Sunday, July 16, 2023

Margaret Erskine: The Voice of Murder, 1956


Margaret Erksine (aka Margaret Doris Wetherby Williams), wrote 21 detective stories featuring Inspector Septimus Finch, between 1938 and 1977. She was born on May 2, 1901 in the city of Kingston, Ontario, Canada but grew up in Devon, England. She died on July 9, 1984.
One might think that she was of Canadian origins, but this is not the case: her parents were temporarily in Canada and therefore she was born there, but in reality they were English: her father was Thomas Wetherby Williams and her mother Elizabeth Erskine. On her father's side he was descended from Thomas Williams (1737-1802), the great copper baron of Llanidan on the Isle of Anglesey in Wales, while on her mother's side from the Erskines, a noble Scottish family, related to the Stuarts. Indeed, it is very probable that she herself descended from that Margaret Erskine who was the lover of James V of Scotland, father of Maria Stuarda.
Why did Margaret Erskine, then 30, start writing detective novels in 1937? Mysteries scholar Ellen Nehr said in 1984 that she Margaret Erskine had once said she did it as a form of revolt against her family by her name.
Margaret Erskine later became a member of the Crime Writers Association, and she died in a nursing home in 1984 (news learned on Curtis Evans' The Passing Tramp blog).
Voice of Murder is a 1956 novel and is the ninth in the series.

Alice Carne is 48 years old and still a beautiful woman. She writes a letter in the evening. The next morning they find her dead. His doctor Stephen Leighton is forced to report his suspicions to the police: namely that Alice was murdered, by poisoning with an opiate, which later turns out to be morphine: someone had taken the pills of the late Miss Page (the housekeeper) , forcing the cabinet where they were placed. Augusta Parrish, Miss Alice's niece on her mother's side, witnessed part of Alice's speech the night before, before writing the letter (which has since disappeared), to an individual she identified as Dominick Potter, former fellow soldier and friend of Charles Forrest, cousin of Augusta, rescued by Dominick during the conflict, although he died anyway. Alice would have been scandalized because she thought that he and Barbara, the woman she lives with, were married and instead they are not, since she is even married to another man.
Inspector Septimus Finch is called to investigate, the seventh of seven brothers, son of lawyers, but who had made his entire career as a simple agent earning the esteem of his superiors and ending up working in the CID. Finch, together with Sergeant Gilroy, will unravel the skein and catch a diabolical assassin, but not before he has killed two more times, removing dangerous witnesses, and who are also attempting on Augusta's life, in a pyrotechnic finale, in which one time the other possible suspects will be set aside.
The story will end with a pink ending.
Very fine and elegant writer, Margaret Erskine wrote stories that often concern family mysteries, with dark secrets that peep out: here there are extramarital affairs that intertwine.
Very skilled in plotting, and in the psychology of the characters, she mixes mystery and thriller in an irresistible amalgam. In Anglo-Saxon countries, her novels have been defined as gothic, not really being so, because they are real detective stories, despite the trappings sometimes enriching them with gothic elements (sleepwalkers walking in their dressing gowns in the moonlight, for example). Even if "gothic" is an adjective not exactly fitting. Of course, in the sixties and seventies, when Margaret Erskine's books were successful again, there was a fashion for books and films that sometimes even bordered on the pseudo-erotic-horror genre. And therefore, they defined her series with Finch, gothic. In reality, the gothic atmospheres of her novels do not arise as they refer to this neo-gothic vein, even cinematographic, but much earlier: since the end of the 30s and in the 40s and 50s, when Margaret wants to instill fear and tension always describes nocturnal landscapes, with the sounds and colors of the night; and this tendency to recover this type of fear of the dark is in her an effect of having read about her in her youth, the many books about her that her father's enormous library had made available to her.
We do not know if she had read the ghost stories of Henry James, of Montague Rhode and those of vampires and doppelgangers of Joseph Le Fanu; it is certain that Margaret Erskine, she had appropriated that way of writing, of evoking dark and nocturnal atmospheres, which only in this way already instilled fear in her pages.
We don't know if she had read John Dickson Carr or J.J. Connington, but it is certain that, like them, he knew how to nonchalantly master the tremors, sighs and gasps, and not only the song of hoopoes and owls, but also of other birds, if done at night, becomes an omen of misfortune: it is no coincidence that , Aunt Alice's death, happens when? Late at night. And when she sees a barred, swollen face that she tries to peer at it from outside the kitchen window? Late at night. When it's dark. And when she distinctly feels that there is someone behind her watching her, while she is writing the letters with which she offers herself to the police as a witness, and when she comes out onto the landing, what do she see? The darkness that swallows her. And she is afraid. Because she suspects that there is someone watching her in her shadow. And she's not wrong, because a few minutes later when she comes back, her letter has disappeared from the desk.
Psychological depth is another of the strengths of her novels and in this she is immediately noticeable: everything is the opposite of everything. No one can be said to be innocent until Finch puts him aside. Each subject is what he says he is, but also what he doesn't say he is: Alice hates Timothy in words, and Timothy hates Alice in words, because she cheated on him by putting herself with another. But.. then they get married, secretly. And someone kills them. But not for the money motive. The motive of money, even if it is waved wide, is not the right one. Here the one of the Deep South stirs, of the shame of a secret union, of the amorality of a union more uxosio which is not matrimonial. Of course everyone would give a damn about the bigoted morals of the not even fifty-year-old Alice, if they didn't all depend on her, for her money: Gordon and her wife, to open a bigger school for handicapped children; Dominick Potter for the bequest of five thousand pounds; Pauline Forrest, to continue spending on hats, perfume, purses, shoes and dresses; Augusta and her mother for the bequest of twenty thousand pounds.
It won't be Augusta, the fourth failed victim, who remembers the words that the killer thinks he heard and instead didn't hear because he was already shocked by the revelation of his aunt, that his father had killed himself out of shame for an extramarital affair revealed by anonymous letters, she fled to the first floor and locked herself up in her room. But Barbara, Potter's shameless companion who, having followed her companion to Alice, will reveal the last words of the assassin nailing him to her responsibilities. 
Furthermore, the reading and the sentimental ending with Augusta leaving, together with a gloating Septimus Finch, brought back to mind the plot of another novel, from twenty years earlier: Artists in Crime, by Ngaio Marsh. In truth, not only does Margaret Erskine describe situations, places and subjects in Marsh's way, but it seems to me that she also takes from Marsh the love between a CID Inspector and the heroine of the moment: there Roger Alleyn and Agatha Troy, here Septimus Finch and Augusta, an event certainly not usual in detective literature.
Historical courses and appeals.
Pietro De Palma 
Lots of news, about Margaret Erskine, on Curtis Evans' blog, The Passing Tramp

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