Last Rights – Barbara Nadel – 2005

It is October 1940, the height of the Blitz, and East End undertaker Francis
Hancock is reliving his nightmares from World War 1; unable to cope with
shelters, he wanders the streets when there is a raid on. During the course
of one such nocturnal adventure he comes across a man who is screaming that he has been stabbed. Francis ignores the man’s claims but when he turns up in the shape of a corpse at his funeral parlour a couple of days later
Francis is compelled to investigate. He is thereby drawn into a mysterious
trail of events involving the man’s wife, Pearl, who it transpires is the
daughter of a woman convicted of murdering her husband by stabbing him to death, and her sisters.

There are two distinct considerations I want to make of this book; the first
as an individual mystery, the second as a WW2 mystery. As an individual
mystery I found Last Rights poor. I have read one of Nadel’s Istanbul-based
Cetin Ikmen series and did not like that, so perhaps that is no surprise. I
find Nadel’s prose over-written and somewhat leaden, her narrative rather
repetitive and far from compelling, and her plotting far from startling.
There is certainly some Gothic splendour in the denouement here but, for me, it manages to be at once over-complex and yet far from wholly unexpected. There can be no doubt as to her passion about injustice and her historical writing presents a clear picture of the way in which the Blitz effected some of London’s poorest communities. But the points being made, valid though they are, always seem forced rather than integral to the story.

Which does lead me on to consideration of the book as a WW2 book. And here I found it immensely valuable even if only by negative example. Two things emerged very clearly.

1) A really first-rate WW2 mystery should be specific to the War. That is to
say everything about it – plot, character development, sociology, background should be tied to the events of the War and only possible in those particular historical circumstances. It is exactly this which makes Laura Wilson’s Stratton’s War so exemplary. In the case of Last Rights while the background, sociology and to some extent character development are so tied, the plot, which is the most crucial of all, could really have been set at any time. I now realise that in a way this was one problem with Ironside’s
Good Death. Not to the extent to which it applies in this case but some at
least of the relationship between the characters, the girls in particular,
could have taken place at other times.

2.) Neutral protagonists. To examine the war and the way it affected people
it is best to have as neutral a protagonist as possible so that they can
serve as exemplars; as Everymen and Everywomen. A quirky, idiosyncratic
protagonist makes the story about themselves rather than about the War. This does not mean that the characters have to lack individuality or, indeed,
character (sorry!). In Stratton’s War neither Stratton himself, nor Diana
Calthrop lack this. But to examine this question further we need to go back
to our two great classic models of the WW2 mystery. In N or M Christie very
deliberately decided against using either Poirot or Marple for her War
novel; instead she went for the, comparatively, colourless Tommy and
Tuppence. It was through them that she could express what she felt about the War, why it was being fought and what it meant. Margery Allingham did not have the option of choosing another detective so she decided , in one of the most brilliant moves of any mystery series ever, to give Albert Campion
amnesia for a good part of the book. This stripped him of his individuality
and made him Everyman (it also enabled her to decisively mature him and
advance his character development but that’s another story).
In Last Rights by contrast, Fred Hancock (who additionally is a
first-person narrator and thus even more central than were he in the
third-person) is made into a very unique character – half-Indian, an
undertaker, tormented by his WW1 experiences, full of guilt for what he did,
obsessed with his duty to the dead. Now all these things might or might not
make for an appealing and interesting protagonist (personally I found his
saintliness grew somewhat wearisome but that is a personal reaction) ; what
they certainly do not allow for is his particular vision and experiences to
translate into any sort of general one. Where Stratton’s War was in fact
about Everyman’s (and through Diana Everywoman’s) War, Last Rights is in
fact very much about Hancock’s War.

There is enough here to prevent this book from being positively bad. The
plot does have a certain Gothic quality and a lot of information is
conveyed. But that is really all I can say for Last Rights. Its greatest
value to me was to help me clarify my thinking on the subject of WW2
mysteries.

(March 2009)

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