Winston Graham’s 1959 novel The Tumbled House is a romantic suspense novel long out of print; my copy is the fourth impression dated 1976.
While dropping in on the empty house of her late father-in-law Sir John Marlowe, Joanna commits adultery with an ex-boyfriend Roger Shorn. It is not an affair; perhaps she was lonely since her husband Don, a feted conductor, was away in the States with an orchestra.
Shortly after Don’s return, a couple of anonymous articles are published in a newspaper, The Gazette, denigrating Sir John, claiming the great man plagiarised a book by an old associate (also deceased).
Don is incandescent and determined to discover the writer’s identity and clear his father’s name. He seeks legal advice but that’s not much help as you can’t libel a dead person. ‘What was the purpose of attacking the reputation of a dead man unless there was someone still alive to care?’ (p73). He has the sympathy of Joanna and his sister Bennie but ignores their suggestion that he forget the whole issue.
Unable to forgive and forget, Don finally learns of the writer’s identity and writes insults against the culprit. The added complication is that Bennie is in a relationship with the son of the writer.
This should be a fairly anodyne court case, but the interweaving of the personalities involved and the minor crimes on the periphery that affect Bennie and her beau Michael keep the reader turning the pages.
What lifts the book above the norm is Graham’s acute observation of character and place. The point of view is omniscient. Here are a few examples.
‘The Red Boar Club... Here the temperature was a uniform seventy-eight winter and summer, and tobacco-smoke hung in cirrus clouds about the room. You broke through them going down the steps like a plane coming in to land’ (p38).
In the club Don approaches the editor of the offending Gazette: ‘He had a square rather distinguished face on which the skin hung loosely as if it had a slow puncture. But there was nothing deflated about the way he looked at Don...’ (p39).
‘Sir Percy... was not expensively dressed and his Cockney accent still clung to him like a home-knitted pullover’ (p59).
‘When he opened the door the sunlight crowded in as if it had been queuing there’ (p72).
‘An artist of course was judged by his art, not by his life. It didn’t matter two-pence if Rembrandt was a rogue or Beethoven a bore... (p100) – though in the idiotic modern age of cancel culture that may no longer apply!
Despite the suspense, and Don discovering Joanna’s infidelity, there are smatterings of humour: asked about Don’s interpretation of Swan Lake, he responded, ‘It could well be the most original. Phone Leningrad and tell them to watch Tchaikovsky’s grave. If there’s movement, it’ll mean he’s turning over in it’ (p128).
‘She stared at him with unwinking eyes, a stout old lady with a bulging face like a purse that has never been opened for charity’ (p148).
‘... when they rode together the sun was slanting, and a breeze that came up from the sea had made the young leaves turn and glint like wild silk’ (p174).
‘... his grey, pachydermous face wearing a weary, dusty expression as if too many years of exposing human frailty had left him without illusions and without hope’ (p298).
Bearing in mind the time of writing, there are two uses of the n-word and an allusion to gays before that term was the acceptable description, none of which are malicious.
Graham describes a death without being mawkish: less is more.
ending is satisfactory.