This week, allonymbooks author EJ Knight reviews Elizabeth Edmondson’s period crime novel, A Man of Some Repute.
Period tone is always a controversial area for writers, actors, directors, filmmakers and musicians. We pursue authenticity relentlessly, and yet sometimes only hindsight makes it possible for certain stories to be written. An opera buddy of mine refuses to see any productions of operas which are set in ‘modern’ productions, hating the reinterpretations of what he sees as classic stories and music against the framework of anachronistic contemporary values. In a similar vein, a piece about British actor Benedict Cumberbatch in The Guardian quoted director Marilyn Imrie on Cumberbatch’s uncannily accurate and rare grasp of the post-war vernacular in both movement and dialogue style: “he has that rare thing in a younger actor – he can summon up that quality of post-war Englishness that a lot of actors under 40 really can’t capture.”
One considers many of the same issues when reading Elizabeth Edmondson’s crime novel set in 1953. Hugo Hawksworth relocates to deeply rural Selchester Castle, still adjusting to an injury he received when undercover during the war. With his 13 year old sister, Georgia, he is seeking stability of a sort, and yet he is not a man to settle easily. Nor, it seems, are the bones of Lord Selchester which are found shortly after his arrival in the Castle, giving prospect to the solving of his disappearance – and, it seems, murder – six years ago. In the company of the last remaining resident of the Castle, Selchester’s niece Freya, Hugo explores the background to Selchester’s death, driven partly by Freya’s insistence that she is innocent, and partly by some murky business that he must undertake on behalf of Sir Bernard at The Hall, a local outpost of the intelligence community. Hugo, keen to prove his worth despite his injury, uses his natural investigative instinct, aided for the most part by the zealous and enthusiastic Georgia, and eventually by Freya who must face the fact that the Selchester she thought she knew had clearly made an enemy.
Making a story period is, however, about much more than just inserting period details. Edmondson is thorough with reference to the stringencies of post-war life, from ration books to clothes, rural poverty, switchboard telephony and modes of transport. There is also detailed historical framing, particularly with reference to social themes regarding sex, adultery, homosexuality, secrecy, and the financial independence of women, as well as the political landscape of post-war Britain, America and the Soviet Union. And it is here that the challenge for the historical novelist starts and ends. To what extent can motives, motivations and morals of a period be authentically employed by a contemporary writer?
It is easy enough for us to research and review what we know about lives lived before, and create plots from what we understand to be the complexities of life, but the truth is often that the sorts of themes we write about now would not have been written about then. The paradox of Edmondson’s novel is, to me, that she has written in a very authentic period voice, but that the plot itself is redolent of a more contemporary interpretation of social motivations and thus motives for murder. Indeed, the main opening of the novel is so period that I had to check that it wasn’t actually written in the 1950s, for it has the flavour of the style, a sort of Tommy and Tuppence scent to it. (I would note that Edmondson’s editor has let one or two verbal oddities escape: there is reference to ‘ultra casual’ which is surely a 21st century modifier, and a ‘soft drink’ which, if it is not an alcohol-awareness label, surely sounds anachronistic enough to stick out.) But if I have a criticism of this novel which otherwise flies along in dialogue terms, albeit with periodic down time for extensive description which does slow the pace, it is that it feels slightly forced from the plot point of view. And there is a faint hint of stereotype about the characters with motive for murder, all of whom stack up very plausibly in terms of motive, but whose secrets are so because they belong to the period.