The Hardstaffe household is not a happy place. The father is an unpleasant authoritarian, a schoolmaster with inappropriate designs on a younger member of his staff. His wife is a troubled hypochondriac. His son left home after clashing with his father and his daughter has been tasked with running the estate, although she seems more concerned with breeding her incontinent dogs.
Into the family situation comes Arnold Smith, a writer leaving the blitz-struck London, determined to find source material for his detective novel, a change in his usual writing intended to renew his fortunes, and finding plenty of inspiration with the Hardstaffe clan. After a brief return to London, he comes back to Nether Naughton to find that murder has indeed occurred. When death strikes again, it seems that nobody is safe in the household.
Harriet Rutland only wrote three detective novels – the excellent Knock, Murderer, Knock! and the somewhat disappointing Bleeding Hooks. I figured it was finally time to sample the third book, especially as it falls under my current project “Do Mention The War” looking at books both set and written in wartime.
One of the wartime themes here is evacuation, with Smith leaving the city for safer climes. Indeed, when he returns briefly to London, he is caught in a bombing and returns to the North somewhat disoriented from the attack. But the theme is explored more thoroughly with the character of Frieda, a German Jewish woman who has found refuge in the household as a maid. The Hardstaffes are hardly sympathetic towards her struggles to adapt – indeed the daughter, Leda, simply refers to her as “Jew”. Of course, this mistreatment puts her fair and square on the suspects list. The book’s treatment of her has been accused of being anti-Semitic, but I think the author is trying to make a point about some people’s attitude – Smith is much more sympathetic to Frieda’s plight, but on the other hand, Frieda is written as a fairly unpleasant character herself.
As for the book, this is a very strong title. The mystery plays out nicely – apart from one piece of clumsy plotting where one character indulges in a piece of bizarre behaviour – with suspicion bouncing around until one of the most effective finales that I’ve seen, along with an impressive motive that ties the whole tale together. Rutland tried something clever in Bleeding Hooks that really didn’t work, but this is much more successful.
Rutland’s writing career only produced three mystery novels, two of which are of a very high standard. Thanks to Dean Street Press, all three of them – Bleeding Hooks is perfectly fine, but it’s not as good as the others – are available for the mystery fan, and this one, in particular, is Highly Recommended.