I have mixed feelings about this book! There’s so much going on in the plot – crime classics author Julian Symons had high praise for The Widow of Bath when he wrote, “There are a dozen clever deceptions in this book, twice as many as most writers would have given us.” However, its protagonist Hugh Everton is the kind of person who drives me crazy! He is clever but rash – an act-first-and-think-it-through-later kind of guy.
The story begins while Hugh stays over at a second-rate hotel on England’s south coast for work. At the hotel bar, Hugh bumps into the ever-so-beautiful Lucy, one of Hugh’s old flames, who broke his heart and betrayed him sometime back in Paris. Lucy is at the hotel in the company of three men. One is her husband Bath, a retired judge much older than her. Another calls himself Atkinson, although Hugh suspects he is really Ronson – Lucy’s friend who tried to kill him in Paris. The last is Cady, a plump young man with a menacing presence. When Lucy invites Hugh back to their house along with her party, Hugh finds it impossible to turn down her invitation – in his heart, Hugh knows she is bad news. But he has always found her irresistible.
At the Baths’ residence, the judge has a bizarre private conversation with Hugh where he advises Hugh “that it is the duty of every citizen to expose and so help to destroy evil.” Bath then retires upstairs for the night, and Hugh joins Lucy and her guests downstairs for a round of cards, which is when they hear a gunshot. The judge has been killed, but by the time the police arrive, the body has disappeared, which makes Hugh wonder about Lucy’s motivations behind inviting him to the house that night. Hugh, having been burned by Lucy before, doesn’t want to get involved in whatever that’s going on. But he is also too smart and inquisitive to stay out of trouble!
The Widow of Bath, written in 1952, is Margot Bennett’s debut novel. I thought Hugh was an interesting choice for a protagonist – he serves as an amateur sleuth in the story, but he is a free agent. Even though I was irritated by Hugh’s impulsive actions and wanted to shake him more than a few times and ask him “What’s the plan here, Hugh?,” his wit and sarcasm provided comic relief to the tale. I particularly enjoyed Hugh’s satirization of macabre tourist attractions:
…when the full account reached the newspapers, the sightseers would arrive. If the murder was never solved, the National Trust might take over. Murderer’s corner… The thought of the silent figure on the floor, the floating form in the bath, would draw the crowds more certainly than the quill in the empty ink well, the knowledge that forgotten poetry had been composed in the room that had looked on the lake before the garage was built. This way to the room where he cut her up, threepence extra admits to the kitchen where the poison was mixed. Why not be photographed with a gun at your head, in the chair he sat in while he bled to death?
The Widow of Bath also has so many plot-lines interwoven intricately. The hotel waiters act suspiciously, and Bath seems to have an odd neighbor – so this will keep you scratching your head. While it is not as good as The Man Who Didn’t Fly, I’m glad I read it.
Note: Many thanks to British Library Publishing for sending me a review copy of The Widow of Bath.