Pat Flower Essay - Critical Essays

Patricia Mary Bryson


Comments from the brief reviews that Pat Flower has received for her mysteries have ranged from “unputdownable” to “clever and unobvious” to “a poor show.” Her writing does vary in quality, with her later novels more successful than early efforts. She uses, however, similar techniques in both her police procedurals and her later psychological mysteries. Her plots are complex and take surprising turns, she aims for comic and ironic effects, she avoids the omniscient voice, and she misleads the reader by telling the story from the point of view of an uninformed or psychologically unstable character. Flower is ultimately interested in what lies beneath the surface of events and characters; in A Wreath of Water-Lilies (1960), she writes, “Once the surface gave way anywhere that part of the wall would collapse in chaos. Just as in this situation there were cracks in the surface . . . now the smooth civilized top layer was unreliable.”

Unlike many mystery novels, however, Flower’s mysteries, especially her novels of psychological suspense, do not reassure the reader that order will be restored, that the unjust will be punished and virtue rewarded. Indeed, her suspense novels often end with the disturbing notion that madness lies close at hand. Her police procedurals are only occasionally more comforting; the criminals are usually caught, but in such novels as Goodbye, Sweet William (1959), three murderers, who have, in Flower’s ingenious plot, all independently killed the same man, go unpunished in a curious ironic twist. In Fiends of the Family (1966), three old women share the family trait of being a psychotic murderer. In A Wreath of Water-Lilies, the criminals are caught, but through no effort of Inspector Swinton, the ostensible detective, who has been on the wrong track through most of the book.

A Wreath of Water-Lilies

A Wreath of Water-Lilies breaks other conventions in addition to having a detective who comes up with the wrong answers. In it, Flower combines strong elements of farce with the expected progression of a mystery. Inspector Swinton of the Sydney police is sent to France to handle a sensitive matter involving a French diplomat and the scent of scandal. After he finishes his business and still regretting not being able to meet the great Inspector Maigret of the Sûreté, Swinton travels to Provence on a sightseeing tour. In a small village outside Marseilles, while quietly becoming drunk on Pernod, he meets Martha Tilley, an expatriate Australian who insists that he must stay a night at the château of her employer, Pearl Langham. The next morning, Swinton finds another of Pearl’s guests, Ricard, dead in a pond; he knows immediately that it is murder, though the other guests assume that it was an accident.

The farcical plot elements surface on Swinton’s first night at the château, and Flower makes it clear that this is her intent: Swinton comments that he feels part of “one of those English bedroom farces where the siren turns out to be engaged in some ridiculous business for a foreign power and the trusting, bumbling hero is saved by his own clumsiness and stupidity.” The setting of a country house is perfect for a farce, and characters enter and exit rooms quickly, chatting brightly and drinking to excess. Swinton must endure two ludicrous seduction scenes. Echoing Aristophanes, Flower even introduces a nightly chorus of frogs, a sly comment on the follies of the characters.

The elements of coincidence that make a farce entertaining are, however, deadly to a mystery. Much of the plot of A Wreath of Water-Lilies depends heavily on coincidence: Swinton’s meeting Martha in the village, overhearing bits of conversations, witnessing assignations, and spotting two of the suspects in the village on the day they claim to have spent in Marseilles. The most difficult plot element to accept is that the French police would let Swinton run an unofficial investigation at all, yet they apparently give him their blessing and a reception that borders on adoration. Flower proceeds, however, to turn all these situations to farce as well: Swinton...

(The entire section is 1711 words.)