- By Roger East
- First published: UK: Collins, 1934
Critics (who ought to have known better) claimed that all detective story writers were politically conservative, if not right-wing; that their attitudes were as hidebound and stratified as the Incas’; and that they had no interest in characterization or theme. M’lud, members of the jury, in the genre’s defence, I present Roger East’s Candidate for Lilies.
East’s politics, one may guess, were left-wing. Under his own name, Roger Burford, he was a poet; he was a close friend of Christopher Isherwood; his first novel, Kay Walters (1928), published as Burford, was subtitled “A Woman of the People”; and he was a diplomat to Moscow during World War II.
In its quiet, naturalistic way, Candidate for Lilies, his third novel, is an impressive work – and a fine candidate for reprinting. Murder Rehearsal was a good detective story; this is a detective novel, almost straight fiction, with a criminal angle. (Dorothy L. Sayers thought it ”less original in its central idea than his earlier Murder Rehearsal, but it is much more even in texture and richer in its handling.”)
Arnold Burgoyne, ninety, rich, and malevolent, invites two nephews and his niece to his country house, Clarendon. Over dinner, he tells them that he will alter his will, and leave the mansion to his housekeeper. An hour later, Burgoyne has been murdered in his library, shot dead with an antique duelling pistol.
Not that old chestnut, you cry – but East handles it beautifully. The ultra-conventional murder is necessary to a story about the danger of conventions and conservatism. In many ways, this is a forerunner to Gosford Park, using the classic mould of the whodunnit to predict – midway through the long weekend – the decline of the country house.
A Tennysonian idea of a noble pile: impossibly vulgar, or wistful – which was it? – watching as they came down the drive those who had it in their power to close down and break up, or to continue the warrant for its existence. An anachronism, or soon to be one: almost an anachronism from its birth. But it stood for a beauty, though a beauty, a way of life, that had been superseded: croquet, glass-houses, sons in Afghanistan, droves of servants – all that. The menace of a new life (farm tractors in Russia) threatened it: three professed enemies were walking down the drive now. […]
There was also for Sophy, as they came into its shadow, a dread. The organism hadn’t broken down yet, and it might have for them before they had done a last vicious snap. Perhaps they ought to go away at once, before – in the words of melodrama – worse befell them.Chapter VIII
The murder victim embodies the evils of inherited wealth and power, wanting to use his fortune to control his relatives, and disinheriting them because they do not share his sense of family tradition. Sophy, the intelligent, progressive heroine, has always presumed the decay of the capitalist system, without being radical. And the murderer clings to the past; he is greedy for inheritance and estates in “a world that spun hourly toward a different system”.
“But you can’t,” Sophy thought, “murder people for the sake of land. It’s” – she found the real tragedy for [the murderer] – “it’s so out of date.”Chapter XIV
“Our children, or our grandchildren, won’t be living in a world in which Clarendon is possible,” she tells the killer. “Spiritually, it isn’t for me now. You don’t see the world as I see it… You’re still living in the past – oh, yes, in spite of concrete gate-posts and drinking troughs. I’m clinging on to a way of life that I’ve evolved on my own responsibility. It can’t be simply stated; it’s come out of trial and error, but I can’t turn back. It’s a world that doesn’t include Clarendon…”
Politics aside, East writes beautifully. (Edward Shanks in John o’ London’s declared it ”One of the best written detective stories I have read for a long time.”) The people are superbly observed, real and nuanced; even the exotic, ex-actress fiancée – a divorcée, descended from foreign nobility – is not the usual predatory female, but sincere and a tower of strength. East is quite sexually frank for the normally PG-rated genre; there is a description of lovemaking from the woman’s perspective, sympathetically and sensitively written (Ch. VIII). The murderer is not caught; the police declare the crime unsolved and unsolvable, but the murderer still carries his own punishment. Like Marlowe’s Mephastophilis, “where we are is hell, and where hell is, there must we ever be”.
