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How Elizabeth Bowen’s Big Houses Laid the Groundwork for Irish Domestic Noir


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“After the Bentley murder, Rose Hill stood empty two years.”

I read the first line of the great Irish writer Elizabeth Bowen’s 1934 short story The Cat Jumps late one January night almost exactly sixty years after it was written, lying on my stomach on the floor of the University College Dublin library. I was working as a live-in au pair for a family who lived nearby—an American raised on Long Island, I had moved to Dublin somewhat impulsively the previous summer—and many evenings, after I was off duty, I’d walk to the library and pull books at random off the shelves, flopping in a corner to inhale as many words as I could before I had to walk home. I’d just graduated from college at home in the States and after four years of curriculum reading for my English Literature major, I reveled in reading exactly what I wanted, finishing or not finishing a book as my whim took me: Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale, Cormac McCarthy, Roddy Doyle, Frank O’Connor, Steinbeck, John Irving, Toni Morrison, Jane Austen. I obsessively re-read Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers.

And I discovered Elizabeth Bowen.

Rose Hill, the English countryside house at the center of The Cat Jumps, was, we learn, the site of a terrible murder, the details kept tantalizingly vague.  In the third sentence, we get, “The week after the execution Harold Bentley’s legatees had placed the house on the books of the principal agents, London and local.” We know nothing about Harold Bentley’s homicide or homicides, but Bowen efficiently reveals that they were execution-worthy. Clearly, there is no one left at Rose Hill. The story unfolds amid elements of horror, traditional mystery, and supernatural fiction, when a new family, the Harold Wrights, move in. (Bowen frequently used name repetition.) Straight-faced, Bowen tells us “They knew all crime to be pathological, and read their murders only in scientific books,” and we know the Wrights are in for a comeuppance. There are strange happenings at a weekend house party with an obsessive true crime fan in attendance, and an ending I won’t give away here.

I loved (and love) the arch tone of the story. It felt like Bowen was taking genre forms I knew well and, with an expert wink, twisting them inside out. I kept going. In the 1941 story Look At All Those Roses, I found Lou, a young woman on a weekend getaway with her (married) lover. When they experience car trouble, Lou is left at an isolated country house (also in the home counties) while her paramour goes for help. The grounds of the house boast a suspiciously rampant rose garden. The mistress of the house and her disabled daughter (“’My back was hurt six years ago,’ said Josephine. “It was my father’s doing.’”) seem all too eager to have Lou stay and it’s only when the married lover returns that Lou learns of the “abrupt” disappearance of the husband, and the prolific roses take on a sinister cast. The story is wonderfully Hitchcockian, with the lady of the house (and presumed murderer) murmuring, “Yes, they (the roses) grow well for us.”

I wanted more. I read her collected stories, then dove into the novels, where I found myself especially entranced by Bowen’s women characters and her rendering of their complex interior lives as they intersect with war, family upheaval, and always in her work, secrets. A year later, when I started a master’s degree program at Trinity College, I decided to focus on Bowen. My thesis centered around secrecy and truth-telling, and I think that in many ways my work on her pointed me more firmly in the direction of crime writing as a career. I recently re-discovered Bowen, looking at her work through my lens as a writer of crime novels but also as a reader and ardent fan of the staggering number of excellent Irish crime writers creating in every corner of the genre. Discovering an unpublished correspondence with Agatha Christie and an uncollected “serial thriller” Bowen wrote for a women’s magazine deepened this exploration.

Born in Dublin in 1899, Bowen has seemed sometimes hard to place or stick into a literary box, something of a shape shifter. In a New York Times appreciation of her work from 2005, Stacey D’Erasmo wrote that “Elizabeth Bowen is a great writer. To this sentence is usually appended a phrase like: ‘though widely underappreciated . . .’”  In 2019, the Irish novelist and crime writer John Banville wrote that “In her finest novels, such as The Last September—the one she prized most highly—The House in Paris, and The Death of the Heart, she (Bowen) was as good as, if not better than, the best of her English contemporaries; but as a practitioner of the shorter form she was the supreme genius of her time.”

 

The Anglo-Irish descendant of a Cromwellian settler, the way of life she’d been born to was already in decay by the time she arrived, its fiery end described in her Irish War of Independence novel The Last September. So, she was Irish but not exactly Irish, British but not exactly British. She was devoted to Bowen’s Court, the Anglo-Irish “big house” that was her family seat in County Cork, but spent much of her life living in England with her English husband and she famously claimed that she felt most at home in the middle of the Irish Sea. A friend (“but not intimate friends,” according to Bowen’s biographer Victoria Glendenning) and contemporary of Virginia Woolf, she is sometimes but not always claimed as a modernist. Her work spying on neutral Ireland for Britain during World War II was understandably experienced as a betrayal, despite the fact that her reports on wartime attitudes towards Britain in her birthplace were not particularly helpful to the war effort. Her place within the Irish literary canon has been unstable.

If her work sometimes defied national classification, it seems to defy genre boundaries too.

