Thursday, November 1, 2018
Sydney Fowler's Rex v. Anne Bickerton
Rex v. Anne Bickerton, published in 1930, is not so much a police procedural as a legal procedural. We start off knowing nothing whatsoever of the curious events in the Hackett household. We are then treated to an exhaustively detailed account of the coroner’s enquiry into Belle Hackett’s death and we start to see the beginnings of a plot.
Mrs Hackett’s husband James had been away from home on a business trip. She had gone to great lengths to persuade him that she far too ill to be left alone. This was apparently something she did quite often. She was also prone to making vague threats of suicide. James takes no notice of her suicide threats and he takes no notice of her protestations of illness. He’s seen it all before. It always amounts to nothing.
This time Mrs Hackett really does die. She does not, however, die as the result of the almost-certainly imaginary illness she had been complaining of. She dies of arsenic poisoning.
There are three main suspects. All have what appear to be strong motives. James Hackett’s life has beeb made miserable by his wife and she is the one who has the money. Belle Hackett’s sister Anne Bickerton stands to inherit Belle’s fortune. Rose Dorling, employed as a species of governess to the two children, is in love with James Hackett and might well want Belle out of the way. James has an alibi but no reader who is widely read in golden age detective fiction is going to be overly impressed by an alibi. Of the three suspects it is Anne Bickerton against whom it seems easiest to make a case and it is clear that the police see her as the most promising suspect. Given the book’s title it’s hardly a spoiler to reveal that it is Anne who ends up being charged with murder.
We see the case entirely through the lens of the legal proceedings. Everything we learn about the case we learn from the evidence given at the coroner’s inquest and at the trial.
This is effectively a detective story without a detective. Inspector Taverton plays a very minor rôle. Any actual investigating that he does happens off-stage so to speak. He makes brief appearances in the courtroom scenes and even briefer appearances when he discusses the the very broad outlines of the case with his chief. We know his view of the case but we don’t really know how he has come to take that view.
This is a crime novel that is entirely focused on lawyers and legal proceedings. The lawyers, solicitor Mr Duff-Preedy and barrister Mr Rickard Salmon, seem to be cast as the heroes although they are not the slightest bit heroic in any conventional sense. They are motivated purely by self-interest. If they are not the heroes then they are certainly the protagonists.
This is also a book that takes a rather jaundiced view of the much-vaunted system of British justice. The police are not sure which of the three suspects actually committed the murder and they don’t particularly care, as long as someone gets convicted and hanged. Their main concern is that they should not end up looking foolish. Mr Duff-Preedy thinks Anne Bickerton is probably guilty. He doesn’t care. It promises to be a very high-profile case and the publicity will do wonders for his legal practice. The young barrister whom he briefs, Rickard Salmon, sees the case as a wonderful opportunity to make his reputation.
At one point Mr Duff-Preedy is vastly amused when he is reminded of the sacredness of the principle of the assumption of innocence. He regards this as a pathetically naïve notion. In practice once you’ve been charged with a crime you have to prove your innocence.
The coroner’s jury is a prize collection of fools and knaves. Juries in general are portrayed as being capricious, emotional and generally foolish.
And then there’s the judge. If anyone in this story deserves to be hanged it’s Mr Justice Ackling. There are plenty of unscrupulous characters in this tale, but he is a self-satisfied vicious sadist.
The plot has some nice twists and some neat misdirection. It’s reasonably fairly clued. The solution is plausible and the author certainly cannot be accused of pulling a rabbit out of a hat. There’s also an odd touch at the end which I can’t say anything about but it’s yet another slightly offbeat element to an already quite offbeat novel.
There’s some sardonic humour and there’s a generally very sceptical if not outright cynical tone. The characters are a collection of very imperfect human beings. They all have serious character flaws but apart from Mr Justice Ackling none could be described as evil. And they all have at least some strengths to balance their weaknesses.
Putting so much emphasis on legal proceedings can be risky. You end up with very dialogue-heavy writing and there is the danger that the reader will grow weary of very very long courtroom scenes. If you want to utilise this kind of technique successfully you have to throw in some surprises and you need great skill to maintain an atmosphere of suspense and expectancy. The reader has to feel that something startling is likely to happen at any moment. Erle Stanley Gardner could get away with it but even Gardner did not dare to set almost the whole action of a novel in a courtroom. Surprisingly Fowler pulls it off pretty well.
Rex v. Anne Bickerton is a fine example of the diversity of crime fiction during the interwar years. Structurally it’s slightly out of the ordinary and it’s definitely unusually cynical in tone. I think it works and I’m going to highly recommend it.