Tuesday, August 24, 2021

The Widow of Bath - Margot Bennett

In the end, this was the only book I managed to read whilst I was away - I had high hopes for getting through lots of things, but between the excitement of getting engaged (that's not going to get old for me any time soon) and trying to catch up with a few people and spend time with family and the friends I was travelling with time got away from me. That's as inevitable as the fact that I'd buy more books than I packed - so why do I even pack books plural? 

'The Widow of Bath' was written in 1952 which my Crime Classics spreadsheet tells me is a vintage year as far as I'm concerned - there's a discernable shift between the war and immediate post-war period and the start of the 1950s when the mood and tone get distinctly darker. it's the difference between looking back and looking forward I think, and I wonder what our own post covid world will throw at us in this respect. 

The book opens with Hugh Everton, determinedly drinking in a second rate hotel on the south coast where all is not quite as it should be, even for a post-war British seaside hotel. Before he knows quite where he's at he bumps into an ex-girlfriend, and then her aunt by marriage - a femme fatale with who he has also had an affair. She's accompanied by her husband, a couple of friends, and brings an atmosphere you could cut a knife with.

Hugh drifts along with her suggestion to come home with them, and before he knows it the husband, Judge Bath has been shot whilst the rest of the party were downstairs playing cards together. This is trouble for Hugh who has a shady sort of past, and whilst it's hard to see who could have done it, why can see plenty of reasons why people might want to have done it. 

Up to his neck in it, Hugh starts investigating some of the loose ends around him, which mostly makes things worse, but as almost everybody seems intent on threatening him he doesn't really have a lot of choices. It's a clever book with a plot that at first seems surprisingly current (spoiler alert - it's about people smuggling) but which on reflection makes it clear that the state of the world hasn't changed as much as we might like in the last 70+ years. 

It's also the kind of book I'd love to see get adapted for television, instead of yet another Agatha Christie getting pulled into a shape it doesn't really fit. You want contemporary issues with real darkness behind them in period costume - this is the perfect vehicle for it. Christie is a wonderful writer, but she's not the only one and this book is a cracker with real noir atmosphere and dialogue, along with some absolutely perfect scene-setting descriptions.

Bennet is a master at filling a reasonably well to do seaside town with a sense of menace, and the way she unravels Hugh Everton for us is brilliant. Martin Edwards compare Margot Bennett favourably to Raymond Chandler in his introduction - it's an assessment I heartily agree with.


  1. Sounds interesting. I tried Margot Bennett's 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' recently and was left pretty underwhelmed and disappointed. From a couple of reviews of that I'd read before reading the novel itself, I was hoping for something along the lines of Mary Kelly's 'The Spoilt Kill' - although I appreciate that's a pretty high bar! But if in view of your favourable experience, I'm prepared to give Margot another go!

    1. I remember liking 'The Man Who Didn't Fly', but not a lot else about it - I think I enjoyed this one more as the thriller aspects of it really appealed. 'The Spoilt Kill' is a particularly high bar to set so I can't promise anything but I think it's definitely worth a look. It might also be the seaside setting - dingy hotels, second rate glamour, and a transient population that makes 'The Widow of Bath' work - I do know that 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' didn't make me think of Raymond Chandler in the way The Widow does.

    2. I've now read 'The Widow of Bath'. I definitely preferred it to 'The Man Who Didn't Fly' but I'm still not a fan of Margot Bennett's style. There's a monotonous frigidity to her writing that doesn't really work for me. I think if the tone varied a little, it might be more effective, but the consistency of the coldness erodes its effect in my view and robs the characterisation of some depth. I ended up not really caring how the story played out or what happened to any of the characters (including Hugh). Oh well - you can't love them all!

    3. I think that's fair. It worked for me because I really was reminded of Chandler, who's characters I tend not to like that much either. And you're right, we can't love them all, but I do find it a consistently enjoyable series!