Joanna Cannan – And Be A Villain (1958)

Laura Langley, newly widowed and left impoverished, visits her daughter, Eve Hallow, in the midlands town of Beetham. Laura is expecting to come and live with Eve, but Eve’s husband Richard, Dr Hallow, plans to put her into an old-people’s home. Even Laura’s other daughter Primrose is prepared to go along with this plan. Before they can tell her Richard is found murdered in his surgery. As, apart from being an inveterate womaniser, Richard is a
highly incompetent Doctor who wilfully neglects his non-private patients,
there should be no shortage of suspects. Unfortunately Superintendent Ronald Price and his assistant Sergeant Cyril Haddock (sic) are called in from Scotland Yard and proceed to make a complete hash of the case. It is left to
Laura to discover the truth.

As appears to be generally the case with these late Cannans the mystery plot
here is a peg in which the author can hang her peculiar sociological and
political observations. In a way this is unfortunate as the initial
situation is vividly painted and would certainly make the basis for an
interesting plot. On the other hand, Cannan’s observation are both so
peculiar and so well-written, in this book at least, that they provide
plenty of interest to sustain the reader who enjoys odd sociological and
political observations.

One of the outstanding features is the appearance of a positive gay
character, Laura’s nephew Jonathan, who has previously been jailed for
homosexuality (and it is always good to reminded that a mere 50 years ago
gay men were jailed) and now lives in France. His generosity and warmth are placed in sharp contrast to Laura’s daughters. I wonder if this is the first
positive gay character (openly gay that is) in British mystery fiction?
However, it is necessary to speedily correct any notion that Cannan’s
political stance therefore belongs to the Left (as regular readers will well
know). Indeed part of the fascination is trying to establish exactly what
that stance is (it is worth saying that in this case this is wholly
justifiable given that, as previously remarked, so much of her books are
concerned with political and sociological observation). Ronald Price is her
hate figure and, in this book, Laura the character whom one may assumes
speaks for Cannan herself (although one would hope that her famous
daughters – the various Pullein-Thompsons did not exhibit the
characteristics of the fictional Eve and Primrose). Price is, by his own
estimation (and Cannan’s), a Socialist – what this appears to mean for her
is that he enthusiastically embraces modern (1950’s) developments. There is
appalling snobbery on all sides in this book and Cannan has great fun with
the impact of Nancy Mitford; Price is trying desperately to be U (for he is
a snob himself as well as a Socialist). Basically Cannans position is a kind
of romantic conservatism ; what she is against is modern life and anyone who has any pretensions. The middle classes are therefore especially abhorred. The working class with their hideous accents are alright as long as they accept their lot in life and doff their caps. The only really acceptable
types are the squirearchy, and especially anyone who rides (she is after all
the doyenne of the pony story!). But Cannan is realistic enough to recognise
that they are dying out. So the only real solution – which Laura embraces in
the end – is to leave hideous England altogether and settle with gay
Jonathan in his decayed chateau in France, there to cultivate her garden.

In its own peculiar way this is a fascinating book. One might end with a
final observation – Christie is often denoted by lazy observers as a
conservative writer; to do so without specifying what is meant by this is
twaddle ,and reading Cannan, who is avowedly conservative yet as far in some respects from Christie as it is possible to be, demonstrates this with great clarity.

(January 2008)

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