|US edition (Lippincott, (1953)|
THE CHARACTERS: Mostly told from George and his family's viewpoint eventually the book opens to up to include the viewpoints of the entire cast. We learn of everyone's involvement in the Major's death including the extramarital affair between his wife, Leonora James, and his physician, Dr. Down, who prescribed the sleeping pills for the Major. There are hints that one or the other might have also been tempted to do in Major James. George's intrusive detective work and meddling persistent questions lead to his insistence that Mrs. James hand over all the Major's medicines to him to destroy. His demands only serve to instill fear and paranoia in the widow and sets the doctor thinking George has descended into a strangely obsessive and dangerous behavior pattern. Superintendent Glubb (a not so bright policeman so perfectly named) also thinks George has "gone barmy" and warns him to stop interfering in a case that has absolutely no sign of criminality.
But we as readers know better. Something fishy is going on in Bloxton. Many people had reason to wish the Major dead. And someone most definitely sent him off to an early grave. The majority of the cast is made up of fascinating women characters with two old biddies topping the list as the most memorable. Agnes De'Ath, who goes by the nickname Auntie, is the owner of the William and Mary pub, a local hang out for the working class. In its heyday the "Willyum" was the choice of the elite citizenry of Bloxton, but times have changed. The 88 year-old pub owner, like many a bartender in both real life and fiction, is the surrogate confessor for her many customers. She knows how to ply her guests with alcohol in order to loosen their spirits and their tongues.
When she joins George in his sleuthing she finds her most easily manipulated target in Mother Brose, a filthy hag who lives in a ramshackle hovel at the edge of town. The old woman distributes herbal concoctions to those seeking out folk remedies when George's pharmaceuticals are too expensive to afford. Mother Brose has a dirty little secret, filthier than her home and her clothes and Miss Death (another perfect name!) is determined to uncover it with the help of a bottle of gin, a few kind words and a begrudging tolerance for Mother Brose's unwelcome aroma.
Other stand-outs in the cast are the two White children, Una and Jack, who are fine examples of the modern 50s child who know better than their parents. Also noteworthy are the two Mrs. Whites -- George's put upon wife Mabel, and his bedridden harpy of a mother Nelly White. The final chapter between Mabel and Nelly provides us with the ultimate twist in a story filled with truly unexpected incidents and thrilling turn of events.
|UK edition (Hammond, 1952)|
If Wishes Were Hearses (1952) defies pigeonholing. Here is a crime novel employing detective novel plotting and fair play techniques all the while serving up a story that is not entirely a "whodunit". There are indeed cleverly planted clues about the sleeping pills and even an odd reference to a half eaten pear that lay the groundwork in revealing the murder plot. In one of the more subversive moments it seems that everyone had their hand in killing the Major. But Taylor has a much more devious intent in writing this book than in providing a mere puzzle. Whether seen as a comedy of manners, a satire of small minded village life, or a trenchant study of the criminal fantasies that lie within the dark corners of the soul If Wishes Were Hearses succeeds on multiple levels. Of the Cullingford books I've read so far this has become my favorite of the lot. The book shows off her strengths -- wit, deft characterization, pithy observations and unique storytelling. She never ceases to surprise in her refusal to follow the rigid formula of detective novel plotting.
QUOTES: ... George took care that his duties in the vestry kept him until the gossipers had filtered through the church porch and out of the churchyard gate, a process which took ten minutes at least, as nobody was in a hurry. [...] There was also a state of rectitude to be enjoyed, an afterglow of satisfaction and righteousness
And the truth was, perhaps, that he had worn his filial chains for so long that when they were removed, like many another emancipated slave, he scarcely knew what to do with his liberty.
Mother Brose spat into the hedge, thus with true economy expressing herself on the subject of Council houses.
'Insanity or insanitary', muttered Mother Brose sulkily, 'That's all the same to me.' Issues of life and death have often hung on a yea or a nay. It is only in East Anglia that one could have been suspended on an 'ar'.
Mrs. Nelly White lecturing Mabel: "Nonsense, guilt doesn't always make you run. If you're guilty you are far more likely to be hardened. It's the soft and innocent who take to their heels more often than not."
The cat was out of the bag with a vengeance. And now that it was, no one could have been more genuinely horrified than she who had been instrumental in undoing the string.
There are times when even detectives are susceptible to humiliation.
Miss Death on her preference to suburban life: "London is all right for a visit now and again, to go to the theatres and do a bit of window-gazing. But as for living in it, I'd as soon take up residence in a sewer. But everyone to their taste."
|Lloyd Loom chair, circa 1930s|
"Entrepreneur Marshall Burns Lloyd, who was producing baby carriages and strollers [in 1917], found himself confronted with a severe drop in the supply of rattan as a result of the war. As an alternative, he invents a technique in which paper is twisted around a metal wire and subsequently machine woven into large sheets of woven paper thread. When putting the material to use in his production of baby carriages, he discovers that this new material is not only much stronger, but also a lot more softer and thus more comfortable than rattan. He calls his invention the 'Lloyd Loom' technique."
THE AUTHOR: For info on the author see my post on Conjurer's Coffin. I've never been successful in tracking down a photo of Constance L. Taylor. Frustrating.
EASY TO FIND? If you want the real thing you'll be hard pressed to find a first edition. I was unable to verify that it was reprinted in paperback like several of her other books reprinted by Penguin. Finding one with a DJ is next to impossible. Remarkably, the only US edition currently for sale online does come with one. It'll cost you $80 plus shipping. Like all my Cullingford books I bought my copy of If Wishes Were Hearses on eBay years ago for under $10 long before digital books were invented. Speaking of which, all of Guy Cullingford's crime novels (along with a handful of her short stories) are available to those readers who prefer their books digitized. The Murder Room, the vintage crime imprint of Orion Books, offers not only Cullingford's books but several other writer's books and all their reprints come exclusively in digital format.