Blue Murder (Harriet Rutland)

  • By Harriet Rutland
  • First published: UK: Skeffington & Son, 1942
  • Availability: Dean Street Press, introduction by Curtis Evans

There has rarely been such a repulsive family in Golden Age detective fiction as the Hardstaffes. Even the Greenes and the Hatters seem sweetness and light to this smugly self-satisfied brood of vipers. Theirs was madness on an operatic scale; the Hardstaffes are middle-class.

Hardstaffe senior is a pompous, sadistic, sulking schoolmaster; he horsewhips his wife and canes a student until he collapses. Emily Hardcastle is hypochondriacal, selfish, and a thoroughgoing snob. She changes her servants’ names, and sympathises with Hitler’s treatment of the Jews. Their daughter Leda is a hearty spinster who hates foreigners, thinks speaking other languages is unpatriotic, and calls a refugee maid ‘Jew’. Hardly surprising that young Stanton should break off relations with his father. And it’s no surprise at all that one of the family should be murdered.

Blue Murder is the last of three mysteries Harriet Rutland wrote towards the end of the Golden Age. It is less a detective novel, though, than a crime novel, midway between Winifred Blazey’s Dora Beddoe (1936, a psychological thriller Nicholas Blake thought stood comparison with Malice Aforethought) and the domestic crime novels of the Fifties. Rutland focuses on the characters and on her blackly comic dissection of the class system and British insularity. Despite a couple of investigating policemen, there is very little clueing or deduction. The murderer will come as no surprise; but there’s an easy naturalness and inevitability to the revelation. The ending is unusual; it’s a device Julian Symons used several times, and H.R.F. Keating at least once, but was not (that I can recall) used elsewhere in the Golden Age. It’s effective, but the resolution (or lack thereof) would not please W.H. Auden. Gur cbyvpr snvy gb neerfg gur zheqrere, jub tbrf hafhfcrpgrq; vafgrnq, n punenpgre vf znqr gur snyy thl, pbairavragyl “pbzzvgf fhvpvqr”, naq gur pnfr vf pybfrq.

Other reviews: Cross Examining Crime; Beneath the Stains of Time; In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel; Ah Sweet Mystery Blog

4 thoughts on “Blue Murder (Harriet Rutland)

  1. Gur cbyvpr, vaqrrq, snvy gb neerfg gur zheqrere, jub tbrf hafhfcrpgrq; vafgrnq, n punenpgre vf znqr gur snyy thl, pbairavragyl “pbzzvgf fhvpvqr”, naq gur pnfr vf pybfrq. How to read it?

    Like

  2. I was recently moved to reflect that this title seemed to keep coming up a lot in conversation, so I have it on my TBR and intend to get to it in the coming weeks. I’ve only skimmed the above, but I’m pleased to note that you rate it so highly — bodes well 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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