during the middle third. Lobscot calls it "the Shadow". One of the many compelling notions in the book. It's a great read.

  3. A detective novel that has no resolution?
    Then not for me. I might as well read an Agatha Christie where the final chapters are missing !

  4. What a super review! Definitely no need for index cards. The novel sounds splendid -- I must keep an eye out for it.

  5. I read this one very recently, John, and found it interesting and unusual. Perhaps the first crime novel to focus on dementia?