I’m not sure if Dorothy Bowers quite counts as a Queen of Crime (our topic for this month), though I would like to think so. Her novels were highly thought of at the time, but she didn’t remain popular in the way that Agatha Christie, Ngaio Marsh and Margery Allingham did. A reviewer in the TLS said, ‘She ranks with the best’ and in November 1941, her novel Fear and Miss Betony was described in that journal as the best mystery novel so far that year. She wrote five novels between 1938 and 1947, the first four featuring Inspector Dan Pardoe and Sergeant Salt, the last one Inspector Raikes. She died in 1948 at the age of 46 not long after she had been chosen for membership of the Detection Club.
A Deed without a Name opens with three young men having tea after an Old Boys’ Lunch. One of them, Archy Mitfold, is describing to the others, Tony Wynkerell and Philip Beltane, three recent incidents which suggest someone is trying to kill him. He was ill after eating some chocolates which arrived anonymously on his birthday;someone tried to run him over and someone tried to push him under a tube train. Ostensibly he is asking their advice about going to the police but there is a rather provocative air about him as if he knows more than he is telling. He says that he won’t go to the police yet – he will try to handle it himself. As they leave, they see a billboard with a headline about the missing millionaire, Sampson Vick, the first indication of the other strand of the story.
Archy is living in London with his aunt, Miss Leaf. While she is away for the weekend, he is staying with her godmother, Mrs Traull. But that night he makes his way through the blackout to his aunt’s house and settles down there to write. The next day, his body is found hanging in the empty house. It is quickly established that he has been murdered and the rest of the novel concerns the police investigation and the gradual revealing of the connection between this case and Sampson Vick’s disappearance.
This is an atmospheric novel with a very particular sense of time and place, set in London during the phony war. Much of the action takes place among the streets of Chelsea and there are effective descriptions of the difficulty of finding one’s way about in the blackout;this is also a crucial part of the plot. Bowers is good at suggesting a slightly uncanny quality, for instance, when Archy is alone in the house.
All her novels are carefully and intricately plotted and in this respect they are very much in the Golden Age tradition. There are red herrings, always plausible, with the information presented fairly to the reader. Some of it is rather esoteric. For example, Archy doodles pictures of a particular bird everywhere and this turns out to be an indirect clue to the identity of his killer. The police work in a steady and unshowy fashion and although Archy’s diary is found towards the end of the novel, by then the police have worked out most of it.
What distinguishes Bowers from the more humdrum Golden Age writers is her characterization which is vivid and has a pleasantly astringent quality. Archy is an intelligent but rather irritating young man, a bit of a poseur, who is prone to sudden enthusiasms which fade quickly. His journal is headed ‘A.M. Journal Intime vol 1’ and is described as ‘the usual dull mixture of self-analysis, insincere appreciation and insufferable criticism’.
Minor characters are not neglected but are portrayed with equal care. Here we have Mrs Traull,
‘Games on a competitive basis she abhorred: there was always the chance that her opponent might win.’
And a little later,
‘..in the war of 1914 she had made it her business to see that, however strict an economy might be practised in other directions, a liberal supply of white feathers was always at hand for distribution.’
This vividness shows up the fact that the two policemen are relatively colourless. The TLS reviewer had this to say,
‘There is no fuss over detectives’ personal appearance or idiosyncrasies. Plodding police methods are unassisted by “hunches”, amateur or professional. The task is tackled like a washing-day by constable, sergeant and inspector, acting on information received from a prying housemaid.’
Perhaps it is this lack of a striking series character or characters which led to her later obscurity. Certainly the Golden Age writers who maintained their popularity tend to have more colourful detective figures, such as Peter Wimsey, Albert Campion, Mrs Bradley and Roderick Alleyn.
I have enjoyed reading all Bowers’ novels, particularly this one and The Bells at Old Bailey. She is good at conveying a slightly sinister atmosphere in everyday situations, which stops short of becoming grotesque. Her plots can be a little overcomplicated but the working out is satisfying. And her portrayal of characters is always interesting and often a delight. I am surprised she faded so completely; perhaps it would have been different if she had not died so young. In recent years her reputation has revived somewhat with the re-issue of all five novels by Rue Morgue Press.