Joanna Cannan – They Rang Up The Police (1939)

Joanna Cannan – Death At The Dog (1940)

Joanna Cannan – Murder Included (aka A Taste of Murder aka Poisonous Relations (1950)

I have already written fairly extensively about Cannan ( see , and ). I shall not therefore be saying any more about her post-war policeman (and hate-figure) Ronald Price who makes his debut in Murder Included. And I wonder why it is that I am drawn back to this author, who cannot by any stretch of the imagination be counted among the first-rank of mystery writers? The answer, I think, lies in the complete loopiness (to coin a phrase) which her books demonstrate. Cannan uses her mysteries as a vehicle for expounding her own political and social ideas – and I think it is quite fair to justify these as loopy. It is also fair to admit that I have dim childhood memories of consuming her daughter’s pony books which – as far as I can recall – were similarly loopy.

Joanna Cannan (1898-1961) was part of, and greatly increased, a large literary family ( see ). In fact the Wikipedia article makes the rather sad claim that…

it is perhaps her children she is best known for, being mother to Josephine Pullein-Thompson, Diana Pullein-Thompson, Christine Pullein-Thompson and Denis Cannan.

although I suppose this is better than being known as a wife! The claim is, in any case, not true as far as mystery readers are concerned. The daughters were exclusively concerned with pony books (and their output was prodigious). Cannan herself wrote 9 pony books and a substantial amount of other fiction in addition to her mysteries.

They Rang Up The Police is an extraordinary book. This is not so much to do with the quality of the mystery, although the murderer certainly comes as a surprise, as it is with its strange, almost gothic quality and its psychological depth. This latter is very rare in the Golden Age. There is an element of horror in Cannan’s portrait of a seemingly harmonious upper-class all female English household,which is actually wholly dysfunctional. This is one of those books whose meaning only becomes clear at the end, and one then wants to re-read the whole thing with one’s eyes open, as it were. It is noteworthy that Cannan makes use of that now hackneyed device, the killer’s diary (or confession or thoughts), at the end of the book and she does so with a verve and depth which sadly elude many of today’s attempts at the same technique. This book is all the better for not having one of Cannan’s heroes or heroines. My problem with these is that I generally find them very unsympathetic and end up, counter-intuitively, disliking them. I recall exactly the same was true of her daughter’s pony book’s good boys and girls!

The moral scheme which determines whether a character is positive or negative is of considerable interest. To be positive a character must live their life according to their own rules and lights, they must be unconcerned with social status and position and wealth and material objects, they must generally dislike social conventions, they will much prefer the country to the city, they will hate modernity and reject its manifestations (in one pony book I remember that modernity took the guise of a girl who spent her time with her record player – this would have been early to mid 60’s – this was a sign that she was a bad apple, spoiled and selfish: she goes to stay with her horsey cousins who eventually convert her to their healthy outdoor ways. As all I wanted at the time was to stay indoors, not be made to go horse-riding, and a record player would have been my idea of heaven, it is not surprising that the Pullein-Thompson moral schemata failed to appeal!). While some of these traits appear attractive, it is a curious thing that I always end up strongly disliking these characters. There are however none of them in They Rang Up The Police – the horsey character is in fact a dreadful bully, who becomes the murder victim. In my view this is much the best mystery that Cannan wrote (a view which runs very much against received opinion). It has its tedium in the shape of the investigation : as with so many Golden Age writers, including most notably Marsh and Sayers, Cannan has difficulty in maintaining the narrative pace and tension here. But the psychological depth and the overall conceit are excellent. In its way this is a rather horrifying book and certainly very strange. In the very last paragraph as the policeman , Guy Northeast, reflects on the case, he ponders that…

And its true that it’s worse to spoil a life than to kill someone, and it’s true that freedom is a splendid thing

…which is a very odd attitude for a policeman, whether Golden Age or not : in fact the first contention is fairly odd altogether, but that’s a whole other debate! The phrase  ‘freedom is a splendid thing’ might be taken as Cannan’s mantra – but this freedom does not seem to extend to those who wish to spend their lives in any other than her approved ways.

Inspector Northeast is heralded as something of an innovation among 30’s detectives, being the son of a farmer who is a reluctant policeman. In Death at The Dog he proceeds to fall in love with Crescy, the book’s novelist heroine. Indeed lots of the male characters in the book are in love with Crescy. In many ways that is the book’s main interest. The plot itself is somewhat mundane and has none of the interest of They Rang Up The Police – in particular the identity of the murderer is very unsurprising. This book is set at the very beginning of WW2 and must therefore be counted as WW2 mystery though it does not impinge very much. The murder setting and method are strongly reminiscent of Marsh’s Death at the Bar which coincidentally was also set in 1940! Perhaps there had been some real-life case which got both writers thinking or perhaps there was just something about darts in the air that year? In any case this is an unfortunate resemblance for me, as Death at The Bar is one of my least favourite Marsh’s.

Murder Included is generally held up as Cannan’s best work. I have already discussed it in comparison to Joyce Porter (see link above) so will just reproduce (for ease of reference and logically) what I said there…

Price is a vehicle for Cannan’s political views on the world of post-WW2 England; into him she pours her hatred of modernity as represented by the welfare state, mass culture, mass production, worker’s rights, labour-saving devices and a whole mass of bizarre right-wing prejudices.  This certainly makes the Price books of interest and Cannan also satirises other targets, albeit with less viciousness, including the stupidity of the English Establishment. It is this which can disguise her, certainly individual, political biases. In Murder Included (aka Poisonous Relations and The Taste of Murder) Cannan’s distaste for England is taken to the extent that her heroine can only find peace and happiness by retreating to the South of France, which is presented as an idyllic heaven where individuality is allowed free rein (the supposed suppression of individuality, whether by the politics of the Labour Government or the emotional and intellectual constipation of the English upper class, being what Cannan detests most). I have sidetracked into a more lengthy discussion of  Cannan than I intended, but I hope that it is clear that her creation of Wilfrid Price is intended to allow her to pour her hate and prejudice and political views into this character (this is a tactic which can massively backfire: counterintuitvely, and being of a very different political persuasion to Cannan, I actually rather like Price).  Cannan’s character is set against other characters including – in Murder Included – a heroine possessing what the author would see as virtues.

As a mystery plot it is well above average, and Cannan again uses the technique of the murderer’s confession (here in the shape of a letter) effectively to round the book off. But for me it is too disfigured by her peculiar prejudices to be of the first rank. It is a paradox in a way that precisely what draws me to Cannan – her loopy moral and political outlook – is also what prevents the books being really first-rate mysteries. There is too much getting in the way : what gets in the way is fascinating, but it still gets in the way. To some extent this is a real cause for regret because They Rang Up The Police shows the very considerable potential which Joanna Cannan had as a mystery writer.