Return of the gentleman sleuth


Kathryn L Ramage:
The Abrupt Disappearance of Cousin Wilfrid.
Storylandia, The Wapshott Journal of Fiction Issue 16,
The Wapshott Press, Summer 2015.

When the Great War began in the summer of 1914, I was a boy of eighteen. Like so many boys of my age, I was eager to go and fight. We saw it as a grand opportunity for adventure, as well as a chance to do a fine and noble thing. Dulce et decorum est … but none of us believed we would be the ones to die for our country. We couldn’t possibly imagine how many of our number would die. We couldn’t foresee that we would return to —

Kathryn Ramage’s Death Among the Marshes introduced us to Frederick Babington, gentleman sleuth with a twist. Traumatised by the war (as the beginning of his memoir hints) he had no doubt hoped to find a return to normality — or at least sanity — but tragedy still dogged him when deaths among his landed gentry family threw suspicion on all and sundry. In a bid to escape the guilt that had resulted from his ‘bungled’ attempts to solve mysteries he goes to Abbotshill between Ipswich and Stowmarket to reassure his Aunt Dorothea: she is being pestered by Freddie’s cousin Wilfrid and his mother Lydia who dispute she has a right to Abbotshill House.

When Wilfrid quarrels with Freddie too, and it subsequently turns out that he has had altercations with others in the extended family, things look increasingly suspicious when the black sheep of the family then disappears. Has he simply gone away in high dudgeon or has he been done away with? Enquiries by the local police and by Freddie seem to highlight plenty of individuals with possible motives for seeing Wilfrid out of the picture, but until a body turns up no answers can be arrived at. Then a body does turn up, but it isn’t Wilfrid’s.

As with Ramage’s previous Freddie Babington story we are thrown straight in at the deep end. We the readers have two choices: go with the flow or take copious notes. I took the latter route, but wasn’t sure that it helped me much. There are detailed descriptions of locations and family kinships, an emerging chronology of events and individual revelations. We’ll expect the usual red herrings and misdirections, of course, but like many a good writer of the ‘cozy’ genre the final denouement will have been clearly signposted if only we had the wit to spot it early on.

But while the author has plotted her story with due care and attention to detail, it’s the contexts that make this a lot less of a run-of-the-mill cozy and a lot more than a just competent novella. Placing this case in the early twenties allows Ramage to explore not just the mechanisms of the classic whodunit (as initiated by Agatha Christie with The Mysterious Affair at Styles in 1920) but the ramifications of casting a generation of young men adrift after the horrors of a bloody and near interminable war. How do they come to terms with civilian life when the whole world has been turned on its head? And what about the ever-present fear of foreign infiltrators and spies, echoed in various novels such as John Buchan’s The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) and earlier by Erskine Childers’ The Riddle of the Sands (1903) and G K Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday (1908)?

In terms of characterisation there is much to admire here: Freddie is a tortured soul with good intentions, through whose sensitive but driven eyes we mostly see events unfold; Billy his manservant is touchingly anxious about Freddie’s recuperation; Wilfrid’s mother, the redoubtable Lydia, goes from beastly termagant to almost human for whom we feel some pity; and Inspector Deffords proves to be even more perspicacious than we expected. Ramage has a sensitive ear for the nuances of early 20th-century British speech, only once or twice dispelling the illusion, as when she references ‘drapes’ instead of ‘curtains’ and ‘rail station’ when a British audience would expect ‘railway station’; and I should add that ‘bi-election’ should be ‘by-election’ (what’s known as a special election in the States). None of this of course ruined my enjoyment of a well-crafted tale.

Judging from various vague clues in the text Abbotshill — with its ruined Hallows Abbey and located on the railway line running north from London Liverpool Street through Ipswich — is situated ten miles from Ipswich and not far from Stowmarket in Suffolk. Much as I’d like to postulate that it could be based on one model or another — Creeting St Mary near Needham Market, for example, in an area where there used to be one of a handful of priories — the exercise is ultimately fruitless. So here I append a mock-up of the literary village of Abbotshill, should anyone want to orientate themselves with a copy of The Abrupt Disappearance of Cousin Wilfred at hand. The map, I need hardly say, is not to scale.

Postscript After posting this review I found this piece, placed online coincidentally as I was finishing my draft:

Abbotshill, Suffolk (note: not to scale)

7 thoughts on “Return of the gentleman sleuth

  1. I love the map! It corresponds very closely to my own mental geography of the village.

    My editor and I are working to fix the by-election typo, and I’ll look at the other words. It doesn’t matter if the narrator sounds American, but the characters definitely shouldn’t. 🙂

    Thanks so much for your review.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much, Kathryn, any close correspondence between my map and your mental construct is down to your own detailed descriptions which make this Suffolk mini-environment so vivid.

      The by-election typo was distinctive only because it was virtually the only one I was aware of, so kudos to you and to Ginger as editor! To be fair, ‘drapes’ was from the narrative voice — so not really a false note — leaving just ‘rail station’ as a minor quibble, and that’s just me being ultra-pernickity! I have to say the overall tone was to my ear pretty much faultless and therefore all to your credit. Looking forward to the third Freddie Babington mystery now!


  2. Definitely arouses my interest!
    Having been much in the company of people whose era that was, I feel comfortable with books set at that time in history – but I would also have been irritated with lapses into modern terminology.
    I think I have previously commented how much I was fascinated by The Riddle of the Sands, and by the excellent sequel by Sam Llewellyn, The Shadow in the Sands.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Pingback: Storylandia 16 review | Storylandia

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