"Three blind mice, three blind mice.See how they run, see how they run.They all ran after the farmer's wife,who cut off their tail with a carving knife.Did you ever see such a sight in your life,as three blind mice?"- Nursery Rhyme
Joan Fleming was a British author who, according to her bio, was "one of the most original and literate crime writers of her generation." She embarked on her literary career with a handful of children's books, but swiftly moved on to crime-fiction and notably penned a pair of crime novels about a philosophical Turkish detective and the first one, When I Grow Rich (1962), earned her a CWA Gold Dagger – a prize she would win a second time with Young Man, I Think You're Dying (1970).
However, the lion's share of her output apparently consists of modern-day, character-driven crime novels with a decidedly noir-ish bend. So what the hell am I, a pious traditionalist, doing with this "genre-critter," you ask? You can blame John Norris from Pretty Sinister Books.
Back in 2015, John published an enticing review on his blog of Fleming's sole locked room detective novel, Polly Put the Kettle On (1952), which struck him as an homage to James M. Cain and called it "a very fine crime novel" that blended elements of the tradition detective story with aspects of the noir-ish thriller – resulting in a book that "would impress Cain and [Patricia] Highsmith." So my interest was aroused and placed the book on my never-ending wish list.
And I'll say this beforehand, while the book does not quite fit my personal preferences in (classical) crime-fiction, I can't deny that this well written, character-focused novel was cleverly conceived and executed. I would not be as adversarial towards contemporary crime-fiction had more of them been written along the lines of Polly Put the Kettle On. So let's take a peek at this noir-ish tale with a locked room sub-plot.
The narrator of Polly Put the Kettle On is an ex-jailbird, named George Sudley, who was released from Parkhurst prison, on the Isle of Wright, in the opening chapter and received parting advice from the chaplain to find a physically demanding (outdoor) job – one that makes immediately fall to sleep the moment his head hits the pillow. It's a tried-and-tested remedy to keep out of trouble. Sudley agrees that, what he needs, is an outdoors job and allowed to fate to decide where he would go by blindly stabbing a finger at a random page in a travel guide. This eventually brought him to Hill Farm, which stands in the tiny and out-of-the-way hamlet of Cloud.
Hill Farm is owned by a sixty-year-old farmer, Eli Edge, who has been running the worn, dilapidated farm in exactly the same way as his father, grand-father and great-grand father. Edge has stubbornly refused every piece of modern improvement that could be made to his farm. Such as milking-machines, mechanical separators and electric churns, but the upside of doing all the backbreaking work manually is that Edge did not had to invest capital in upgrading his farm. As Sudley observed, "it was all money pouring in and none going out." Recently, Edge has been laid up with sciatica and needs a farm hand to milk the cows and whatnot.
However, the existence of a 19th century farmboy does not exactly appeal to the ex-convict and had already turned around on his way, but on his way out his eyes came to rest on Edge's beautiful and much younger wife, Polly – who always seems to bask in attention of men. One of them is the lanky, twenty-two year old son of their next door neighbor, John Merry, who, at one point, gets into a physical altercation with Sudley. The other man is Sudley's German predecessor, Eyvind, who returns to the farm and he would become somewhat of a problem to Sudley.
I wonder whether Fleming had initially designed this story around the nursery rhyme of "Three Blind Mind," but changed it to the more innocuous "Polly Put the Kettle On" when she learned Agatha Christie was coming, in 1952, with a stage-play based on the title story from Three Blind Mice and Other Stories (1950).
Anyway, the first half of the book hardly reads like a crime or detective novel at all. You might easily mistake it for a literary mainstream novel about a stranger with a past getting injected into a small, peaceful community and how this introduction uproots the tranquility of the tiny hamlet, but that's exactly where the story slowly begins to snowball into a (impossible) crime story. During this slow buildup, the reader not only follows how the relationship between Polly and Sudley develops, but also the influence of the new farmhand on the household. Edge is very tightfisted when it comes to spending money, but Sudley convinces him to buy a Land Rover (with near fatal consequences) and a gas-stove, which will have fatal consequences.
Pass the halfway mark, Edge is found dead in the locked and bolted living room of the farmhouse. Edge lay, as he always did, on the mud-colored sofa with "a couple of dead cats beside him," which makes it abundantly clear that the cause of death was not a natural one. Edge appears to have been gassed to death and, somehow, his dog, Argo, escaped from the locked and bolted living room. But how did the dog managed to do that? The answer as to how the dog escaped from the room will also provide an answer to the problem of the locked living room, which is brazenly simple and audaciously clued.
Fleming briefly dangles the truth behind the locked room in front of the reader and then simply waits for those readers, who're observant enough, to put two-and-two together. So not really an impossible crime that bats in the same league as the best by John Dickson Carr or Edward D. Hoch, but the simplicity of the trick fitted the nature of this story – which went for a darker, grittier and more realistic tone than your average countryside mystery of the 1930-and 40s. So I did not dislike, or was disappointed, by this (minor) locked room sub-plot.
One interesting aspect about the overall plot, which is not acknowledged by Fleming, is how animals, dead or alive, play a guiding role in the story. The dead cats that were found besides the body immediately rule out a death by natural causes. Argo's escape from that room proves to be the key to solving the locked room problem and there's a "beastly little stuffed owl," encased in glass, standing on a big chest at the top of the stairs. And one of the characters realizes too late that the owl was trying to tell something.
The ruinous aftermath of Edge's murder truly is a tragic one and the ending of the book is the inevitable culmination of every decision, and move, taken during the first half. I half suspected the direction the ending was heading towards, but not that the author went for the darkest shade of gloom imaginable. I expected one particular revelation from the second half to be a small seed of hope, one that required a sacrifice to grow, but Fleming had no qualms about cruelly snuffing out that small flicker of hope. And she still took that final sacrifice! Nevertheless, I can't say I didn't enjoy the book, which was something different, and blazed through the pages like an enthusiatic forest fire.
Polly Put the Kettle On is not a crime novel for readers who dislike detective stories with a short fuse or bleak endings, but if you're a patient reader, who can take a stiff dose of doom and gloom, you will probably be able to appreciate this one for what it is – an intriguing blend of traditional detective elements with domestic suspense and pure noir. And the locked room was a nice little extra!
I'm not sure what will be next on this blog, but after my previous two or three reviews, I think I'll dig up something truly traditional. So don't touch that dial, folks!