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Monday, 7 August 2017

Harriet Rutland (1901-1962)

The  Golden Age
Harriet Rutland (1901-1962)
by Carol Westron

Harriet Rutland is one of the most elusive of the writers of the late Golden Age and remarkably little is known about her personal life, but she is one of the most interesting writers of this period, displaying a dark, satirical
humour and a mischievous skill for subtly subverting the conventions of the genre. Harriet Rutland was the pseudonym of Olive Shimwell, who was born Olive Maude Seers, the daughter of a prosperous Birmingham builder. Olive became a schoolteacher and, in 1926, married John Shimwell, a microbiologist who had a degree in biochemistry from the University of Birmingham. In 1931 the couple moved to Cork, in Ireland, where John Shimwell became the Head Brewer for Beamish and Crawford. They lived outside the city of Cork in a small community at St Ann’s Hill.

In 1938, under the pseudonym of Harriet Rutland, she published her first novel, Knock, Murderer, Knock. The St Ann’s Hill location was essential because it boasted, a Hydropathic Establishment. Dr Richard Barter, a pioneering hydro-therapist, had founded the establishment in 1843 and it was still operating in the 1930s. Rutland adapted the Hydropathic Hotel she was so familiar with and turned it into the setting for her first novel, although she moved the location from Ireland to a fictional town in Devon and called the hotel Presteignton Hydro. Considering the biting wit with which Rutland describes the extremely eccentric residents of the Hydro, it was perhaps wise to maintain several layers of concealment regarding both the identity of the author and that of the original establishment.

Knock, Murderer, Knock is a cleverly written novel, satirical and full of black humour, but it also contains several clever literary allusions to Dickens, Shakespeare and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. The police detectives are hard-working and painstaking but it is clear from the outset that they are not up to the task, and it is the intervention of Mr Winkley, a newly-arrived outsider, that brings the sinister murderer to justice. Of course, in true Golden Age style, Mr Winkley, the ineffectual amateur who irritates the police detectives, proves to be, head of a somewhat improbable department at Scotland Yard, and he has come to investigate in an unofficial role. Indeed, there is a subtle flavour of Albert Campion about the initial description of Mr Winkley: ‘At any other time Mr Winkley would have passed unnoticed... so unassuming and insignificant was his appearance, and so gentle and unobtrusive his manner. His skin was pink, his hair and moustache fair... His eyes were of a mild blue, and he blinked frequently as if he ought to have worn glasses. One felt that he should have been short and stout, and it was rather surprising to discover that he was well above the average height, and that his carriage was upright and soldierly.’
One thing that makes Rutland’s debut novel stand out from the earlier Golden Age ‘Queens of Crime’ is that they usually took pains to ensure their murder victims are not particularly likeable or, if the victim is sympathetic, they kept the reader at a distance from the victims before their deaths. In contrast to this, in Knock Murderer, Knock, Rutland’s victims are the more likeable members of the community and the final murder is truly heart-wrenching.

When it was published, Knock, Murderer, Knock was warmly received and Rutland was hailed as a new rising star of crime fiction.

In 1939, at the beginning of the Second World War, Rutland and her husband returned to England and Rutland gave birth to a son. Despite this disruption, both political and personal, Rutland’s second novel, Bleeding Hooks, was published in 1940.

Like Knock, Murderer, Knock, Bleeding Hooks is set in an eccentric community. The heart of the action is again in a hotel, this time the Fisherman’s Rest in the fictional Aberllyn, a Welsh fishing village. The majority of visitors to the hotel are ardent fishermen, although there are some visitors accompanying the sportsmen, and these people are merely being polite when they express an interest in the tally of trout. Only one resident lives at the hotel throughout the year; this is the plump, wealthy and vulgar Mrs Ruby Mumsby. Although she usually goes out with her rod, the popular, disdainful opinion amongst the visitors and gillies is that she is more interested in landing a new husband than adding to her meagre tally of fish. When Mrs Mumsby is discovered dead on the river bank, with a barbed fishing hook stuck through her hand, the initial assumption is that she had died from a heart attack caused by the shock of the injury. However, Mr Winkley of Scotland Yard is an accomplished fisherman and he is spending his holiday at the Fisherman’s Rest. Winkley suspects from the first that there has been foul play. Despite his desire to play a lone game, Mr Winkley is joined in his investigations by two bored young people who are staying at the hotel. These stubborn amateur sleuths are two of Rutland’s more interesting and revealing

