16 Tasks of the Festive Season: Square 4 – Penance Day
Soul searching … or is it?
Book themes for Penance Day: Read a book that has a monk, nun, pastor / preacher, priest or other representative of the organized church as a protagonist, or where someone is struggling with feelings of guilt or with their conscience (regardless over what).
Judging by Dorothy L. Sayers’s lavish praise when reviewing this book upon its original publication, Portrait of a Murderer would seem to be the ideal book for this particular square: This isn’t a whodunit — the identity of the murderer is known from the moment the deed is done, and what is more, we’re even witnessing the murder from the perpetrator’s perspective. Rather than puzzling out clues, the book is concerned with the psychological effect that the deed has on the murderer and on the family concerned. (The setting is another Christmas country house party, btw.) And, Sayers reasons, since we’re invited inside the perpetrator’s head, we get to experience that person’s feelings and thought processes, and thus, come to sympathize with them.
Um, no — not me, I’m afraid.
In fact, for me this book is a variant on the old adage that “it’s better to keep silent and be thought an idiot than to open your mouth and remove all doubt” — only replace “idiot” by “arrogant, selfish bastard.” (That, actually, applies to the majority of the characters here, which, in the absence of the deceptively light touch of a writer like Sayers herself or, for that matter, Georgette Heyer, doesn’t exactly provide added incentive to finish the book.)
If you do persevere, however, you ultimately come across a character towards the end who does struggle mightily with his conscience: the murderer’s brother in law, a young lawyer (and, together with his wife — the murderer’s sister — one of the few normal and likeable members of this cast of characters), who ultimately stumbles onto the solution and is mightily tempted to just let it all slide and let another person (who is seemingly so much more “deserving” of a death sentence, and onto whom the murderer has craftily shifted the blame) go to the gallows instead. So for that reason, I’m getting to count this book towards the Penance Day square after all.
The above notwithstanding, though, Meredith’s writing is excellent — she was an author better known under her male pseudonym Anthony Gilbert (though Anne Meredith was a pen name as well), and I’m definitely going to take a closer look at how she fared with other types of mysteries under her main pen name. Also, it’s a pity she didn’t write more books under the Anne Meredith name, because as a result we also don’t see more of the policeman investigating this particular case, and whom Meredith initially seems to have planned to set up as a series detective figure; at least judging by the amount of background information we’re getting about him, which ultimately doesn’t really go anywhere in this particular book, but which the reader of a series might have appreciated.