Alternative English title: The Lumsden Baby
Year of publication: 1990
No. in series: 1
Series detective: Dr. Jean Montrose
Type of investigator: Amateur (G.P.)
Setting & time:
General practitioner Dr. Jean Montrose arrives at the Lumsden house just in time to meet a distraught Mrs. Lumsden, whose baby son lies dead in his crib with his head bashed in. As trouble brews in the Montrose family and evidence and suspects pile up in the Lumsden case, it is up to Dr. Montrose to put the police straight as to the motive and the killer when they are led astray by evidence that seems to be trial proof but isn’t, and to try to keep her family together.
Few things in straight mysteries sicken me more than the murders of babies and young children. I think it’s because it feels like the writer is going against the rules by killing off someone who is basically an unwritten page, defenseless, totally innocent of any wrongdoing, and whose only offense is being an obstacle to something. Even though three out of four of these things apply to many adult murder victims in mysteries as well, a dead baby or child just feels icky in a way that a dead adult does not, especially when the device is used in a book that is otherwise written mostly in the cosy style like this one. I say mostly, because there are also a couple of autopsy scenes that are more in keeping with a rougher kind of mystery, and there is a creepy atmosphere that suffuses the book from beginning to end that doesn't belong in a cosy. Had the victim been, say, a teenager, and/or the autopsy scenes had been less visceral, this would have been more of a cosy and less of a mish-mash. As it is, I can’t help but wonder if Roe wanted to write a more hard-boiled mystery but got told to tone it down by his/her editor.
In spite of the ickiness the story was interesting enough to keep me reading, because although I quickly realised the who and why, I wanted to see the how unfold. There was still something wrong with the story from beginning to end. It is, in fact, written like the author doesn’t like her/his leading character. The tone when describing Dr. Montrose’s thoughts and actions is ever so slightly mocking, even sniggering, especially when drawing up the difference between her detection skills, which are considerable, and her apparently nonexistent ability to see what is happening under her nose within her own family.
In fact, the word “nasty” in the title describes this story quite well. There are hardly any sympathetic characters, except possibly the token police detective who is Dr. Montrose’s side-kick, and he is really such a stereotype of the species (side-kicks, that is) that it’s difficult to form an opinion of him, other than that he seems to be a modern reincarnation of Hastings.
There is an attempt at describing the kind of seething hot-pot of corruption, dark secrets and evil passions that Ruth Rendell does so well, but it comes across as melodramatic instead of tense and menacing. There is menace, but unfortunately the source of it is the feeling that the author doesn’t like any of the characters and is willing to sacrifice any one of them, the heroine included. All the story did for me in the end was to leave a bad taste in my mouth.
The twists are not bad, but they are mostly predictable and once certain basic facts have been established it is not hard to guess what will happen next. It’s only the how that kept me reading to the end: how the alibis were established, how the second murder victim got to where he was found, etc. Ultimately, while the solution made sense, the ending was not satisfying in any other way.
Rating: Do not read if you want something nice and cosy with no blood or guts or if autopsies, dead babies and/or doormats disturb you. 2 stars.