creations. They despise their real names and insist on being called by their nicknames, Pussy and Piggy. Everything about them is a facade of elegance and frivolity, especially Pussy, with her make-up concealing her rather plain face and her frivolity masking her extraordinary ignorance. When Mr Winkley makes the mistake of referring to them as ‘Bright Young Things’ Pussy protests that this title belonged to the 1920s, a decade earlier and, ‘Most of those whom she knew had already become hags, and by this time had acquired several babies or divorces or both.’ There is a note of bitter irony in this that cannot be dismissed, for Rutland was of the generation of the 'Bright Young Things.’ She had just acquired a baby and, in the near future was going to acquire a divorce.

Some reviewers have compared Pussy and Piggy to Agatha Christie’s detective couple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, but, although the superficial resemblance is striking, in my opinion this fails to take into account Rutland’s determination to subtly subvert the genre.

Christie’s Partners in Crime (1929) is a collection of short stories, gathered together to make a book. In it Tommy and Tuppence are often frivolous and playful as they investigate a collection of mysteries ranging from the trivial to the tragic. However, in their hearts they are two courageous young people who had served in the First World War and are eager to serve their country. In Partners in Crime they are running a detective agency as a cover while helping the Government to discover the truth regarding a foreign espionage plot. To add zest to the investigations, they attempt to adopt the persona of a different popular fictional detective in each story. Tuppence shows herself to be well read in this genre and, throughout the stories, shows a lively wit and resourcefulness that often out-shines the more solidly dependable Tommy.

In contrast, in Bleeding Hooks, Piggy is a pleasant but uninspired young man whose judgement is constantly overwhelmed by his infatuation for Pussy. While Pussy is remarkable for her self-centred silliness and her phenomenal depth of ignorance. Rutland is ruthless, even cruel, in her description of Pussy when, after a frightening incident, she meets Mr Winkley while not wearing her make-up. ‘The only indication of her extreme perturbation was the fact that she had omitted to “do” her face, which, in consequence, looked pale and thin, and exhibited a remarkable number of unhealthy little spots which her usual make-up skilfully concealed. Her lips, too, lacking the exotic lipstick, looked thin, and revealed a more calculating disposition than one might have guessed when seeing her in full war-paint.’

Rutland’s subversion of the genre also turns to her treatment of the love interest so frequently present in Golden Age fiction. In Knock, Murderer, Knock, the ‘happy ever after’ factor is supplied by a pleasant but characterless couple who are only brought to the fore in the last few chapters. In Bleeding Hooks the main love interest is the vapid Pussy and her devoted but bland Piggy.

