Wednesday, February 28, 2024

12. The Widow of Bath by Margot Bennett

I have been looking for this book forever and finally found this nice trade paperback edition at the White Elephant sale in Oakland.  I'm not a fan of trade paperbacks on principle but this one I have to admit is quite nicely designed.  I think it was Kenneth Hite that made me aware of this book, but I can't remember for sure.  She clearly has been somewhat forgotten.

I enjoyed this book in the end, but I have to admit being quite stymied in the first half.  It was both a bit too sophisticated for me and perhaps too much of its time.  The dialogue was excessively clever to the point that I couldn't understand what characters were trying to say.  Every line was a clever metaphor or indirect allusion or obscure reference.  Perhaps this was how upper class post-WWII drifters talked at the time or perhaps Bennett was trying too hard.  It reminded me a bit of some of the British version of the  worst excesses of John D. MacDonald's hipster early 60s dialogue (though in this case, it was more baffling than annoying).  

The protagonist is Hugh Everton, an embittered hotel reviewer for a travel agency.  It is suggested that though he himself was not wealthy, that he had in the past hobnobbed with a wealthy or at least upper class set.  There was a scandal while he was working for the British embassy in Paris that ended with him in prison for cheque fraud (after being rescued from being drowned in the Seine).  He runs into two women from that scene at a mediocre resort on the English coast, as well as a stiff military man named Atkinson who looks almost identical to a Ronson, but behaves differently, who was responsible for his fraud and near-drowning incident.

One of the women is the beautiful Lucy, who was the one who needed the money that Everton made the fake cheque four.  She is now married to a judge.  She persuades Everton to come back to his place on the hill and while there, a dog howls, a shot is heard and the judge is found dead in his room, while the other four were all playing bride, alibis established.  And thus the mystery begins.

Everton is kind of a broken man, but also impulsive. Part of the narrative arc alongside the mystery itself is him finding his moral core.  The story gets quite good by the end when the murder moves beyond just personal motives into post-war smuggling of undesirable "refugees" from Europe.  And the mystery itself was multi-layered in a complex yet reasonable way that made the resolution fairly satisfying.  I couldn't entirely shake the distancing of the weird characters and their crazy dialogue, so I'm not sure I'll seek out her other books, but if I stumble upon one, I will pick it up and read it.

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