This is an elegant and witty novel and it is very easy to see just why Margot Bennett was so greatly admired by the likes of Graham Greene and Julian Symons. The protagonist is Hugh, a damaged young man who fell into bad company in Paris and who, after surviving a murder attempt and several months in jail, is attempting to recede into the background. Then, in the bar of a second-rate seaside hotel, he bumps into a group of old acquaintances including an ex-lover, her husband and, maybe, the man who tried to kill him.
I offer the following reviews as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Friday’s Forgotten Books meme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
“She was the most beautiful woman he had ever known; she was lovely in composure and radiant in action, with rather less morality than the war-head of a rocket.”
The beautiful but unscrupulous Lucy is married to by-the-book Judge Bath, whose niece Jane thinks is in some kind of danger. She is also attracted to Hugh, but is jealous of the fling he had with Lucy, a woman she has now grown to hate. Hugh senses that there is a dark tension in the group and is certain that their friend Atkinson is really the man who tried to kill him in Paris three years earlier. At that time Hugh had been a junior in the British Foreign Office and stole money to protect Lucy but then fell foul of her friend who now seems to be calling himself Atkinson. Against his better judgement Hugh allows himself to be invited back to the Judge’s house, where he plays cards with Lucy, Atkinson and Cady, a very sinister young man. The Judge behaves oddly and goes upstairs, where he is later found shot. As the phones appear not to be working, Atkinson drives off to get the police but by the time they arrive, the body has disappeared!
“He was a romantic who hated ordinary life so much that he had chosen to destroy himself rather than not escape at all.”
The ever-chivalrous if increasingly withdrawn and frightened Hugh is sure he has just been setup to provide Lucy and her friends with an alibi – but how could they have done it? And why remove the body? And why was Bath’s dog beaten and left in the bushes? And who are the very strange waiters in Hugh’s lousy hotel? And why is the local police inspector so obsessed with the building work that was being done on the judge’s balcony? Is the Bath’s neighbour, eccentric poetess Mrs Leonard, who keeps sticking her nose in, involved? Then a potential witness, Cady’s girlfriend, Zoe, is reported to have gone out swimming and never returns. Then the judge’s body is fished out of the sea …
“I’ve spent a lot of time and thought on those ladders, and I’m not going to have any of you people look supercilious about it.”
I first heard about Bennett in the pages of Julian Symons’ Bloody Murder (which I previously reviewed here), which praised her Chandlereque dialogue, fine prose, complex plotting and in-depth characterisation. He singles out Widow of Bath as one of her best, with the proviso that it is probably overly elaborate, and I think he is quite right in this. The characters are fascinating, the dialogue often very funny, the similes always bring pleasure, but there is maybe too much going on (there is a big smuggling subplot that involves fights, kidnapping and faked deaths that really belongs more in a Francis Durbridge thriller). The tortured love triangle between Hugh, Lucy and Jan is very well done and the approach to plot is pleasingly oblique so that when all the pieces fall into the place, there is strong sense that the story has been properly elucidated. On top of which, the characters mostly remain on the right side plausible and realistic; that is to say recognisable if slightly unknowable, like most people you know but aren’t married or related to.
“He felt as worn out as a post-office pen.”
Bennett only wrote a couple more mysteries and then spent a decade working as a screenwriter, mainly for television, and then stopped writing and ever since her work has been quite hard to find. Widow of Bath was turned into a six part serial by the BBC (adapted by Bennett herself) – it appears not to survive in the archives but here are the main details:
The Widow of Bath – a six-part serial
Broadcaster: BBC TV from 1 June to 6 July 1959
Producer / Director: Gerard Glaister
Writer: Margot Bennett
Film Cameraman: A.A. Englander
Designer: Roy Oxley
Cast: John Justin (Hugh Everton), Barbara Murray (Lucy), Jennifer Wright (Jan), Guy Rolfe (Atkinson), Fay Compton (Mrs. Leonard), Peter Sallis (Cady), Andrew Cruickshank (Inspector Leigh), Leslie Nunnerley (Zoe)
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘woman in the title’ category (and it’s another bingo too):