The Detling Secret by Julian Symons
My rating: 2 of 5 stars
"Justice and self-interest are often identical, he thought, and mentally noted this phrase as one to be used at some time in speech."
Julian Symons' The Detling Secret (1982) is a memorable book, but not because of its plot or literary value; instead it challenges the reader's pre-conceived notions. Consider this: some threads in the novel deal with concerns about terrorism and volatility of the stock market. There is some talk about restructuring companies to make them profitable. All this sounds quite contemporary, like the twenty-first-century stuff. On the other hand, after having read the first 30 pages of the novel I began mentally placing the story in the 1930s. But then, suddenly, Oscar Wilde appears at an engagement party for one of the main characters in the novel and does "more than anybody else could have done to make the party a success." So what is going on? Stock market concerns or Oscar Wilde? We soon learn it is the latter: the plot takes place in the fall and early winter of 1893, over a hundred and twenty years ago, and just five years after the Jack the Ripper's affair. The terrorism thread refers to the struggles of Irish nationalists who may be plotting dynamite explosions to blow up parts of public buildings. And stock market worries, and human greed... well, they seem to be forever.
Bernard Ross, a member of British Parliament, has an unusual past: he spent his youth in the United States and there is not much of a record of his activities there. He marries Dolly, the daughter of Sir Arthur Detling, a heir to "one of the most ancient baronetcies in the land." The story follows the Detling family, including the younger daughter, Nelly, Bernard, some of his friends, as well as a rich businessman, speculator, and a social climber, Joseph Blader, who is marketing a brand new concept in fountain pens - pens with exchangeable ink cartridges (one could say that Mr. Blader has a 1893 startup company). The socially conscious Dolly volunteers for the Association for the Assistance of Derelict Girls, and Nelly, an art student, is planning to elope with her boyfriend. The leisurely plot is interrupted by the first murder that happens in London and seems to be connected to Bernard and Nelly. All characters gather to celebrate Christmas at Chadderley, the Detlings' opulent residence in Kent, where the second murder occurs and - what's worse - the eggs are also overdone for breakfast on that day. "A bummer!" one would say, but perhaps not in December of 1893.
The characterizations are really strong, the portrait of the Victorian times is rich and vivid - it is amazing how little the people have changed since then - and the writing, as usual for Mr. Symons, is first class. Yet the novel is ultimately not that interesting, and the mystery/crime aspect is pretty weak. This is my ninth novel by the author, all reviews are on Goodreads, and with the exception of totally wonderful
The Progress of a Crime
, they all are two-star ratings. Yet I will keep reading Mr. Symons for good prose is always a pleasure.
Two and a half stars.
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