Catherine Aird: Slight Mourning
6th in the Steel series (1975)

>>When Bill Fent dies in a car crash, the post mortem reveals
a lethal dose of barbiturate. And the poison must have been
administered by either his family or by a friend at his dinner party.
Inspector C.D. Sloan has a murderer to uncover.<<
(publisher’s blurb)

My planned read-through of this series has been not only delayed
but interrupted – I could not obtain books 4 and 5 in the series.
This is unfortunate because one of the things I wanted to establish
was how long it took Aird to really find and perfect her voice.
I certainly felt she had not done so by no.3, but she certainly has
here. This is the first in the series which I have read where I feel
that Aird is really in complete control of her writing and material.
It is therefore possible to identify fully her strengths (and weaknesses).
These are of peculiar interest because they are so fully developed
in Aird that they help one to clarify one’s thoughts about other writings.
What are the strengths?First she has a completely original voice. I could read a couple of pages of Aird at her best and identify her in a way that I could no other contemporary Britmyst writer (well except perhaps Hill and Walters). How? Because of her joy in language and phrase. I stress that by joy in language I do not mean purple prose. Aird is a very sparse prose
stylist and although she can construct a beautiful sentence, descriptive
prose holds no interest or attraction for her. What she delights in is
spoken language and most especially the cliche, axiom, adage, saw,
jargon. She will take a phrase like this and run with it. There is
something (and I am sure she would not thank me for saying so)
Freudian about this – I do not mean Freud as father of psychoanalytical
explanation (she is completely uninterested in this) but the Freud of
the Freudian slip, and the fascination with just the kind of linguistic
habits in which Aird delights. There is a jokiness here, a lightness
which characterises Aird at her best and is in different ways part
of essential Britmyst traditions reaching back to Christie on the one
hand, and Innes on the other.
What are her other strengths? Her learning. And learning very lightly
worn. This book includes discussions of the Bible, Chaucer, medieval
mystery plays and Giotto (not to mention poisons, cookery and
gardening) – but you would hardly notice; or you could certainly choose not
to notice.
Her chutzpah. Aird knew that even in 1975 the kind of closed village
whodunit which she was writing here was out-of-fashion and out-of-date.
And it bothers her not a whit. So she deliberately names her village
Constance Parva – as she and all dedicated Britmyst fans know thereby
blowing a raspberry in the direction of Colin Watson and his Mayhem Parva
(an attack on the village mystery tradition).

What then are the weaknesses? Well they are considerable. Characterisation
is poor, her protagonists (Sloan, Leeyes, Crosby) mere ciphers, in who’s
personal lives Aird has no interest and no consistency (as Emily’s posts
have pointed out), her sense of place almost non-existent (Calleshire
could be anywhere), her sociology either mundane to the point of
near parody or non-existent.
So what about her plotting? Well it is good but not spectacular. Obviously
this varies from book to book. Here it is pretty good – she does a good
job of misleading the reader, but the ultimate denouement is thinnish. There
are certainly many better plotters (though also worse!). It is not for the
plot that you would turn to Aird but they are not a weakness either.
No it is for the strengths which I have outlined above. Whether or
not you find these strengths is a matter of taste. But to discover if you
like Aird (and I think it worth finding out if you do because she is so
unique) read the first few chapters of this book. I almost say read the
first sentence…

‘Miss Cynthia Patterson considered herself something of a connoisseuse
of a good funeral’.

For me this is both classic and instantly appealing. It is both sparse
and yet exact; ‘connoisseuse’ – how evocative a word. Almost from
the very first sentence you have a picture, can tell what sort of a
book it will be, enjoy Aird’s delight in language. This demands a
rare precision and skill with prose. The funeral and preceding events
take up five chapters of Aird at her best. If you take pleasure in these
then you will want to read more of her, even if it is not always at this
level,and even if too much close together can make a surfeit as Emily has pointed out. If you don’t enjoy these chapters, well then you certainly won’t enjoy anything else she writes.

(November 2007)

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