More terrible was the realisation of a failure: that he was finally, after it all, a man with knowledge of his mistake: a man who had prided himself once on his sanity and shrewdness: who couldn’t even now tear out from his entrails the ball of stubbornness and pride and confess and take from Sophy all the pity which welled up in her […]
Sophy could hardly hear him for the pain of pity and horror which was bursting in her heart. It didn’t matter what happened […] Whatever happened there was a shadow to sit with him, the tragedy had only begun. He would have to go on, hiding from the world … the sin not of murder so much as of folly. Actions in themselves worthy, irreproachable desires, had ravelled into a knot which not even wisdom now could untie. It was too late, for he had died as surely as if he had stepped in front of the clanking train.
Comparatively, what happened now was a matter of indifference.Chapter XIV
Four days before he was murdered, old Arnold Burgoyne wrote four letters summoning his lawyer, his niece and his two nephews to his country house with the thinly-disguised purpose of altering his will. With his heirs gathered round him at the dinner table, the old man explained what changes he intended to make in the disposal of his property if – The result was disturbing to some of his hearers. But that same night old Uncle Arnold was murdered at his desk. Mr. Roger East, the clever young author of Murder Rehearsal, amply fulfils the outstanding promise of that brilliant detective story, and in Candidate for Lilies has written a most fascinating story that from the very first page will grip the attention of the reader.
Sunday Times (Dorothy L. Sayers, 28th January 1934):
The difference between thrillers and detective story is mainly one of emphasis. Agitating events occur in both, but in the thriller our cry is “What comes next?”—in the detective story, “What came first?” The one we cannot guess; the other we can, if the author gives us a chance. Here, then, are three detective stories and a thriller.
Mr. Roger East gives us plenty of chance to guess—too much, perhaps, for those readers who like to be stunned by a blinding revelation on the last page but one. He is too honest in the drawing of character to disguise the innocence of his innocent people. That does not really matter, because he makes all his people so interesting that we are eager to follow out the story to the end. Candidates for Lilies is less original in its central idea than his earlier Murder Rehearsal, but it is much more even in texture and richer in its handling. The murderee is a puckish nonagenarian who gives his guests boiling-hot cantaloupe for dinner—which you may consider to be in itself a crime worthy of death. When preparing to alter his will, he is shot in the—dear me, yes!—in the library; his heirs, naturally, share the suspicion among them.
The minor problem of what to do with the criminal when discovered is solved in an unusual and impressive way. One or two points call for comment: You cannot for instance, obtain from Somerset House information about the testamentary intentions of living persons, and I think Mr. East has confused two allied species of poisonous plant. These, however, are trifles, and the book is more than readable.
Times Literary Supplement (8th February 1934):
Uncle Arnold was ninety and sardonic. So the mysterious person who shot him through the window of his own library near Leicester was not greatly loathed by the kin-folk. He had invited them to meet and hear the changes he meant to make in his will. They wondered whether it was one of them or someone else. There was Philip, nephew and scientific farmer, living near; his pretty wife Dorothy; younger nephew Herbert from London, literary and in debt; Herbert’s affectionate and capable sister Sophy; Herbert’s fiancée Esme, ex-actress, and disapproved by Uncle; Wilbraham the lawyer; Mrs.Riddle, the timid little housekeeper, to who Uncle had threatened to bequeath the house; Owen, the tenant with a grievance. Inspector Forbes gave them all a bad time, but caught nobody. The district is described in such sentences as “the stylised perfection of green grass and curly fleece endlessly repeated projected into the present world an echo of the 23rd Psalm.” But the story is quite clearly told, and the problem solved for the reader, although not for the police.
Dr. Watson in the Manchester Evening Chronicle: It was, therefore, both with hopes and fears that I opened Mr East’s second book. Would it prove a disappointment, or would it fulfil the promise of his first novel? Actually, I got an immense surprise. Mr. East is certainly an extremely clever man. He has now, I consider, given decisive proof that he is likely to enter the first flight of detective story writers.
Edward Shanks in John o’ London’s: One of the best written detective stories I have read for a long time.