If her work sometimes defied national classification, it seems to defy genre boundaries too. Some of the stories and novels seem to consciously flirt with popular romance, horror, spy fiction, and mystery. Her wonderfully noirish 1948 novel The Heat of the Day is about the love triangle, and espionage triangle, formed around the main character Stella Rodney during the years after the London Blitz. Stella, in love with the wounded Robert Kelway, is told by the British counterspy Robert Harrison that her lover is spying for Germany. The novel unfolds over the tense years of the bombing raids in London, with the spies circling each other and the woman in whom they are both interested. The scenes where Harrison confronts Stella and where Stella finally confronts Kelway are expertly constructed and paced, tense and run through with danger. The Little Girls, published in 1963, begins like a detective novel, with a newspaper ad placed by a woman looking to track down the childhood companions with whom she buried a mysterious box of secrets.

Bowen was a lifelong fan of detective fiction. As a child, she loved H. Rider Haggard’s She, Baroness Orczy’s The Scarlet Pimpernel, and E. Nesbit’s books for children, which contain both mystery and supernatural elements. In the 1946 essay Out of a Book, she writes that “books introduced me to, and magnified, desire and danger. They represented life, with a conclusiveness I had no reason to challenge, as an affair of mysteries and attractions, in which each object or place or face was in itself a volume of promises and deceptions, and in which nothing was impossible.”

Early on in the essay, she snobbily denigrates best-selling popular fiction and the people who read it as “the great malleable bulk” and asserts that “the only above-board grown-up children’s stories are detective stories.” Rather than looking down on purveyors of crime fiction, Bowen writes in the “plot” section of 1945’s Notes on Writing a Novel, “Much to be learnt from the detective story—especially non-irrelevance.” In the 1960s Bowen developed a correspondence with Agatha Christie. In a 1962 letter to Charles Ritchie, the Canadian diplomat with whom she carried on a long extramarital affair and friendship, she wrote that she had met, at a dinner party, Charlie Chaplin and “Agatha Christie—whom I never even dared to hope to meet.” In an undated and unpublished letter in the Harry Ransom collection at the University of Texas at Austin, the famous detective novelist, signing the letter “Agatha Mallowan” thanks Bowen for the receipt of a signed copy of a novel (in a 2012 Modernism/Modernity essay, Vike Martina Plock asserts it was likely The Heat of the Day). Christie writes that “Like “Death of the Heart” and “The House in Paris” it makes a wonderful impact on one—I shall be able to read it many times and enjoy it each time—It gives one a feeling like swimming in deep sea, very calm, & you look down to see things below water—types of rocks, seaweed, fish—all transformed into something else . . .”

For her part, when Christie was asked to name her favorite writers, she named Bowen—and Graham Greene. According to Glendenning, at the end of Bowen’s life, when she was dying of lung cancer, she was reading Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

At the end of Bowen’s life, when she was dying of lung cancer, she was reading Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler.

Revisiting the stories and novels recently, I was delighted to find that Bowen’s characters were as precisely rendered as I remembered. They were always doing things I did not expect them to do, but that it seemed as if they would do. And I found what I would describe as a thin, clear vein of suspense, an energy she injects into her writing, often through the use of plot elements involving crime or murder or espionage.

I started wondering about how my time spent with Bowen influenced my own choice of genre  and my interest in displaced, outsider detective characters. (My own main character, an American homicide detective in Ireland, is perhaps most at home in the middle of the Atlantic, rather than the Irish Sea.) And amidst the explosion of Irish talent in the field of crime writing, I’ve wondered too, where we might find Bowen in the work of these skillful and celebrated contemporary Irish crime writers from all over the island.

 Rosemary Erickson Johnsen makes the connection between Tana French and Bowen in an essay entitled The House and the Hallucination in Tana French’s New Irish Gothic and she and other scholars locate Bowen firmly within the Irish gothic tradition, alongside fellow Anglo-Irish writers like Sheridan Le Fanu. Johnsen writes that French “flips several of the conventional attributes of Irish gothic . . . recognizable tropes of the Irish gothic are transformed into the violence of contemporary domestic noir.”

Johnsen concludes that, “Tana French’s new Irish gothic, building on the legacy left her by Sheridan Le Fanu and Elizabeth Bowen, embodies a specifically Irish domestic noir . . .” Writers like Liz Nugent, Louise Phillips, Claire McGowan, and Sinéad Crowley are placed within the Irish domestic noir context in a series of essays in the Edgar-nominated Guilt Rules All: Irish Mystery, Detection, and Crime Fiction, edited by Elizabeth Mannion and Brian Cliff.

Certainly, when I started reading French and fell in love with her novels, the connections to Bowen’s work jumped out at me: The Anglo-Irish big houses that feature so prominently in both The Likeness and The Witch Elm and the identical fates of The Likeness’s Whitethorn House and The Last September’s Danielstown. Whitethorn House is burned (by a man named John Naylor, who interestingly shares his surname with the family at the center of The Last September), nearly a century after the widespread burning of Anglo-Irish big houses during the War for Independence. It is of course the fate that awaits Danielstown too. At the end of The Last September, as Danielstown burns, Bowen writes that, “A fearful scarlet ate up the hard spring darkness . . .” French describes, in Cassie Maddox’s imagination, the burning of French’s fictional big house: “A pillar of fire on the mountainside.” Bowen’s own home did not burn (it was torn down after she had to sell it instead) but she said she imagined it so frequently it was as though it did.

