Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1664
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...
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- Critical Essays
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 Hanged Man’s House (1974). This novel represents her closest approach to an espionage story. In this novel, Dr. Charles Gair, a scientist working at the Martindale research establishment, is found hanged. It soon transpires that he was not killed by hanging but had died before. Subsequently, a second body is discovered in Gair’s house—this one perfectly mummified. This victim turns out to be a foreign visitor who had been missing for a year. What does his death have to do with Gair’s? Why is the latter’s passport missing? These are among the questions confronting the book’s protagonist, Inspector Patrick Dunn.
From the material so far presented, a reader might expect that an espionage tale would follow, but appearances can mislead, and they often do in Ferrars’s work. She never deviated too much from her usual sort of story. Here, as before, there is a handsome, shrewd, kind young man who solves the crime. Further, the plot has nothing at all to do with espionage, whatever expectations the story’s setting may have aroused. A romantic entanglement, involving among others the wife of the research center’s administrative officer and Gair’s estranged wife, lies at the center of the plot.
Alive and Dead
Similarly, in another novel published in the same year as Hanged Man’s House, Alive and Dead, Ferrars only superficially departs from her usual donnée. Alive and Dead is set in a home for unwed mothers. Ferrars does not use this setting, however, as an opportunity to comment on the controversial social issues of poverty and abortion. Quite the contrary, a traditional story once more ensues. A young woman working at the home finds oddities in the patterns of referral the home employs. She does not allow her dismissal from the home to impede her attempt to get to the bottom of the strange referrals—but murder soon muddies the waters.
If, once more, Ferrars has not much altered her course, it does not follow that she was uninterested in women’s issues. Her female characters often tend to be well-educated career women, whose pursuit of a career does not take second place to romance and marriage. Her emphasis on strong, independent female characters allies her more with later writers such as P. D. James than with her slightly older contemporaries Agatha Christie and Ngaio Marsh. Still, Ferrars cannot be viewed as a particularly ardent advocate of women’s rights. The question of women’s position is treated in her novels more as a matter of nuance than as a major theme. She cannot in this regard be compared to Gladys Mitchell, for whom the place of women was all-important.
Last Will and Testament
In the works so far discussed, Ferrars stressed plot much more than character, however much her approach to the latter increased in seriousness and depth over the years. A change took place in some of Ferrars’s later works, beginning with Last Will and Testament (1978). Here a new character is introduced, Virginia Freer, who reappears in Frog in the Throat (1980). She is a woman in her mid-thirties who has had to divorce an irresponsible husband, who has some connection, never fully specified, with the criminal underworld. Ferrars analyzes at considerable length Virginia’s attitudes toward her former husband, demonstrating a remarkable skill in the depiction of precise shadings of emotion. Sometimes, Virginia admires him; at others, she resents him; more frequently, she does both at once. Yet, although her attitude toward him is never unreservedly hostile and her problems as a divorcée are candidly mentioned, she never seriously entertains the thought of reuniting with him. She is no romantic cutout, but a realistically conceived person whose personality elicits a shock of recognition from the reader.
Unlike P. D. James and Ruth Rendell, however, Ferrars resisted firmly any tendency to move from detective fiction to a standard novel. If Virginia is a personality one might easily come across in a novel, her fellow characters are not. Her former husband, for example, has many of the traits of Ferrars’s familiar heroes, including good humor and remarkable powers of intuition and detection. Although he finds it at least as difficult to speak truthfully as most people do to tell a significant lie, he is nevertheless a likable character. Further, the story itself is fairly conventional. Virginia’s husband has been promised a legacy, but interfering and malicious relatives of the old woman who has died soon complicate matters. The elderly benefactress has not died a natural death but has been murdered.
In summary, Ferrars was a hardworking professional within a well-established literary genre. Paradoxically, as the style of detective fiction she practiced went out of fashion, her work became more original simply by remaining constant. In the 1940’s, Ferrars was but one of many writers of classic mysteries; by the 1970’s and 1980’s, when mystery fiction rarely followed the conventions once customary in the English detective story, she came to seem unique.
Ferrars’s style is direct and to the point. She displayed a wide familiarity with literature, although she did not clutter her pages with allusions to the classics in the style of Sayers. Characters will sometimes quote a line or two of appropriate verse; Walter de la Mare is a frequent source, although generally not explicitly named.
One characteristic of her style sharply distinguished Ferrars from many contemporary mystery writers. Although her stories involve murder, violence is never described; the details are left entirely to the reader’s imagination. Although she was no prude, she avoided the modern custom of explicitly describing sexual encounters. Her characters all speak in educated English, and she displayed no interest in portraying members of other classes whose characteristic form of expression would differ from this. Vulgar or abusive language is also conspicuous by its absence. If the world she portrayed was a limited one, it was nevertheless one she thoroughly explored with persistence and ingenuity over her long career.