(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

E. X. Ferrars’s career may be conveniently divided into an early and late phase. At first, her novels were high-spirited and often humorous, with one episode following another in quick succession. Later, her novels became more down-to-earth, and the psychological complexity of her characters assumed a greater importance. The differences between the two stages should not, however, be exaggerated. All of her mysteries have been of a traditional type, in which the principal goal of the work is to disguise from the reader the identity of the criminal.

Don’t Monkey with Murder

An examination of one of Ferrars’s first novels, Don’t Monkey with Murder (1942), will illustrate both her early pattern and some constants throughout her career. (The work appeared in the United States under the title The Shape of a Stain.) Its main character, Toby Dyke, has the odd habit of turning up when friends of his have just been murdered. He seems at first to be a member of the idle rich, whose alleged employment as a journalist hardly disguises his indolence. Dyke finds it relatively easy, however, to pinpoint the murderer of the man he had visited and discovered dead, the owner of a castle in Scotland. Like most of Ferrars’s early novels, this work features a brisk pace, frequent humorous episodes, and a large cast of characters. Dyke enters into a platonic romance with a young woman who, as the reader quickly realizes, can have nothing to do with the crime, in spite of appearances to the contrary. Ferrars’s story is in fact so “packed with matter” that following its twists becomes difficult.

Because of the crowded nature of the book and its emphasis on humor, characterization here takes a back seat. The reader does get a vivid impression of Dyke, but his constant quips place him within British tradition (particularly during the 1930’s and 1940’s) of witty male protagonists and thus impede his being seen as an individual. The profusion of his witticisms makes Dyke reminiscent of Dorothy L. Sayers’s Lord Peter Wimsey and even the Jeeves of P. G. Wodehouse.

On the strength of her early work, Ferrars might have become a practitioner of the humorous detective story, along the lines of her modern Henry Cecil. Such was not to be the case, however, for her career evolved in a much more conventional fashion.

The Wandering Widows

A characteristic novel of her later period is The Wandering Widows (1962), whose main character is once again a young man, Robin Nicholl. Nicholl is, however, a much more serious, and incidentally more middle-class, figure than Dyke. Robin has a few weeks available before starting a new job, and he decides to spend his time by vacationing on the island of Mull, one of the Hebrides. His reason for choosing this island is his preference for solitude: It is a romantic, isolated place, whose atmosphere is conducive to long, pensive walks. Ferrars, who clearly knows the Hebrides well, skillfully uses the geography and ambience of Mull to suggest the main features of Robin’s personality.

Robin’s desire for a few weeks of peace in which, like Heraclitus, he could “seek for himself,” is thwarted by his encounter with the Wandering Widows. These are four melancholic women who roam the island, wearing expensive jewels. They soon prove to have personalities as strange as their attire, and, as one might anticipate, murder is in the offing.

From this description, a similarity between Ferrars’s earlier work and her subsequent endeavors leaps to one’s attention. Here, as before, a bizarre element is present. Oddness is not, however, emphasized for its own sake. Rather, Ferrars devotes considerable care to her depiction of the personalities and difficulties of the widows. The reader has a vivid sense of each as a genuine person rather than a stereotyped comic character.

Hanged Man’s House

Ferrars showed her ability to vary from her usual pattern of domestic intrigue leading to murder in...

(The entire section is 1664 words.)