And Banville, who has expressed so much admiration for Bowen, sets his most recent crime novel, Snow, in 1957 in an Anglo-Irish big house past its prime and rotting in every way; I couldn’t help but read it as a kind of speculative fiction: What if Danielstown had not burned?   

I was delighted recently to discover that Jane Casey, an Irish crime writer whose books I greatly admire, and who takes on themes of Irish identity in the person of her main character Detective Constable Maeve Kerrigan, a first generation Irish-British police detective—“Irish by blood and English by accent.”—also focused on Elizabeth Bowen during her time in the Trinity M. Phil program. Casey, who wrote about supernatural elements in Bowen’s work, describes reading the stories and experiencing, “a sense of dislocation, of not belonging, of being tuned to a frequency that others can’t hear.” Capturing for me the quality I love most about Bowen’s work, she said she tries to evoke “the same tension, energy and sense of impending, inevitable doom that Bowen did so well.”

That impending doom is ever present in The Heat of the Day, another Bowen novel for which I found resonance with a contemporary writer. I love the Irish journalist and novelist Joe Joyce’s crime novels (Echoland, Echobeat, and Echowave) set in Dublin during World War II—or, as it was called in neutral Ireland, The Emergency—and Joyce told me that he used Bowen’s reports to the British Ministry of Information on her visits to Ireland during the war as background source material.

And then, amid my re-discovery of Bowen’s work, I found a story I hadn’t known existed, an uncollected serial “thriller” with a Christie-ish title, Mystery at the Lilacs, written for the British women’s periodical “Home and Country,” published by the National Federation of Women’s Institutes in 1938, and reprinted with an essay by Clara Jones in a 2018 edition of Literature & History. The first line of the three-part serial calls up The Cat Jumps and other Bowen stories and novels, with its obsession with country houses and their occupants: “There was considerable excitement in Sutton Plover when the news came that The Lilacs was really let. The house had been standing empty for some time, ever since the death of old Miss Petersen and people felt that its emptiness was a slight on the village.”

The story has a decidedly Golden Age sensibility. Bowen is poking at a conservative world view in keeping with the mission of the Women’s Institutes: “And if life did not change much in the village, it was because everybody showed good sense and stayed where they were.” Veronica, the bored and clever young woman detecting at the center of the mystery is of a type with Agatha Christie’s adventurous, investigative, and ultimately married young women from novels like The Moving Finger, They Came to Baghdad, and Peril at End House. And yet . . . Bowen is up to something here.

New tenants move into The Lilacs, an older woman named Mrs. Clarke-Moberly, who wears “bright, decided colors” and her nephew Denis, a “rather gloomy, but handsome young man with long legs and horn-rimmed spectacles.” Veronica observes Denis with a revolver and then his aunt mysteriously disappears after Veronica catches her in conversation with Sir Horace Hammer, a neighbor and host of an important social event in Sutton Plover.

The solution to the mystery is that there was no crime at all. Mrs. Clarke-Moberly is in fact the novelist Lucinda Bradnitt. In order to write a detective story, she has faked her own disappearance (perhaps a veiled reference to Agatha Christie’s own 1926 disappearance) and enlisted Denis’s help to keep the fiction going so she can observe the actual reaction of the residents of Sutton Plover to the mystery. But then she really does disappear and Denis asks Veronica for help. It turns out that there is another layer of subterfuge: Sir Horace himself is the pseudonymous author of a tell-all novel about village life and Bradnitt has engaged him to conduct a counter fake on Denis.

Ultimately, the serial, while clearly an affectionate satire of the detective story and Christie’s sometimes labyrinthine solutions, as well as a satisfying lighthearted mystery, seems to be about writers and how they do what they do.

When Lucinda Bradnitt is finally unmasked, Denis tells Veronica that Bradnitt “has always despised detective stories because she says their psychology is so unsound. She says all the people in them behave, re-act, so unnaturally. She said she couldn’t reconcile it with her literary conscience to write a detective story in which even the minor characters did not behave just as they would in real life.”

Ultimately, I think this is the quality that shimmers in Bowen’s genre-bending work for me: the sense that every human creation of hers might step off the page at any moment. In the section on character in Notes on Writing a Novel, Bowen writes that “Characters must materialize—i.e., must have a palpable physical reality. They must be not only see-able (visualizable); they must be to be felt.”

And so her characters are. Reading these words, it strikes me that Bowen, still winking, ever defying categorization, was asserting a new recipe for crime fiction: tense, atmosphere-laden plots, engagement with history and the Irish gothic, and palpably authentic characters. There may be no better description of the contemporary Irish writers distinguishing themselves in the genre.

***

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Michael Neff
Algonkian Producer
New York Pitch Director
Author, Development Exec, Editor

We are the makers of novels, and we are the dreamers of dreams.

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