I always look forward to a new batch of British Library Crime Classics. This one arrived recently and has just come out (10 March). First published in 1933, it turns out to be one of the most lively and entertaining vintage crime novels it's ever been my privilege to read.
The novel centres on the marriage of Roger and Bertha Kewdingham. Roger has completely failed to make a success of his life - he's out of work, and spends his time amassing what has become a huge collection of generally worthless bits of archaeological junk and reading books about occult belief systems. Bertha, his half-French wife, is a lively and attractive young woman who is utterly miserable with her useless husband. She and Roger quarrel incessantly and even when they are not fighting and arguing they have absolutely nothing to say to each other.
Bertha's life would be even more intolerable than it is were it not for a couple of ardent admirers. Actually that's not strictly true, though. She's well aware of the attentions of Roger's cousin, young John Havergall, a successful novelist who frequently visits and takes her out when he can for intimate little afternoons. Her second admirer, the very creepy Doctor Wilson Bragge, keeps his feelings under wraps, though they are no less intense for that. A good doctor, much admired in the community, he is secretly scheming to make Brenda a free woman and thus available to him. Of course his knowledge of medicines and drugs is of great use to him here. What he doesn't know, though, is that Brenda is doing some scheming of her own - she too wants to be free, though not of course to marry Doctor Bragge. This leads to a hilarious situation in which neither of the schemers is aware of the activities of the other one, and cannot understand why they are having no success, not realising that the methods each is using effectively cancels the other one out. Will it all end in tears?
As you can probably see, Family Matters is not a whodunnit - I guess you'd call it a psychological thriller. In any case we are never in any doubt about who is at least trying to do it -- it's just if and how either of them is going to succeed that hangs in the balance. Meanwhile we can take pleasure in the wonderfully vivid cast of characters involved. Of course there's lovely, ruthless Bertha and poor, miserable, deluded Roger, losing himself in his drawers and boxes full of worthless finds and his mystical beliefs about being the incarnation of an ancient priest, Athu-na-Shulah. But a number of other visitors appear at the house from time to time, despite the fact that it's hard to get into the living-room because of all the boxes. There are the neighbours, Mr and Mrs Chaddlewick, she of the 'soft, luminous face...usually as blank as the painted wooden mask in a milliner's window'. Mrs Chaddlewick believes herself to be psychic and thus has tremendous sympathy for Roger, egging on his strange beliefs and fluttering her foolish eyes at him. Then there's Roger's sister Phoebe, a writer of light verse, who dresses in black and gold to match the covers of her books. Phoebe 'acknowledged the sovereignty of the passions, and for that reason had abstained from marriage'. Of course there's Dr Bragge, who is rarely mention without reference to his sinister, glittering blue eyes. And then there's Mrs Bella Poundle-Quainton and her spinster daughter Ethel - but you get the general idea.
Anthony Rolls was the nom-de-plume of one Colwyn Vulliamy, a retired soldier and writer of numerous serious non-fiction books. In the 1930s he wrote four successful crime novels, another of which, the excellent Scarweather, has also just been published in the Crime Classics series. He was obviously a man of keen observation of human foibles and psychological oddities, and possessed of tremendous satirical wit. If you fancy a fast-paced, exciting and very funny read, this is the one for you.