I rather glibly suggested 1967 for this month’s Past Offences classics challenge because it is the year of my birth. The disconcerting aspect of having books written the year I was born considered classics didn’t hit me until later. Eh gads but this ageing business is forcing me to confront some horrible truths.
To be honest an Inspector Wexford novel would not have been my first choice for the challenge. Indeed it was somewhere around my 9th choice. I have written before of my disdain for Wexford because he came into my life when he was a BOWG (boring old white guy) and I was an idealistic young feminist (undoubtedly also boring as zealots generally are). But I don’t own very many classics, there are no second hand bookstores with shelves full of choices ’round here and my local library isn’t exactly replete with 47 year old crime novels. A NEW LEASE OF DEATH (or SINS OF THE FATHER as it is known in the US) was published in the year I was born (at least in the UK) and I could dig up an audiobook copy without incurring any expense.
My one line review is that reading it has not changed my opinion about Wexford. It takes a few more lines for me to have a bit of a rant.
The book’s central premise is that there is a young man (Charles) who wants to marry a young woman (Tess) but Charles’ father (Henry Archery, a vicar) can’t condone the union. Why? Because Tess’ father (Harry Painter) was convicted and hanged for battering his elderly employer to death with an axe some 16 years earlier and he doesn’t want his son marrying a murderer’s daughter. The case was the first one Chief Inspector Wexford had run on his own so Archery approaches him with a plea. A hope really that he has “… just the faintest doubt, the shadow of a doubt of Painter’s guilt.” Wexford remains convinced of Painter’s guilt but is happy enough to give permission (is it needed?) for Archery to conduct a bit of amateur sleuthing.
A NEW LEASE OF DEATH feels much older than 47 years though I do acknowledge that this might be because I’m finding it hard to come to grips with the notion that the attitudes it depicts coincide with my own lifespan. I concur with my fellow blogger who has already
wasted her time read this book for the monthly challenge that for a vicar Henry Archery is a very un-Christian chap. He has this to say about Tess
“[she] is just what I would have chosen for him myself. Beautiful, graceful, well-mannered, easy to talk to. Oh she does her best to hide her looks in the uniform they all wear nowadays; long, shaggy hair, trousers, great black duffle-coat, you know the kind of thing, but they all dress like that. The point is she can’t hide them.”
But even so, proclaims
“I’m not in favour of the marriage. No, that’s putting it too coolly….I’m bitterly, bitterly against it”
“What are you afraid of Mr Archery?”
“Heredity…I shall watch [my grandchildren] from their cradle. Waiting to see them drawn towards objects with sharp edges.”
Eh gads again.
The vicar is not the only one who assumes that criminals beget criminals. Wexford hadn’t given Painter’s daughter a single thought since the case was wrapped up but if he had “…he supposed he would have counted her lucky to have become an anonymous manual worker, with perhaps already a couple of petty convictions” rather than the Oxford scholar she has actually become. Even Tess concurs with the vicar, saying “It would matter if he had done it only he didn’t. I told you why he was hanged. I didn’t mean he’d done it”. Young Charles is the only one I have any time for when he pronounces “People are what they are not what their parents did” but he’s a lone voice in the wilderness here.
This isn’t the only jarring note of the novel. There’s the soppiest of romantic angles. Not the one between Charles and Tess, which is perfectly fine, but the one between the vicar and a woman he meets while sleuthing. I can’t decide whether it is pathetic or sad or completely unbelievable. All three?
Then there’s the fact there is no mystery to speak of. Maybe 1967 readers weren’t as well versed in the twists that might accompany a whodunnit but I thought the resolution screamingly bloody obvious early on. It was like being at a children’s panto where no one was shouting “he’s behind you” but everyone should have been. And even if I hadn’t cottoned on to the twist I would have been bored by the storyline. The sleuthing, such as it is, is very insignificant stuff.
The characters are dull too. Wexford pontificates, his offsider Mike Burden looks down his nose and Archery mopes forlornly and investigates ineffectively. But Tess’ mum takes the cake. She’s not at all proud of the fact her daughter’s made it to Oxford but wants her future husband to know the girl can cook well. Eh gads yet again! This is the year the Beatles released Sergeant Pepper, Barclay’s Bank installed the world’s first ATM, homosexuality was decriminalised in England and abortion was made legal. This is the modern bloody world people and Tess’ bloody mother is only interested in whether her daughter can cook! Eh gads (for the last time, I promise)!
This entire storyline with its pompous people and impossibly stuffy dialogue would have been at home in the middle of an Anthony Trollope novel which is all well and good for a family saga of 1867 but a bit worrying in something from a hundred years later. Is the gulf between now and 1967 that great? Or is it more to do with differences between Australia and the UK? Here it’s a bit difficult to be opposed to the children of criminals given how white settlement of the country began, so perhaps this is just one of those geographical oddities that make the world so interesting (and me so grateful to have been born when and where I was)?
I’d hate anyone to think my lack of enjoyment of the book is an indication of a lack of enjoyment of the challenge at Past Offences where every month a new year is selected and people read books or watch movies from that year. It’s jolly good fun and for those of us more used to modern times it offers a great way to check out some of the genre’s classics. Why not join in?