The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons

The prodigal son…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Christopher Barrington is orphaned at the age of twelve, he is taken in by his mother’s rich aunt, Lady Wainwright, and becomes a member of the family at Belting, their country house. His mother had been estranged from her family so Christopher hadn’t met either Lady Wainwright, or her two surviving sons, Miles and Stephen, before. She had had two other sons, too, David and Hugh, both of whom had been killed in the war. As with many families who lost sons to the war, the dead boys have been put on a pedestal, while the living ones constantly suffer from comparison. In this case, though, it seems as if Hugh and David may have been their mother’s favourites even before they died. Time passes, and by the time Christopher is almost grown up, Lady Wainwright’s health is failing and she isn’t expected to live much longer. And then a letter comes out of the blue, purporting to be from David. He claims to have been held as a war prisoner for many years, and has since been trying to recover in Paris. Lady Wainwright is thrilled and ready to welcome him home, but Miles and Stephen are convinced he’s an impostor, after their inheritance. Christopher, our narrator, tries to discover the truth…

This book was first published in 1965, though set some years earlier in the ‘50s, and reads much more like the novels of the likes of Ruth Rendell or PD James than the earlier Golden Age novels. While there is a central mystery and clues for the reader to spot, it’s much more based on character studies of the various family members and of Christopher himself, and gives a great and, to me, entirely believable picture of the last throes of this type of minor aristocracy, quietly decaying into the middle-classes. It’s a slower read than some of the earlier mystery novels because it takes time to let us get to know the family before it reaches the point where the story really kicks off.

There’s also a coming-of-age aspect to it, as Christopher begins to be treated more as an adult by the family at Belting and, in turn, starts to look at them with the more critical eye of maturity. It’s told by him as an adult looking back, so he has the benefit of greater insight into himself and the people he meets than he might have had at the time. Although he’s been with the Wainwrights for six years when the story proper begins, he’s spent much of that time at boarding school, so he has something of the objectivity of the outside observer. He’s very convincing for a boy of that age and class, I felt – well educated and with the confidence that social status and money bring, but with a kind of insecurity in his dealings with girls and women, as is not unnatural for a boy with no sisters or mother who has spent his teen years in an all boys school. It’s only when he begins to talk to people outside the family to try to find out more about the mysterious David that he finds to his surprise that not everyone respects old Lady Wainwright nor is impressed by his own standing as a member of the family. It isn’t laboured, but it’s an interesting insight into the growing egalitarianism of the time, as the uppity proles began to think maybe they were just as good as the privileged blue-bloods after all.

Julian Symons

Looking at reviews on Goodreads, I’ve been surprised to see that this is getting pretty average ratings. I thought it was an excellent novel, very well written and insightful. It reminded me a good deal of Gordon Macrae Burnet’s The Accident on the A35, in that, while both are undoubtedly crime novels, I feel both are also literary fiction, with our old friend “the human condition” taking precedence over the mystery aspect. Both have an excellent sense of place, and of class and social status within small spheres of society. I think it may be suffering from expectations – as part of the British Library Crime Classics series, I think some people have been disappointed by it not being a traditional whodunit. But the more I read of these books, the more I realise that the best of them were far more than that, often with much to say about the time and society in which they were set. And, for me, this is one of the best of them. Having now been highly impressed by both the Julian Symons’ novels I’ve read, I’m baffled as to why he’s fallen into relative obscurity and hope the reissue of these books will find him a new generation of admirers, of whom I’m certainly one. Highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, the British Library.

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37 thoughts on “The Belting Inheritance by Julian Symons

    • I like books of that era – more filled out in terms of characterisation than many Golden Age mysteries but not going for the full-scale grittiness of so much modern crime fiction…

  1. It’s funny how that happens – I wonder if his books just haven’t gotten into the right readers’ hands before, where they will be truly appreciated. You’ve definitely won me over, and I’m adding this one. Lovely review, FF! It sounds like much more than just a mystery.

