The prodigal son…
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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.
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.