A Swan-Song Betrayed (Josephine Bell)

By Josephine Bell

First published: UK, Hodder & Stoughton, 1978

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My copy is signed (bought it for a song on E-bay five or six years ago), but it’s still not very good—a swan-song betrayed, then?

It’s not a detective story, but a sub-Rendellian crime-novel, lacking Rendell’s characterisation, tight control over plot, and irony.

Indeed, it seems to lack direction, largely because our initial interest is in the elderly author Mrs. Grosshouse / Anita Armstrong, whom we expect will be the main character.

Certainly, the old woman’s perspective at the start, with its rather jaundiced view of the 1970s, and its fear that young people are vicious, shallow and on the make, preying on old people, gives that impression.

However, Mrs. Grosshouse and her circle dramatically recede in importance, and Bell changes her emphasis to the beautiful but stupid schemer Judy Smith (so stupid that she’s never heard the word ‘currency’).

It doesn’t feel as though this was Bell’s original intention; rather, that she changed swans in mid-stream, making the book feel loose and pointless.  Scenes come out of nowhere (e.g., Clare tries to murder Judy; Judy’s experience at Sir Edgar’s party); characterisation suffers (Chris, Len and the villain Sir Edgar are all flat—certainly, Bell’s attempts to describe the relationship between Judy and Chris is scanty and half-hearted); competent scenes (the explosion of the boat) don’t fit into an organic whole, but remain isolated; and the ending feels abrupt and inconsequential.

The idea of smuggling drugs in books isn’t bad, but never feels more than a sub-plot.  Seems to have been intended at one point as theme of romantic fiction linked to drug addiction (à la Murder Must Advertise).  In fact, because there’s no unifying theme or character, nothing feels significant—a very disjointed and inevitably boring book.

  • Rendellian elements: study in weak characters, criminal activity (but not murder) shown developing
  • Is Anita Armstrong a self-portrait of Bell?—elderly widowed author.  Bell, of course, more prolific, but her husband died in 1930s.
  • Novelist writing book (gestation): Mitchell’s Mudflats of the Dead.
  • Boat trip to France: House Above the River.  Authors specialising in boats usually men (Crofts, Rhode, Garve, Childers, Blake’s Penknife in My Heart)—Mitchell and Bell the only women.
  • Lots of swearing—‘effing’—which Bell complained about, from memory (Black Dagger—House Above the River?)


Anita Armstrong had once been a notable bestseller.  But that was before the war, before her marriage, and before her impulse to write died with her husband.  Now, as elderly widowed Mrs. Grosshouse, living peacefully and unknown in Devon, Anita begins a new novel, anxiously, hopefully feeling her way and finding it grow.  Her literary agent and former publisher are politely cautious, but friends are encouraging and she manages to enlist the services of a girl called Judy to do the typing.  Trouble only starts when Judy and her boyfriend Chris appear to be taking much more impatient interest in the progress of Anita’s book than its author is even aware of.

Contemporary reviews

The Times (H.R.F. Keating, 28th September 1978):

A forgotten best-selling novelist writes again, with murderous consequences.  And intriguing idea and vigorous prose spells it out.