Saturday, January 29, 2011

This entire post is a spoiler, so skip it

...if you're intending to read Nicola Upson's second mystery featuring Josephine Tey, Angel With Two Faces. The first book in this series, An Expert In Murder, was good enough to get me to buy and read the second. Which was bad enough that I'm not going to read the third.

In Angel..., Tey and her close friend Archie Penrose (of Scotland Yard) travel to Cornwall, to his home village, to get away from London. The setting (which is real) is well-enough evoked, but the plot seems primarily designed to provide (fictional) evidence for Sherlock Holmes' tirade about the countryside (from "
The Adventure of the Copper Beeches"):

"It is my belief, Watson, founded upon my experience, that the lowest and vilest alleys in London do not present a more dreadful record of sin than does the smiling and beautiful countryside.… The pressure of public opinion can do in the town what the law cannot accomplish. There is no lane so vile that the scream of a tortured child, or the thud of a drunkard's blow, does not beget sympathy and indignation among the neighbours, and then the whole machinery of justice is ever so close that a word of complaint can set it going, and there is but a step between the crime and the dock. But look at these lonely houses, each in its own fields, filled for the most part with poor ignorant folk who know little of the law. Think of the deeds of hellish cruelty, the hidden wickedness which may go on, year in, year out, in such places, and none the wiser."

I don't know if I can convey a complete sense of how unpleasant the people in this Cornish village turn out to be, but let me try.

The story is set in Archie's home town/village/manor in the 1930s. The character whose actions generate, really, the entire book (Harry) has a long-standing (and consensual) incestuous relationship with his twin sister Morwenna. When his parents discovered that relationship (some years before the book opens), he burned down their house, killing them, and himself escaping only by the efforts of his neighbors, who also rescue his younger sister (Loveday). (He apparently didn't care whether she lived or died.) (And Loveday is widely considered to be a bit simple-minded.)

Harry subsequently, in a drunken rage, kills a stranger to the village, fakes his own death (using the stranger's corpse). He finally kills the man (Nathaniel) who had been his best friend for most of his life.

Nathaniel, the curate, (a) has discovered that he is in love with Harry, an affection he tries hard to disguise and (b) has been told, by Harry's younger sister Loveday, what Harry did the night his parents died. (He confronts Harry, which ultimately triggers his death.)

Archie's mother (Lizzie), as it happens, was the victim of rape by her younger (Jasper) brother many years before. (Archie, you will recall, is the Scotland Yard guy.) Jasper, now the vicar, is stealing from the church and also corecing at least one member of his parish (Beth Jacks) into a sexual relationship. Beth's husband, the gamekeeper on the estate, beats her regularly for no particular reason. This is widely known, but no one does anything about it.

Lizzie married and had a long and happy marriage, until her husband (whose name I cannot remember or find) began to suffer from what we now call Alzheimer's disease. Ultimately, she poisoned him (to relieve his suffering) and then, some weeks later (long enough that the two events would not be directly linked) apparently also poisoned herself. Not that either of these poisonings was suspected.

The cook at the manor house, Dorie Snipe, was also badly abused by her husband. He, however, was discovered by his brother, Jago (now the undertaker), who told him to leave (which he did).

Jago and another man in the village (Joseph Caplin) both lost their wives in childbirth at about the same time. The village wise woman (Morveth) convinced Caplin to given up his son to the orphanage-cum-old-people's-home-cum-poorhouse, convincing him that he would not be able to raise the boy on his own. Morveth then removes the boy (Christopher) from the orphanage and gives him to Jago, whose baby daughter died along with his wife, telling him that he could provide Christopher with a good home and life.

Christopher, now an apprentice undertaker and believing himself to be Jago's son, falls for Loveday, and gets her pregnant (which she doesn't realize). Morveth (the wise old woman) and Morwenna (her older sister, Harry's twin) conspire to induce a miscarriage (both think the child was Harry's).

In the end, Harry comes secretly back home, where Morwenna feeds him a sleeping potion and then sets a fire in his bedroom (after helpfully locking him in). She then hangs herself in the wood, at least making sure that Loveday does not discover either Harry's body or hers.

Meanwhile, no one much gets upset by any of this. Morveth wants to cover it all up. As it all slowly comes out, Archie loses it when he finds out about what his uncle did to his mother, and Josephine loses it when she is struck by the full realization of Morveth's influence over everyone. But there's a pronounced lack of shock or amazement or revulsion or shame or concern for the lives of those left behind, especially given that the story is set in the 1930s.

Virtually every character with a significant role in the book (the exceptions are Archie and Josephine, Archie's cousins Lettice and Robbie, and their father, Archie's uncle, William) has a dark secret, all of which are exposed as we go along. By the end, the accretion of all this is almost painful. And, by the end, all the killing has been done by people who are now dead, so all those other secrets look likely to remain secret.

I'm not sure how one is supposed to feel about that ending, but it's sure not comfortable...

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