The Black Gloves (1939) by Constance and Gwenyth Little
From one writing duo to another, today’s review considers my latest foray into the work of the Little sisters. They wrote 21 mysteries between 1938 and 1953. I only came across these two once I started blogging, though I have made up for lost time and have reviewed them 7 times on the blog not including today. It would be nice to get the remaining 13 under my belt, but a number of their works are quite elusive on the second hand market, so I’ll have to see. Though the Rue Morgue reprints of them have certainly helped me edge closer to this goal and have also given me many a nugget of information about this mysterious pair; from their globetrotting upbringing, (making their way to America, from Australia, via London and Mexico), to their writing partnership, which had its issues when they moved further away from one another. During the writing process of one book, for instance, one sister did have cause to point out that: ‘You’ve had the murderer sitting in the living room while the crime was being committed in the upstairs hall.’ Hopefully there weren’t too many sibling squabbles…
Is a novel by the Littles the right book for you?: A Checklist
Whilst the Littles never went in for serial characters, a number of tropes are carried throughout their tales. I’ve talked about a few of these in past reviews, but I liked how some of them were described in the introduction to this book. In a way the following list does make up a checklist of sorts, as if a few of them are not your cup of tea, then the Littles are unlikely to be as well:
- ‘Set in large old country estates, big-city boarding houses or private hotels or hospitals, the books were usually told from the point of view of a young woman with only her own caustic wit standing between her and matrimony.’ [I think it is this battle of caustic wit which prevents the sugary-coated-ness of some other mystery novels which include the prerequisite romance subplot. Sort of imagine a very gritty and not quite so highbrow Elizabeth Bennet and Darcy.]
- ‘There are always strange noises emanating from the attic or cellar and you can never count on a dead body or an important clue staying put.’
- ‘Pick out the one eligible bachelor in the book able to trade barbs with the heroine and you can immediately knock one person off your list of suspects.’ [Such a feature may put readers in mind of Patricia Wentworth’s novels, but as the next bullet point will show, one less person to worry about might not be such a bad thing…]
- ‘That list is probably going to be pretty long. The Littles loved to fill the bedrooms of those houses with an enormous cast of eccentric characters who seemed to have temporarily escaped from a Kaufman-Hart play.’
N. B. It nearly goes without saying, that if these books were widely accessible, then a very lethal drinking game could be devised.
However, returning to today’s read, I would say there is a little bit of deviation in The Black Glove’s choice of heroine, as Lissa Herridge nee Vickers, far from being a working woman or a poor relation, is a divorcee who firmly relies on her father’s money. She is quick to return to the fold and insist on her parents paying for her divorce when she finds married life doesn’t allow her to have her own way all the time. She describes her ex-husband as a ‘mean brute,’ but I don’t think any reader is concerned domestic abuse has taken place.
After 5 years travelling about the world, Hammond Vickers convinces his wife and daughter to move back into the old family home in East Orange, New Jersey, a location the Littles knew well. Yet things are not quite how they left them: an old neighbour has sold his land to allow several cottages to be built next door and these new residents have been happily using the Vickers’ tennis court. However, indignant feelings subside when Lissa’s eye is caught by one of her new neighbours – though her romantic bids do suffer one rather large setback: Tony Herridge is also one of her new neighbours and is more than happy to put a spoke in her plans. Although, her irritation in this area is put on hold by the strange occurrences taking place within her home: lights being left switched on and of course sounds of coal being shovelled in the cellar. No reader needs to be a Watson when a few days later an unpleasant smell begins to emanate from this place…
We all know what Lissa will discover when she goes exploring in the cellar, though I think everyone will be surprised by the choice of corpse… as well as what happens next to Lissa. The Littles really do like to put their heroines through the ringer! A peculiar clue is also in the offing – a blue dandelion. Much investigation of course ensues from Lissa, her father, Tony and various policemen, not all of whom are working in cooperation with one another. More bodies undoubtedly follow, as do inexplicable domestic circumstances. I think it takes quite canny writer to make a developing game of solitaire, played by an unknown name, into a nerve shredding experience for their characters, which provides the reader with a great deal of suspense.
So this is another solid read by the Littles. Personally I think they found an effective and entertaining formula, which given my love of comic crime, works well for me. Despite Lissa being described as spoilt, the Littles are very careful not to depict this in such a way that the reader can’t stand her. There’s something a little bit Downton-ish in the family dialogue, but again the understated way this comes across and the lack of out of place exaggeration means it is a pleasure to read. Here are a few examples:
Lissa on her mother who didn’t agree with letting the neighbours use their tennis court: ‘I told them that a new era was dawning, when all men were brothers […] Mother said to let her know when it had actually dawned and she’d swallow a little poison and leave them to it.’
Lissa dismantling a theory her sleuthing father has propounded: ‘But the thing that really throws your whole idea on the dust heap is that no living maid will jump up to answer you in a hurry when you call. I believe the union says wait five minutes by the clock before answering.’
The old adage of too many cooks spoil the broth, thankfully does not apply to this novel when it comes to the different sleuths we have to contend with, as in the main the narrative focuses firstly on Lissa and then her with her father and the encounters she has with DS Timothy Frobisher. Lissa and her father’s reluctance to always help the police adds further fuel to the comedy of the story: ‘They had the run of the house […] if they overlooked important fingerprints they don’t deserve to get them.’
One query which the social historians amongst us may be able to help with, was how divorce was perceived in the late 1930s. Divorced characters as main ones, is not something I have come across very much in my vintage crime reading. The only one springing to mind at the moment is in Agatha Christie’s Towards Zero. I wondered whether the Littles having a divorced couple as the central romantic lead was a bit edgy for the times. Their interactions have a little bit of a gritty Persuasion twang to them and readers may well be relieved to know that neither Lissa nor Tony go in for sentimental lovey dovey dialogue. A stolen kiss for example is followed by the line: ‘I heard him laughing quietly, and I longed to slap his face, but it was so dark that I didn’t know where to find it.’ JJ and Dan in their latest podcast episode: The Men Who Explain Miracles – Episode 9.1: Laying down the Laws – The Van Dine Twenty, discuss the inclusion of romance in mystery novels and whether it aids or hinders the plot. For me I think it is an integral feature of a Little novel. The romance doesn’t overrun the plot or prevent the sleuthing taking place, but it does influence its style and tone. It is also of course a perfect vehicle for the social comedy they wrote so well.
The motive for this mystery is rather elusive and I’m not sure this is a mystery you can solve fully by yourself, but there are a surprising number of deductions that you can make about the characters, physical objects and the plot events, though the active pace of the tale, doesn’t encourage pausing for long. Distraction is certainly a ploy the Littles use well to keep the reader from discovering the truth.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Because Simon Says
Calendar of Crime: May (3) Primary action takes place during this month