This book is one of the Dover Mystery Classics, of which they have brought out
numerous new titles in the past few years. It isn't new however—it was first
published in 1987, then reissued in 2016. But the one thing they mostly have in common is that they were written in the last half of the twentieth century, as
opposed to the great number of Dover books in which the copyrights have expired, the usual date in the U.S. being around 1923. The Taste of Murder
was first published in London in 1950 under the title Murder Included, then in the U.S. in 1960 as Poisonous Relations.
If you have ever watched the old PBS Mystery! series (not having a TV for so many years, I'm not sure what they're doing now), but most of them were British, and threw in that typical British humor along with the serious business of crime. This book reminded me of that. Cannan surely gets her digs in about the ridiculous lifestyles of the landed gentry (even in the 1950s), the incompetency of the local law enforcement, and the stodginess, and often not-too-brightness of Scotland Yard Inspectors. The main character is Bunny (Barbara) d'Estray, a fairly youngish ex-widow and well-known author, whom the aging Sir Charles d'Estray found vacationing on the French Riviera. In a moment of passion he asked for her hand in marriage, and after thinking it over, she accepted. What she found when they returned to his estate was a financial mess, which the long-time resident d'Estrays were about to lose for lack of funds. But being a free-spirited and industrious woman, Bunny, gasp! turns the mansion into a lodging for guests, and at least money begins to flow in. Things are not great in the marriage, however, and Bunny and her daughter Lisa are constantly belittled. But the worst happens when one of the guests, cousin Elizabeth Hudson, an aggressive and cantankerous "horse-faced old thing," turns up dead. Poisoned, in fact. And so, amidst the horses and hounds and foxes, which seem to be the most important element in the lives of these rather useless country folk, a murder investigation begins.
The humor begins 0n the first page, as Scotland Yard Inspector Ronald Price sits in the Chief Constable's study, fuming because the chair smells like dog, and surrounded by hunting photos. The local police bumpkins are discussing how difficult it would be for them to handle this particular case because they are all related. The chief Constable says:
"Beatrice Blythe, the head housemaid, is [Superintendent] Treadwell's aunt, and Kate the kitchenmaid is his cousin. Nanny, of course, was born on the place—at the south lodge—she was old John Toomer's daughter. Mrs. Capes, the cook, comes from the farthest afield: she's from Aston-on-the-Green, five miles away. The under-housemaid, Sylvia Spencer, comes from the Home Farm—her grandfather farmed it and, I believe, her great-grandfather. The first Lady d'Estray was a cousin of mine and I'm Hugo's godfather, so it's altogether rather an impossible situation, eh, Treadwell?"
Then we go back a little while the deceased was alive—cousin Elizabeth could be
quite the bossy bitch, and she and Bunny had nothing to bind their relationship. On more than one occasion Bunny was heard saying she'd like to
murder that woman. And Bunny and her daughter Lisa aren't particularly welcomed by the rest of the d'Estrays, especially the two eldest children, Patricia, who
is extremely conservative and conventional, and Hugo, who has absolutely no ambition in life except hunting. For both of them, horses are their main focus,
and that binds them to cousin Elizabeth Hudson, who even as an elderly woman, is an expert on a horse. Bunny and Lisa are mocked—even ostracized, for their
French customs, (though Bunny is half English).
And as for other paying guests, there are two families—the Roses, a Jewish husband and wife, and the Scampnells, a widowed mother and her frumpy spinster daughter, Margot Rattray, and Margot's step-father, who is quite a bit older than her mother. Mrs. Scampnell is an excellent rider, which puts her into an often severe rivalry with Miss Hudson, but she has almost nothing in common with her daughter and husband. Still they seem to have a convivial relationship.
So when the Inspector begins doing his job, it is the black sheep—Bunny—who begins to look more and more like the guilty one. Whoever committed the crime has a knowledge of herbs. Bunny claims she does not, but the others contradict her because she brews lime leaves for members of the household with colds—a common remedy in France. Then, when Lisa innocently makes the comment that Elizabeth was boring her one day on a walk telling her about herbs, and pointed out where the Water Dropwort grew—a plant related to Poison Hemlock, and the one which ultimately caused her death—suddenly both Bunny and Lisa look like suspects. And of course, no one believes that Bunny was unaware of the Water Dropwort. The worst part of it all is, that her own husband takes the side of the rest of the family, believing his own wife is guilty.
Of course, Inspector Price is very interested in parties that may know about botany. He assumes that if someone is an old country person, they automatically do know, and insults the local Superintendent:
"What old countrywoman?" asked Treadwell.
"Well, there are plenty of old witches around," said Price. "I saw one at the lodge when I turned into the park this morning—just the kind of old krone who cooks up herbs and berries"
Treadwell said coldly, "That must have been Mrs. Toomer, my great-aunt. She was lady's maid to Sir Charles's grandmother and she's lived in most of the embassies in Europe. I don't think she'd know much about herbs and berries."
"Perhaps not," said Price hastily. "But there's a type," he insisted; "the sort of old woman whom the village maidens consult to procure abortion."
"That only happens in books," said the Superintendent. "When our girls get into trouble, their boys marry them. No, I can't help you there, Inspector; but I can tell you that Sir Charles has a fine library and I've no doubt that the paying guests get the run of it."
Let me also remark that the local police believe the crime was committed by a guest.
But it isn't until another guest is murdered—this time while on a hunting party, and then there is an attempted murder of Bunny herself, that all the facts finally come to light. And I won't say any more because I don't want to give it away.
This is a fun and easy-to-read novel, and not too complicated either, so if you're like me and not great at figuring out who dunnit, you will enjoy this mystery.
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