"The Maynard Hayes Affair" offers events lurid enough to interest those who demand little else, but reading it only for titillation would be a waste. Rather, the book's ideal reader thinks of Margaret Rutherford as Jane Marple or vice-versa, watches reruns of "The Avengers" but stalks out of the room should any actress but Diana Rigg be playing Emma Peel, and has reread Wilkie Collins or means to.
Here's the barebones plot: Sir Maynard Hayes contrives to undo the marriage of his former lover -- if need be, by murdering the lover. Or the lover's new wife. Or both. Or neither. In any case, Maynard's eventual scheme is, as someone early on in the book predicts it will be, "exquisitely foul."
Dorothea Bennett has given us an expert mingling of the novel of suspense and the novel of manners. She knows exactly what and how much to dole out to keep us guessing, gasping or giggling. And though the gasps predominate, there are giggles aplenty, and always at just the right place and in just the right measure. For instance: Immediately after the reader is made aware of the full extent of Maynard's madness, the author shifts to Maynard's mother's perception of him: "She was horrified when he walked into her boudoir. He looked gaunt and unbelievably weary, a man from whom the will to live had been removed, a terrible withdrawal. What was worse, he appeared not have shaved."
The drawing room comedy aspects are updated, which is to say, Maynard is no mere dandy. Indeed, because Maynard's sexual jealousy powers the action in the book, references to his homosexuality are the rule. In fact, it is as if the other characters are weighed against it.
The bride, Ellen, is feisty but too naively sophisticated to do Maynard's sort of battle. Aware of Maynard's relationship with her husband, she dismisses it as "schoolboy nonsense. Happens all the time. Part of growing up." Hers is a self-protective sort of oblivion, and it is as believable as Maynard's mother's oblivion ("Please do not upset yourself . . ." Lady Hayes tells Maynard, "There are other young men to go golfing with.")
In any work where the husband may turn out to be a rotter, there must be a solid, steadfast man in the wings to whom the disappointed bride may turn. In this book, it is Billy Torrington, described as the only man at the wedding "who hadn't been to bed with the groom."
And what of Bruce, the groom? He has a certain lapdog quality that we hope to the bitter end is innocence.
All of these flaky uppercrust characters, however, act as a foil for author Bennett's powerful psychological study of Maynard Hayes. In the beginning of the book, we are amused by the sarcastic expression of Maynard's jealousy. He considers, for example, a photograph of Bruce's bride: "The picture would undoubtedly rate a silver frame on the rolltop desk in her father's gunroom, beside the one of her mother. The old man would be proud of them both as he brought his game book up to date: the two ladies in their place amongst his other trophies, heads and antlers and a famous salmon leaping in space, it seemed, above a mahogany bookcase. Maynard visualized it: yes, Ellen would fit in." But as Bennett gives us more to go on, we recall this scene and others like it with alarm. Maynard is utterly mad and our realization of it has been very nicely controlled. We yearn for the other characters in the book (who augment the suspense by behaving as though this is a conventional novel of manners) to know what we know. But we are also wondering what Maynard will do next.
Dorothea Bennett is deft, and "The Maynard Hayes Affair" is a must for Anglophiles.