Shadows Before (Dorothy Bowers)

  • By Dorothy Bowers
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1939; US: Doubleday, 1940

The author’s second novel, rather sinister in tone. A (mysterious) companion is employed by a madwoman, who is subsequently poisoned, apparently by her husband, who has already been tried for his sister-in-law’s murder. Solidly entertaining, although the author tries too hard to be “artistic” in the Sayers / Mitchell vein (literary chapter headings et al.), and so comes across as being slightly pretentious; and the scenery occasionally gets in the way of the plot. The excellence of characterisation and the interest of the plot are more than adequate compensation for these flaws. What remains a disappointment is the solution: although ingenious, it is not quite convincing, suffering from the needless use of accomplices.


BLURBS

1939 Hodder & Stoughton

The best of modern detective fiction is a fine art. What the old tale of crime and terror has lost in blood and thunder, the novel of detection has gained in body, brain and human power. It is Hieronimo and Hamlet over again – and not altogether through masculine agency this time. Dorothy Bowers steps easily into this new tradition of crime for the connoisseur.

“All in common bondage to a hideous future.” That was how young Andrew Pitt looked back on the people who gathered at Spanwater the spring that Mrs. Weir was murdered. There was Matthew Weir, the gentle, absent-minded scholar to the life, acquitted of an earlier charge of murder but Weir of the Weir Case still; Augustus, his brother, impecunious and debonair. There was that uncomfortable person, Mrs. Kingdom, grim, spare and quick of eye; Aurelia Brett, companion to the dead woman; and Mond, the sort of butler no one with a choice would choose.

A heterogeneous household indeed; and highly interesting even to an expert investigator like Inspector Pardoe.

1940 Doubleday (US)

When Andrew Pitt looked back on the household assembled at Spanwater, the spring that Mrs. Weir was murdered, he wrote that all had been “in common bondage to a hideous future.” And, indeed, the future of them all seemed to cast a shadow before the events that took place in the quiet countryside.

The pattern of death in Mrs. Weir’s case followed so closely that of the famous Weir Case two years before, that the police found it difficult to keep an open mind; and there was always the complication caused by the dead woman’s well-known habit of gathering herbs and drinking the nauseous brew she made from them. The Weir household was uncoöperative, with the police and with each other, and it was only exceptionally hard work, combined with a little luck, which finally cleared the mystery surrounding the death of an inoffensive, slightly senile victim of circumstance. Dorothy Bowers is a young English writer who has been widely hailed in her own country as a second Dorothy Sayers, and her style and the full-blooded quality of her narrative makes such a description very apt. She has done a fine piece of work in this story, and mystery readers will recognize the advent of a true master of the art.


CONTEMPORARY REVIEWS

Times Literary Supplement (Mrs. Elizabeth L. Sturch, 1st July 1939): Unusual and complicated wills seem to have been very prolific sources of crime this week.  In fact it appears to be best, unless one wishes to encourage the wiping out of half one’s surviving relatives, to make bequests as simple and conventional as possible.  Flights of imagination in the disposition of wealth have led to no fewer than seven mysterious deaths and a large number of attempted murders in only three of this week’s detective stories…

Once more the disposal of a large fortune plays an important part in Shadows Before, by Miss Dorothy Bowers.  In an old and isolated country house lives a family where the husband has already once been barely acquitted of murder, and where the elderly and wealthy wife dies of arsenical poisoning.  More murders and other unaccountable events follow in exciting sequence; but actually one does not have very far to look for the person responsible for them, chiefly because the author has played almost too fair by making the criminal a quite unlikeable character from the start.  This story has two great virtues—that it is really competently written and that the thread of detection is straightforward and well planned, with absolutely no cheating.

D.S. Mel[unreadable], Daily Telegraph: Dorothy Bowers made a hit with her first thriller, and she now follows it up with a successful second. She shows again her gift for straight character drawing, her descriptive ability in country scenes, a nic sense of words, and she has kept the secret up her sleeve by fair means.

E.R. Punshon, Manchester Guardian: Not a first book but the second is the true test of a young author’s ability. If this is so, the test is one Miss Dorothy Bowers passes with distinction in Shadows Before.

A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): Like the earlier Postscript to Poison (1938), this is also about dosing—arsenic for all hands—and it has grave defects side by side with solid merits.  Too many interruptions and too much attention to scenery, flowers, and weather do not make us forget the excellent dialogue and suspense.  Insp. Pardoe and Sgt. Salt are able men, yet at the end the explanation seems incomplete: a flawed effort.