In Rutland’s third and final detective novel, Blue Murder (1942), love is given a yet crueller and more sardonic twist, with lust and obsession turning into a force for evil and destruction. Central to the plot of the book is the marriage of Mr and Mrs Hardstaffe, which is revealed in all its loveless ugliness. Mr Hardstaffe is a cruel, bullying, lustful headmaster of a village school, while Mrs Hardstaffe is a neurotic invalid. Bored with his marriage, Mr Hardstaffe is pursuing the lovely Charity Fuller, a junior teacher on his staff who is young enough to be his granddaughter but Charity does not wish to remain in a relationship with a married man and has applied for a transfer. In Hardstaffe’s mind, this situation necessitates the swift removal of his inconvenient wife. Amidst the distastefulness of this situation, Rutland draws a great deal of dark, subversive humour from the love-making of the short, elderly headmaster and the tall, beautiful object of his desire. ‘She did not resist him. She was head and shoulders taller than he, and knew from experience that his embrace, to be successful, needed co-operation from her.’ The small stature of this unpleasant, lecherous man is emphasised again later in the chapter: ‘Knowing that her lips were out of reach, he bent down, and covered her hands with kisses.’
Mrs Hardstaffe is marginally less unpleasant, than her husband, although a querulous and self-pitying person: ‘“Really, sometimes I feel so ill at night that I feel I shall never get out of my bed again alive. And however well I sleep, I always wake up tired.”’
The third member of the appalling Hardstaffe family is Leda, the inaptly named unmarried daughter. She wears outstandingly ugly tweeds and breeds Sealyham pups, which are anything but house-trained, and revels in what she describes as ‘“Doing Our Bit.”’ She spends her time serving as an air warden and giving Red Cross Lectures and running village institutions. Leda often talks in slogans such as: ‘Be Prepared; Business as Usual; If Invasion Comes.’
Into this household comes Arnold Smith, an author who has fled London to avoid the air-raids. For many years, Smith has derived his income from ‘writing novels of weak adventure, sugared with ladylike romance,’ but his publisher has warned him that his sales have dropped to negligible proportions and that he should change to the new genre of detective fiction. Uncertain how to approach this, Smith dithers, until Leda suggests he uses her family as characters in his new novel of murder and mayhem. Smith finds this suggestion very helpful but soon he discovers that Life is imitating and out-pacing Art.

Blue Murder
is a darkly comic novel with a shocking conclusion. It is set in the Second World War and contains ironic social commentary regarding attitudes to the War, such as the stupidity of people like the Hardstaffes who insist on wearing evening dress for dinner: ‘you could not deal effectively with incendiary bombs, or stand by with a First Aid Party, in a gown which swirled around your ankles.’ Rutland is caustic when describing the treatment of evacuees and of Jewish refugees, and her account of the cruelty of the Hardstaffe family to Frieda Braun, the Jewish Austrian maid, is bitterly chilling. After the reader’s first encounter with Frieda, Mrs Hardstaffe makes an unforgivable comment: ‘“I must say that this is the first time I’ve felt any sympathy for ‘That Man’,” remarked Mrs Hardstaffe, “but if all Jews are like her, I don’t wonder he cleared them out of the country, do you?”’ It is interesting that, despite this crass remark, later on in the novel Frieda observes that Mrs Hardstaffe had been far kinder to her than Mr Hardstaffe or Leda.

Many Golden Age writers have been accused of anti-Semitism, but in Blue Murder one is sure that Rutland does not share her characters’ prejudices. She is using their class prejudice and anti-Semitism to illustrate the arrogance, ignorance and stupidity of the entire Hardstaffe family. As a review in The New York Times Book Review observed, ‘Blue Murder has a novel plot and some characters that are more interesting than attractive.’

The author and her husband divorced soon after the publication of her third book. She married for a second time in 1948.

In his 1941 book Murder For Pleasure, Howard Hayward recommended Rutland as an up and coming author but, after Blue Murder (1942), Rutland published no more books. She died in Newton Abbot in 1962.

Books by Harriet Rutland

Knock, Murderer, Knock
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-191057082. ASIN: B012XGLMBO
Bleeding Hooks
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1910570845. ASIN: B012XGLKRK
Blue Murder
Published by Dean Street Press. ISBN: 978-1910570869. ASIN: B012XGLMQO


Carol Westron is a successful short story writer and a Creative Writing teacher.  She is the moderator for the cosy/historical crime panel, The Deadly Dames.  Her crime novels are set both in contemporary and Victorian times.  The Terminal Velocity of Cats is the first in her Scene of Crimes novels, was published July 2013. Her latest book The Fragility of Poppies was published 10 June 2016.

Read a review of Carol’s latest book
The Fragility of Poppies

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