“If you fly over the town of Shufflecester at an altitude of ten thousand feet you see the town below you like a dirty grey splash on the variegated patterns of brown, purple and green which mark the level landscape of the great Shuffleshire plateau.”
And within this dirty grey splash live Bertha Kewdingham and her husband, Mr Robert Arthur Kewdingham: an advertisement for the benefits of a nice, healthy divorce.
Robert Arthur – so-called to differentiate him from his father, Robert Henry – is a moderately competent engineer and exceptionally skilled hypochondriac, who has been made redundant but consoles himself (and prevents himself from seriously seeking further employment) with his playing: at being a collector of ill-assorted rubbish, a leader in the Rule Britannia League and a reincarnation of Athu-na-Shulah, the High Priest of Atlantis, who has a number of thoughts on life, the Pyramids and everything.
Bertha – disliked immediately by the family Kewdingham for being the daughter of a Wesleyan schoolmaster and half-French to boot – is an intelligent, sharp-tempered and impatient woman who has long ago realized her mistake in marrying her husband and is trying to get through the days with as little interaction as possible.
With them in the house live the aforementioned Robert Henry Kewdingham – who is hostile to Bertha and active in seeking out pointy little quotations in order to tell her so – and the Kewdinghams’ young son Michael. Michael, however, is usually away at school and even at other times is generally off-screen or absent, or in the act of scurrying from his father.
And then, suspicious behaviour becomes construed between Bertha and both Dr Wilson Bagge – a family friend and enthusiastic dispenser of medicines – and her cousin by marriage, John Harrigal. Meanwhile, there are somewhat overly friendly meetings between Robert Arthur and his sympathetic and bored neighbour, Mrs Chaddlewick.
In short, the atmosphere is poisoned and it is only a matter of time before the metaphorical becomes the literal. And this is where the story takes some rather unusual turns. Things get very complicated, suspicion steps up all round, sharks are thrown into the mix (“the bones are ground into a chemical manure of the finest quality”, lucky things) and before you know it, the pellet with the poison’s in the vessel with the pestle and the flagon with the dragon and the chalice from the palace: and finding a brew that is true would be an uphill struggle. And determining the final verdict may not be all that simple.
I enjoyed this book (though spending far too much time trying to determine how to pronounce Shufflecester). It has a very distinctive style, with some nice touches of satire:
“… they had the misfortune of speaking with a definite foreign accent.”
“Robert Arthur was uneasy. He had no wish to talk about his wife, unless he could air his grievances at the same time. It vexed him when people showed a tendency to sympathise with Bertha, instead of realising the tragedy of his own position.”
The relationship between Bertha and Robert Arthur is genuinely tense and even tragic – we get to see things from both points of view and it is clear that they would both have been vastly happier with different people.
Family, as can be gathered from the title, is a central theme – the Kewdinghams’ complacent certainty that being a Kewdingham is all that counts; Bertha’s ‘inferior’ family causing her to be an outsider and her own lack of family close by for support; Robert Arthur’s neglect of his wife and son for his all-absorbing interests.
But the best part is the genuinely interesting (and very amusing) direction in which the central murder plays out, leading to a non-foregone conclusion. Recommended.