Friday, March 9, 2018

FFB: If Wishes Were Hearses - Guy Cullingford

US edition (Lippincott, (1953)
THE STORY: Sometimes you can get much more than what you wish for as George Martin, a pharmacist in East Anglia, discovers when nearly every person he dislikes suffers harmful accidents or die simply because he speaks ill of them. His family think he's becoming foolishly superstitious and not allowing for random coincidence. Then he thinks of taking his "super power" to the next level by actually doing someone in. When Major Vincent James visits George's chemist shop for his refill of sleeping pills George cannot stand the pompous man's attitude and belittling comments any longer. George adds a single arsenic tablet to the sleeping pills and just before he hands it over to Major his nervousness gets the better of him and he drops the pills all over the floor. He summons his wife to help him clear it all up then sends the Major on his way. That night the major dies apparently of a heart attack, but George believes that his murder scheme happened all too quickly. Overcome with guilt he plains to confess to the police until he discovers that poison apparently had nothing to do with the Major's death. Several cover-ups and murder schemes are revealed over the course of the novel and George even though cleared by the police who have no proof of foul play is convinced the Major was murdered. He turns detective in a strange role reversal in order to prove himself guilty or otherwise find out who killed the odious man.

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)
INNOVATIONS: Constance Taylor, the real person behind the "Guy Cullingford" pseudonym, was an early practitioner of the kind of genre blending novel that we all know as the modern crime novel highlighted by suspenseful plotting, complex characters, and relevant social criticism as in this novel's case -- an attack on the prejudices in dealing with mentally ill people. Following in the footsteps of the two great Anthony's of the Golden Age -- Berkeley and Gilbert -- Taylor fashioned her own brand of savagely observant stories of murder among common folk.

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
THINGS I LEARNED: In talking about the future of her pub Miss Death denigrates the popular trend in furniture "Put in a lot of little tables with glass tops, I daresay and those chairs, what do they call them? Welshman's looms. Look like a lot of painted baskets to me." She is referring to a specific chair design invented by the Lloyd Loom furniture company. Lloyd may be a Welsh name but everywhere I looked it was referred to as a Lloyd loom chair, never a Welshman's loom. Oddly enough the chair was invented in 1917 in America so it has no right being called Welsh despite the inventor's surname. Here's exactly how the loom chair came to be invented according to the Vincent Sheppard furniture company website:

"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.


  1. Well, at least there are e-books. I've never heard of this author - will I like his work, John? Your review of this particular title is intriguing. But I'm not overly keen on multiple viewpoints. It's way too easy to waste money on e-books - or so I've discovered lately. SO EASY to press that click button. Ha.

    1. And I checked to make sure that the US based amazon site offered these because so many of the eBooks from The Murder Room can only be purchased from the UK site. Luckily, they are. For me the major problem with digital books are the stringent copyright laws utilizing DRM software that prevent them from being sold outside of certain countries. Not at all the case with physical books.

      Anyway...I think this is exactly the kind of book that would appeal to you. It's not told in multiple first person narration. It's an omniscient 3rd person viewpoint allowing us to know every character's thoughts and feelings. You like Philip MacDonald, Michael Innes and Edmund Crispin, don't you? Cullingford (a pen name for a woman writer, BTW) is right in line with those guys. Similar sophisticated prose, arch humor, and compelling characters. Plus there's the emphasis on strong female characters that reminded me of Leslie Ford's mystery novels. Try this one out. It really is the best of the lot so far. I couldn't predict a single thing in the final third of the novel. Stunning and shocking events that truly impressed me.

      I have more Cullingford novels lined up later in the year.

  2. John – This is one I’d like to read and I just found a library link that will ship a copy to my branch. As I read your review, I was picturing the story as an old Ealing film with Alec Guinness as George Martin.

    1. Brilliant casting idea! Let me run with that. As Major James: Jack Hawkins, Supt. Glubb: Bernard Cribbins, Leonora: Coral Browne,
      Mabel: Brenda De Banzie, Miss Death: Dame May Whitty, Nelly White: Edith Evans, and Jeanette Nolan (the only American in my cast) as Mother Brose. I'd wait in line for hours to see that movie!

  3. I've read one book by Cullingford, The Whipping Boys, which I remember as being fine. NO idea Guy was a woman, and now have just been looking up him/her - she wrote lots of interesting-looking books over a long period of time, I am definitely going to try some more. I love this line in your review: 'She never ceases to surprise in her refusal to follow the rigid formula of detective novel plotting.' That sounds like a super-positive way of saying 'she breaks all the rules, and some of you might not like that...'

    1. She does break rules, but I meant that she is also a writer who shies away from the drawing room/manor house style of mystery novel and that she doesn't play favorites with her characters. So unpredictable, too. I can never tell how any of her books are going to turn out. At least not yet.

      I'm going to skip ahead to one of her 1960s books for the next post on Cullingford. Then I'll go back to her fourth novel from 1956 which is set in the Victorian era. Taylor/Cullingford's crime novels are as varied in plots and setting as Joan Fleming's and I really enjoy her arch humor and her prose style. Did I say that already in an earlier post? Probably.