- By Anthony Rolls
- First published: UK: Bles, 1934
- Availability: British Library, 2017, edited by Martin Edwards
In the vein of Francis Iles, this is a wryly comic tale of poisonous relations, marital discord, and attempted murder – with an ending that delights some, and frustrates others.
For Robert and Bertha Kewdingham, in the country town of Shufflechester, marriage is not a bower of connubial bliss. He is an unemployed engineer, obsessed with curios (which he fondly imagines are Roman), quasi-fascist politics, and the occult (he believes he was High Priest of Atlantis). He is also an utterly odious little man, boring, boorish, and prone to mad fits of rage. It is hardly surprising that his wife should have an affair with his cousin, or that two people should want to murder him. His wife slowly poisons him with lead acetate, while Dr. Bagge administers lethal doses of alum chlorate as an experiment.
Family Matters was Rolls’s third Ilesian novel, following The Vicar’s Experiments and Lobelia Grove (both 1932). It was extremely well received; Dorothy L. Sayers (Sunday Times) declared it was “one of the best books of its kind that has appeared for some time,” while the Times Literary Supplement thought the story had “a much higher quality than the ordinary mystery or detective novel … a very clever book”. Its recent champions include Martin Edwards, Curtis Evans, J.F. Norris, and Jim Noy, although the “pretentious, lazy” ending disappointed TomCat.
I found Family Matters baffling. It is undeniably well-written, sardonic and waspishly amusing, but it is hard to like. The characters are all disagreeable; the small-town snobbery and stupidity pall; and marital strife and abuse are not fun to read about.
Rolls leaves it to the reader to decide who killed Kewdingham. He refuses to gratify their desire for an answer, but tantalizes them, denying them a resolution. As trolling, it’s admirable; nearly 90 years later, readers are arguing ‘What does it all mean?’. A conventional detective story might be forgotten, but we can speculate and theorise.
But as detective fiction, it’s annoying; an inconclusive ending is underwhelming, to say the least. Who did kill Kewdingham? Did he kill himself? He bought arsenic, and he was alone in the bathroom for 10 minutes with the datura and the arsenic. But then how did the poison get into the glass? Bertha didn’t put it there, even though she bought the green glasses and washed them up; and nor did John. Although John is morally culpable; he saw something (poison?) in the glass, but did nothing about it; he dismissed it as “illusion”.
If you ask my opinion, Kewdingham was bitten by a venomous green crocodile. He saw them, nobody else did; the reader thought they were hallucinations. But they were conjured up by the crooked financier Sundale, who is really the devil. (Hence his Mephistophelian appearance – black eyes, a black moustache like horns, a luscious red mouth, a bass voice – and temptation of Kewdingham.)
It makes as much sense as anything else. Hey, it’s PoMo! Ambiguous endings! Jouissance!
The ambiguous “Choose Your Own Ending” was done earlier – and better – by Lord Ernest Hamilton in The Four Tragedies of Memworth (1928).
The author of The Vicar’s Experiments, which was recommended by the Book Society and highly praised by the leading critics, here presents a pretty little problem in poisoning. Given an obvious “murderee” like the wretched Mr. Robert Kewdingham, who possessed unlimited resources for exasperating his relations and friends, what would happen if two enterprising persons with designs on his life chanced to use poisons which were reciprocally antidotal?
Times Literary Supplement (22 February 1934): The subject of Family Matters, by Anthony Rolls, is the strange death, undoubtedly by poisoning, of Robert Kewdingham; but the story has a much higher quality than the ordinary mystery or detective novel. In fact, for the reader there is no mystery; for him the actions of each character are made plain. But within the novel one character does not know what another is doing. The construction is extremely skilful; Mr. Rolls shows a marked power of describing a society and the individuals who constitute that society; he seems to possess a curious knowledge of chemistry; and he certainly possesses an abundance of saturnine or, better, rather gruesome humour.
The Kewdinghams, Poundle-Quaintons, Chaddlewicks and others were “petty town gentry,” conceited, stupid and intensely disagreeable. And of them all Robert Kewdingham was the most, and most artistically, unpleasant. The long wretchedness which drove Bertha Kewindham to attempt her husband’s life is cleverly depicted; in fact it is difficult to imagine a better portrayal of dull despair hardening into murderous resolve in a woman’s mind. Then intervenes Dr. Bagge, competent family practitioner and extremely competent experimental chemist. Dr. Bagge was anxious to test the possibly therapeutic but probably toxic properties of aluminium salts; it occurred to him that his patient, Mr. Robert Kewdingham, would be an admirable subject for experiment. But, if the author’s chemistry is to be trusted, Mr. Kewdingham and Dr. Bagge approaching the same problem from different angles produced a “resultant” which almost caused Dr. Bagge to lose his faith in science. When Kewdingham does die, sheer spitefulness (had they but known!) prompts two of the Kewdingham family to make random accusations against Bertha and Dr. Bagge; but calumny is confounded by Dr. Bagge’s demand, in the interests of science (!), for a Home Office inquiry; and the macabre humour of a quite seriously described coroner’s inquest is admirable. Immoral though it may be, the reader cannot restrain a chuckle at the Government experts’ grave appreciation of Dr. Bagge’s scientific evidence; and he almost sympathizes with the coroner’s eulogy of Dr. Bagge’s entirely honourable and courageous professional conduct. In fact Bagge, who might easily be a caricature, is a perfectly credible and rather sympathetic personality. The short epilogue which ends the story is in form irrelevant; in substances it is the cleverest and most truthful touch in a very clever book.
Dorothy L. Sayers, Sunday Times: One of the best books of its kind that has appeared for some time. The characters are quite extraordinarily living.
Daily Mail: An exciting thriller, keeping the reader amused, excited, and curious to the very end of the book.