C. E. Vulliamy’s mysteries are all to some degree inverted, and they follow the same general pattern. They begin with a grudge against another person (usually a social parasite who tends toward malicious gossip), a search for a perfect murder method, and a murder attempt (sometimes successful and sometimes not), followed by plans for further crimes, a deterioration of character involving a movement toward insanity, outside intervention, apprehension, a trial scene, a questionable verdict, and an ironic conclusion. This pattern varies slightly from tale to tale—sometimes the trial scene is excluded, sometimes the focus on madness is diminished—but the basic ingredients tend to remain consistent.
The stories reflect a pessimistic view of human nature and a deep-seated contempt for the foolishness of many social types, from Panglossian rectors to pretentious social climbers, from the limited products of public schools to the dim-witted, eccentric lords of the manor. Their characters and style partake of the artificial and exaggerated speech, manners, and sensibilities of some turn-of-the-century works, yet their negative, sometimes black-humor interpretations of human motivations and human behavior seem more modern. In other words, despite their strong sense of place—the English village—these works seem out of time, neither fully Edwardian nor fully modern. Although the narrative voice focuses particularly on the perspective of the villains, the murderers and would-be murderers, the effect is not that of the typical inverted form, in which the reader shares the perspective and the sensibilities of a first-person narrator. Instead, Vulliamy relies on a third-person omniscient narrative voice, which is distanced from characters and action, as if a superior judge, amused by the comic antics of his inferiors, retold them in such a way as to call attention to their limitations and to prove their inferiority. At his best, Vulliamy’s wit is keen and his tales ironic; at his worst, his characterizations are shallow and his narrative is overwrought.
The Vicar’s Experiments and Cakes for Your Birthday
Some consider The Vicar’s Experiments, an imitation of Francis Iles’s mysteries, a “minor masterpiece,” for it is written with discipline, the satire and negativism more carefully controlled than in Vulliamy’s other works. Usually, however, his plots are only contrived frames on which to hang satire, and as a consequence they sometimes verge on the silly. In Cakes for Your Birthday (1959), for example, after a foiled first attempt, the would-be murderers mail arsenic-coated cakes to their intended victim, who passes them on to an aunt who has just informed her of a will leaving her a considerable amount of money. The aunt dies; the intended victim is accused and tried, all the while reveling in her notoriety. Meanwhile, the main engineer of the plot goes slowly mad because he firmly believes that hanging the wrong person would be a miscarriage of justice. No one believes his confession, but a professional criminal, outraged by the ungentlemanly behavior of the accomplices, forces them to confess. The victim, who deserves punishment for her other deeds, though not for murder, is acquitted, but soon thereafter is thrown over a cliff by some unknown party. In Body in the Boudoir (1956), there is a coroner’s inquest before the results of the autopsy are known, a murder investigation before there is clearly a murder, and a murder weapon (a West African Calabar bean) that boggles the imagination. Clearly, one does not read Vulliamy for plot. Instead it is for what one critic has called “verbal coruscation” and “its glitter of style, now broadly funny, now keenly acidulous.”
Vulliamy’s Pet Peeves
As in Don Among the Dead Men, the story of a chemist who discovers a poison that leaves no traces, Vulliamy uses his plots as excuses to expostulate on his pet peeves. Everyone is subject to attack (sometimes most heavy-handedly), from the all-too-innocent clergyman to the self-made “Carbon King,” from the narrow-minded and befuddled academician to the malicious small-town gossip. It is gossip that disturbs Vulliamy most and is the subject of his most damning attacks in all of his works. In fact, he is highly suspicious of any village organization, from the Red Cross to “Scouts for louts” and “Guides for girlies,” believing that they are all dedicated to the propagation of gossip as if it were a duty required by their association. Male-female relationships also come under heavy attack, with all marriages depicted as a balancing act and all “love” relationships unnatural and exploitative. Lady Ruggerbrace, a minor character in Body in the Boudoir, sums up the Vulliamy attitude: “I am never surprised when I hear that a man has made a fool of himself: that is a phenomenon which I observe every day of my life.”
Vulliamy is also highly critical of bad taste, particularly in clothing and in architecture. In many works there is some description of what Vulliamy terms “giving rein to the Free Philistine.” This might involve, for example, wearing a bright yellow tie with polka dots or developing “desirable residences,” made most...
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