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Thursday 21 March 2024

‘Cressida: No Mystery’ by Marie Belloc Lowndes

Published by Oreon,
The Oleander Press,
ISBN: 978-1-91-5475-32-9 (PB)

Originally published in 1928, this short novel (there are just 118 very readable pages) has a highly accurate title given that there is no mystery in the conventional sense that one has come to expect in a Golden Age story. Instead, the reader spends the book wondering what is going to happen.

Let me explain. Lizzie Bowden lives with her guardian and aunt, Lady Bignor, who has invited Lizzie’s other guardian, Colonel Slade, for Christmas. Lizzie, left a wealthy young woman by her late father, has just become engaged to Captain Larry Wortle who has lost what money he had by ill-advised investments and loose living. All appears well until Cressida Daryl, a young friend of Lady Bignor’s, is invited after the collapse of her original plans for Christmas. Wortle falls for the siren Cressida, and so begins a variation on the ménage à trois theme. There are contrasts everywhere. Whilst Cressida and Larry are enthusiastic socialites and attractive physically (particularly so in Cressida’s case), Lizzie is plain and sullen-natured. Cressida and Larry are self-obsessed and unattractive morally, and neither is reluctant to do some sponging to improve their own desperate financial situation. Lizzie is, as mentioned, wealthy.

The prolific Marie Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947), sister of Hilaire Belloc, has a reputation for including psychological interest in her novels, and this is where the fascination lies in Cressida: No Mystery. As Cressida and Larry become closer (it helps that Lizzie is laid low by a bad cold for most of the time), we begin to wonder what this will lead to. And we are not the only ones: Colonel Slade has his worries, and even Lady Bignor (who seems more devoted to Cressida than she is to her niece) eventually realises that Cressida is not a good influence on Larry.

Many of the usual traits of the Golden Age are here. Apart from the country house setting (and there is a neighbouring house that is essential to the plot), we have Captain Wortle, Colonel Slade, Lady Bignor, Lord Danesborough, Major Mandeville and the rector and his wife. We just don’t have a body early on and spend the rest of the book wondering if there is going to be one.

So, this short novel is an oddity, but one that keeps the reader guessing.
Reviewer: David Whittle

Marie Adelaide Elizabeth Rayner Belloc Lowndes (1868-1947)  who wrote as Marie Belloc Lowndes, was a prolific English novelist, and sister of author Hilaire Belloc.

David Whittle
is firstly a musician (he is an organist and was Director of Music at Leicester Grammar School for over 30 years) but has always enjoyed crime fiction. This led him to write a biography of the composer Bruce Montgomery who is better known to lovers of crime fiction as Edmund Crispin, about whom he gives talks now and then. He is currently convenor of the Midlands Chapter of the Crime Writers’ Association.

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