Back in my bright college days, I took a course in 17th-century poetry from an elderly professor of English. To launch the discussion of each poem, he would invariably ask the class, “What species of utterance is this?” That is to say, was it an elegy or an ode? Was it an epithalamium praising a forthcoming marriage or a seduction lyric drawing on the classic argument of “carpe diem”— seize the day, live for the moment? Only when you knew a poem’s genre, he insisted, could you begin to understand and appreciate its underlying strategies and artistry.
As I was reading Edwin Greenwood’s 1934 novel, “The Deadly Dowager,” newly reissued in paperback with a characteristically excellent introduction by Mark Valentine, I kept wondering about the book’s “species of utterance.” According to a contemporary review, it was “quite the jolliest crime story that has come our way in many moons.” Yet it’s not at all comic in the manner of, say, a Donald Westlake caper about Dortmunder and his lovable gang of burglars. Black humor, gallows humor, sardonic humor — these better describe the overall tone of Greenwood’s tale of the 83-year-old Dowager Duchess Arabella, Lady Engleton, who decides to do away with a handful of her inconvenient relatives.
Arabella becomes a serial killer for what she believes is the best of reasons. Her own two sons having died, one in the Boer War and the other in the Great War, and the de Birkett family’s fortunes having precipitously declined, she has taken it upon herself to establish her 20-year-old grandson Henry in a manner befitting his noble station. Initially, she persuades various childless in-laws — a dotty clergyman, a blustery India hand, a Harley Street doctor, a stupid businessman, and a pair of sisters, one repulsively fat, the other mousy — to allow her to insure their lives, making Henry the beneficiary. Arabella will naturally pay all the fees against the day — no doubt quite distant, of course — when each finally shuffles off this mortal coil. While maintaining a demeanor of sweetness and innocence, she then starts killing them off, one after the other.
At this point, a reader might decide that “The Deadly Dowager” should be categorized with Patricia Highsmith’s “The Talented Mr. Ripley” (1955) or Roy Horniman’s “Israel Rank: The Autobiography of a Criminal” (1907) the source for the classic film “Kind Hearts and Coronets.” In these, a few judicious homicides allow an outsider to gain entree into the ranks of the glamorous upper classes. Watching Tom Ripley or Israel Rank literally “get away with murder” is part of the fascination of these smoothly urbane narratives. After all, what matter a few seductions, frauds and murders when the perpetrators are so charming, so handsome, so much more interesting than the victims! Israel, in particular, recalls his life and crimes in a drily witty, civilized voice reminiscent of Evelyn Waugh’s in “A Handful of Dust.”
And like Waugh’s exactly contemporary masterpiece, Greenwood’s novel — its surface cynicism notwithstanding — subtly champions fidelity and religious faith. Henry falls in love with Dora Winslow and the two are obviously meant for each other. The young couple even receives the blessing of Father Reginald, a de Birkett who has converted to Catholicism and actually become a Jesuit. The shrewd priest alone recognizes the real wickedness in Arabella, though Dora suspects it. The rather weak-willed Henry doesn’t know what to believe.
Alas, poor Henry! Arabella soon resolves that he really must marry the daughter of an immensely wealthy grocery mogul. Lily Peploe turns out to be a brazen, modern girl, who does her best — and her best is quite considerable — to seduce the priggish young man. Will he surrender to her multiple charms? Lily isn’t just sexy, after all, she is also lively and full of common sense and really seems to care for him. Perhaps Henry should just bow to his steely grandmother’s wishes? But, sigh, he really loves Dora. What to do? It’s hardly worth saying that Arabella knows precisely what to do.
Though she lacks magical powers, Greenwood’s deadly dowager gradually emerges as one of the great witches of modern literature, insidious, cruel, hypocritical and inveterately manipulative. Still, she’s only an extreme case: Half the characters in the novel are secretly jockeying for status, wealth or sex. Arabella quickly blackmails one respectable gentleman when she fortuitously discovers his cache of pornography. She frets that without her strictest vigilance some actress will get her claws into Henry. As she frostily explains to her unscrupulous lawyer:
“Henry . . . is broody. His condition is ripe for possible mischief; his visit with this Winslow girl yesterday to the Priory was dangerous. Anything might have happened in that plaintive and romantic atmosphere. My son, fool that he was, once forgot himself there with a girl from the village, and it cost two hundred and fifty pounds to rectify the error. The consequence is, I believe, at Bristol.”
Though now largely forgotten, Edwin Greenwood (1895-1939) wrote movie scripts as well as novels, and worked frequently with Alfred Hitchcock. He is credited, for instance, with the scenario for the 1934 version of “The Man Who Knew Too Much.” Given this association, my old professor would probably identify “The Deadly Dowager” as essentially Hitchcockian, in the dark-light vein of “Suspicion,” “Shadow of a Doubt” and “Strangers on a Train.” As Arthur Machen once wrote of the book, it “mixes mirth and murder with immense spirit and success.”
So, will Father Reginald be the agent for Arabella’s eventual comeuppance? Or will the implacable dowager trample over the forces of good and achieve her dreams? My lips are sealed. Still, if you prefer your summer entertainments somewhat tart — a mixture of gin and bitters — you’re in for a treat.
Michael Dirda reviews books on Thursdays in Style.
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By Edwin Greenwood
Valancourt Books. 233 pp. Paperback, $19