    • I think he was well known in his day though never one of the very top rank. Maybe it’s because he wrote standalones mostly? I sometimes think series detectives keep readers coming back to an author, and they’re much easier to adapt for TV, etc. But I think he’s as good as any of the rest (except Ms Christie, who’s in a class of her own… 😀 )

  2. This does sound very good indeed, FictionFan. I like the focus on character development, and the comparison to The Accident… has piqued my interest. It sounds as though it’s a rich family story, too, and those can be very good. Hmm….you make an interesting point about the differences between the way living (especially younger) children are seen, and the way the dead are, too. Hmmm…..that’s really good ‘food for thought,’ so thanks.

    • It was quite a familiar thing over here in the last century. Even in my own family Great Uncle John, who died in the Somme when he was eighteen, was held up to his younger siblings and nephews and nieces as a paragon and they all rather resented him, especially the nephews and nieces who had never known him at all. Later generations were able to be proud of him without that secret resentment because we weren’t being adversely compared to him…

  3. I’ve read several of Ruth Rendell’s books, which I’ve enjoyed very much, so perhaps I should look into one of these as well. It sounds interesting. Too bad folks manufacture expectations without considering the uniqueness of an individual book.

    • Oddly, I haven’t read much Ruth Rendell – she’s an author I constantly intend to get to know better. But this did strike me as the same kind of style – more in-depth characterisation than some of the earlier mystery novels. I know – it’s a shame when a book gets marked down for turning out to be a different from what the reader expected, though I’m sure I’ve done that too from time to time…

  4. I think this sounds good and the comparison to James (loved her Dalgliesh novels!) makes it even more appealing. I might have to add this to my out of control wish list.

    • I loved PD James too back in the day, though it’s been a while since I last read her. But this did remind me of that style of more concentration on character and motivations than plots and clues, if you know what I mean. Definitely worth a place on the wishlist… 😉

  5. Your analysis sounds fair. So often books are “killed” by expectations, and by a writer not conforming to the specific traits of a genre. Wondering if the Lit Fic crowd would give more favorable reviews. But they may not be reading it because they think it conforms to the mystery genre. So the book finds itself idling in the no-man’s land between rocks. I’m glad you gave it such a glowing review. So I’ll toss it on the pile and see where it lands in the line-up. Thanks!

    • Yes, I’m sure I’ve marked books down too from time to time because they weren’t what I was expecting, but it is unfair, especially when star ratings seem to have become such an important marketing tool. I do think the 60s and 70s crime writers were often writing lit-fic in disguise – in fact, I frequently prefer them to actual lit-fic of that period, which sometimes was quite pretentious. If you do read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

        • Absolutely – the plotless type of fiction drives me crazy. I need a story of some kind to keep me turning pages, which I think is why I enjoy literary-style crime fiction so much. It’s still a relatively rare beast though…

    • I do love to vary heavier lit-fc reads with crime – it keeps them both feeling fresh. And especially when the crime is as well written as this one! If you do read it sometime, I hope you enjoy it! 😀

  6. I’m so glad you also enjoyed this book. I was beginning there was something wrong with me because I liked it so much. I also think your comparison to P.D. James is on point. Wish I’d thought of it. I have “The Colour of Murder” coming up on my list, I hope it’s just as good.

    • I love that style that some of the crime writers of the 60s and 70s developed, of concentrating more on characterisation and motivation than on clues and plot. It was a second Golden Age as far as I’m concerned with PD James and Ruth Rendell leading the way. I loved The Colour of Murder too – hope you enjoy it!

  7. Very tempting, your judgment of literary fiction tips it over into interesting for me. I’m trying to minimise adding crime writing to my list since there’s so much there already, but ….

    • I’m being very careful about the crime fiction I’m choosing these days since I find so much contemporary crime focuses on the “twist” rather than on telling a credible story well. Some of these “vintage” authors are so good it appals me that they’ve become forgotten – I’m so glad the BL and others are bringing them back into the limelight.

    • Haha – I feel I use some phrases so often they take on a life of their own! 😉 I do like the kind of crime fiction that actually has something to say about the society they’re set in, especially when they’re well written like this one.

  8. The title had me convinced – an inheritance, all the machinations and family politics that ensue – wonderful! So its great to read how much you enjoyed it, I’ll definitely be looking out for this.

    • I’ve thoroughly enjoyed both the Julian Symons they’ve brought out so far – hoping they do more! They do seem to be revisiting the authors that have proved most popular now rather than just randomly picking books, so fingers crossed. Hope you enjoy it if you get around to it!

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