SANDMOUTH is so very British that its appeal in the United States can only be to the most die-hard Anglophile. In general, Ronald Frame’s overwhelming cast of characters is excessively concerned with points of class distinctions so fine and so specifically English as to get lost in crossing the Atlantic. For example, a nagging wife laments the fact that her husband drives a Hillman: “She deserved a Humber at least.”
Few people are happy in SANDMOUTH; couples and singles alike seem discontentedly obsessed with sex, often of a homosexual nature. Two visiting actors, for example, separately find willing partners in a bank teller whose marriage is curiously incomplete and in a young woman briefly down from London to visit her friend, the local lady novelist.
Through all the activities of the day shambles Tilly Moscombe, the young mental defective who will inherit the bulk of her aunt’s estate. The aunt, Lady de Castellet, lies impatiently on her deathbed, just barely shielded from a host of would-be heirs. Meanwhile Tilly wanders, listening and watching, sometimes the invited confidante, sometimes the dangerously unwanted voyeur.
By the novel’s end, someone will be dead and Frame will have coyly left the reader to puzzle out the murderer’s identity. SANDMOUTH provides a remote intellectual pleasure, but as one of Frame’s characters says of the detective novel she soon set aside, it is “a slow read, a bit cerebral.” Retrospectively, then, SANDMOUTH seems a mildly clever mystery, but without a mystery’s standard pleasures. To quote the detective novel within Frame’s novel, SANDMOUTH is a not very original exploration of the idea that “time chases its tail,” meaning in this case that characters can never escape their past. Fortunately, the reader can.