Murder While You Work is an unusual book for several reasons. It is by Susan Scarlett, a writer I had never heard of until a few months ago, when the Furrowed Middlebrow imprint at Dean Street Press mentioned her. She is much better known by her real name – Noel Streatfeild. The renowned midcentury author of works about vicarages, ballet shoes, circus shoes and skating shoes wrote whole series of romance novels under the “Susan Scarlett” pseudonym. This is the only detective novel in the series, adding another element of recondite to Murder While You Work. When Furrowed Middlebrow announced that Noel Streatfeild had written a bunch of midcentury romances, there was considerable excitement amongst those of us who hadn’t known this before. When they added that they would be republishing the lot, it became quite a thing.
Murder While You Work is a completely fascinating book. It begins in almost parodic midcentury fashion, with a young woman called Judy dropping a lipstick under a seat in the carriage, and lamenting that it was a present from an American and she won’t be able to replace it. The errant item is rescued by a handsome young man named Nick who turns out to be travelling to the same small village station as her. Since she is going there in order to do war work in the munitions factory there, and he can’t precisely say what work he’s involved in, this conversation combines an amorous frisson with a potential breach of the Defence of the Realm Act. Hence all those posters declaring Lost Lipsticks Sink Endanger Atlantic Ships and that sort of thing. Has Your Risqué Badinage Enabled Covert Sabotage?
The murder mystery aspect is carried out with a relatively light touch which manages to hint at unpleasantness below the surface. There’s perhaps a bit more suspense than there is mystery about the murder plot. It’s relatively obvious early on who the wrong-‘un is, and most of the time is spend letting the reader wonder (and discover) what exactly they’ve done, why they’ve done it, and what they might do next if not stopped, than on choosing between a cast of equally plausible suspects.
This allows the romance and detection plots to blend more effectively than a lot of similar novels: Nick’s concern for Judy being put in danger, and her refusal to give up the sense of duty she feels to find out what’s going on, provide drive and complication on both sides of the story. But there’s something more thematic happening in these two parallel narratives as well. The developing romance of two young people thrown together in unfamiliar surroundings and unusual work is hedged about by gossip and speculation. The rumour mill seems to work as powerfully and noisily as the lathes at Judy’s shell factory, and everyone knows everything about their entanglement.
Indeed, they seem to know a great deal more than everything, since most people are sure that Nick and Judy are constantly having illicit trysts and nights of passion, all falling under the vaguely nefarious phrase “goings-on”. As the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear that the real moral decay of England isn’t happening in the summer fields and the walk home after a dance, where young people may or may not be breaking their society’s sexual codes. It is happening in the domestic claustrophobia of a respectable household, where wartime virtues like thrift and hard work are curdling into abuse and degradation.
The romance plot, rather like the mystery, is not the subject of much serious uncertainty. Judy is modern and plucky, whilst Nick is aristocratic and haunted by responsibilities both military and ancestral. He has a garrulous mother and a dose of survivor’s guilt in a way which suggests Scarlett/ Streatfeild has read Dorothy L. Sayers, like everyone else writing this kind of novel in this period. Overall, Murder While You Work is a thoroughly enjoyable novel: pacey and funny, with enough edge to stop the detection becoming mechanical, and enough wit to stop the romance cloying. Aside from anything else, it is always engrossing to watch the wartime novel, which became such a favourite historical mode for later authors, being written at the time by someone who didn’t know how all this would turn out and what we would all come to think about it.