The House on the Downs
Gladys Edson Locke
First published in the US 1925, L. C. Page
This edition 1925, A. L. Burt Company
Source: A Great Book Shop, Pueblo, Colorado via Abebooks
So I blogged some time ago about the origins of the word whodunit, using Google Ngrams to prove to my own satisfaction at least that the term was in use well before the Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest citation. I even found a book I believed could have the real earliest use – Gladys Edson Locke’s The House on the Downs.
According to the Dorchester Atheneum website, Locke was a cataloguer in the Boston Public Library for many decades. She was a Unitarian Universalist and an active member of the First Parish Church in Dorchester. Also the Republican Party and the Boston Society for Psychic Research. She never married. Locke felt ‘a close emotional and spiritual connection’ to England and set most of her books there.
Last month, a copy of The House on the Downs appeared on Abebooks and I lost no time in shelling out my £17.40 plus £15.41 P&P to secure a copy. Dedication doesn’t come cheap. So would it bring me my place in the etymological record books? First, I had to read the book.
And what a book! It has the stylistic flourish of The Young Visiters with the best collection of names I’ve seen outside a Harry Potter book. Sir Quenton Rotherdene and his brother Alwin. Theophilus Elphick. Cradock Raynor, Fezenta Lee. And best of all, Mercedes Quero.
The narrator, who is just a narrator – he does very little except relate what is happening (even scrambling out of windows to follow the action without actually intervening) – is Mark Brandon, a writer of ‘clean and virile’ books about the Australian outback.
‘From bushwhacking to farming, and finally to fiction-writing, whimsical destiny had beckoned him on’.
Brandon has returned from Australia to England, and is on his way to visit his old friend Sir Quenton of Rotherdene Grange on the Sussex Downs near Brighton. Not before encountering a corpse in a spinney called Rotherdene Hollow. A corpse clutching a distinctive moonflower, carrying a distinctive platinum bracelet, and stabbed with a distinctive letter-opener.
‘There be murder done ‘ere,’ says a passing rustic, chewing contemplatively on his pipe.
And who do all those lovely clues point to? The beautiful young Lady Eve Rotherdene, Sir Quenton’s young wife.
Brandon is soon introduced into the hothouse that is Rotherdene Grange. Sir Quenton has a knack for surrounding himself with the ladies. An ‘ardent gypsologist’, he had adopted a fiery young Romany woman with dancing eyes who is absolutely devoted to him. He has also taken the wayward daughter of his old gamekeeper under his wing. This one is ‘tall, well-shaped, distinctly good-looking and seemed a woman who had had affairs in her time. There was the gleam of old fires in her brilliant eyes, traces of them about her lips, the sort of woman in whom secrets lie hidden.’ For good measure he also has an oddly devoted cousin/secretary called Theophilus.
For 1925, the book is quite sexy, or perhaps torrid is a better word. I imagine Gladys Locke would have been a great slash fiction writer.
He gripped her shoulders and strained her to him, raining passionate kisses upon her lips.
Then he flung her from him.
‘God forgive me, you witch – Eve! I ought to kill you for my own honour’s sake’.
It is also fairly advanced for its times in terms of its approach to marriage. Brandon was the recipient of a quickie divorce in his youth. Lady Eve is a handful, and has a string of suitors despite her marriage – and that’s not the worst of it – and Sir Quenton sort of encourages it, or at least turns a blind eye.
The inclusion of gypsies is another interesting facet of the book. They’re the romantic kind:
‘She’s of gypsy blood, guv’nor, an’ it sends her a-roamin’ at times, seekin’ the free, open air whether it be night or day. When the mood’s on us, guv’nor, us gypsies has got to roam.’
Locke’s treatment of the gypsies in her book is far more liberal and progressive than I imagine an authentic English writer of this period would have been. The final chapter in particular holds a ‘surprise’ on that front.
The mystery aspect of the book is thin. There’s an entirely needless secret passage. The Scotland Yard detective’s activity is restricted to waiting outside Rotherdene Grange and following anyone who sneaks out at night. Which is almost everyone. And ultimately the identity of the murderer is so obvious that I thought it was a ham-handed red herring.
Anyway, never mind whodunit, did I find the first use of ‘whodunit’?
Erm, no. Not a trace of it. There are some possible explanations:
- Maybe I simply missed it in the text.
- This is the second impression; the first was published by L. C. Page and has 5 plates. Maybe the text is different or it has different dustjacket.
- (Most likely) I’m misunderstanding how Google Books works.
Final destination: A keeper. Maybe I’ll reread it some time.