E is for Edwards: Ruth Dudley Edwards
The London School of Murder — an essay by Ruth that appeared in Mystery Readers International
I have no sense of direction, and little of place, so don’t look to my mysteries to bring London geographically to life. What I do have—I hope—is an understanding of institutions and the physical, intellectual and emotional world they inhabit. So my mysteries mainly happen indoors, although from time to time my characters go forth blinking into the street and marvel at what they see. Nothing, however, is quite as it seems, since although originally I set out to write serious novels about crime, the comedy kept impinging and eventually I had to admit that I was a satirist.
Corridors of Death (1981), my very first, was set in the British civil service. I had just abandoned my permanent, pensionable job with excel-lent prospects for the precarious life of a freelance writer. My protagonist, Robert Amiss, rarely ventures beyond his Westminster office, the House of Commons or the nearby curry-house where he secretly meets the policeman investigating the death of his horrid boss, Sir Nicholas, to explain to him the intricacies of relationships between civil servants and politicians. The policeman, Jim Milton, gets out more than Robert, and does his fair share of travelling around London, but his psychic energy is spent more on trying to understand the way the establishment works than on admiring the architecture.
In The St Valentine’s Day Murders (1984) my poor Robert has been seconded to a terrible job in a dreary building in outer London but he is mainly preoccupied with trying not to go mad, empathising with people who have to commute long distances to jobs they hate and then trying to work out which of them was desperate enough to kill. I worked in a place like that before the Civil Service and I shudder still.
Having quit the Civil Service in a rage, Robert is unemployed in London until one of his police friends persuades him to take a job in a language school where there are strange goings-on. (My then husband taught foreigners language and negotiating skills, so I knew that world well enough to satirise it.) The good news in The English School of Murder (1990) is that he’s in a posh area of London (near Hyde Park) and frequents comfortable restaurants: the bad is that most of his students are rich layabouts who are in London just to shop and sin. By the end of it, the reader should know a lot about the transient population who regard Harrods as their spiritual centre.
The part of London near Piccadilly that is known as clubland was an irresistible target once I joined a gentleman’s club. In Clubbed to Death (1992) Robert is again an unpaid undercover agent for the police, this time as a waiter in ffeatherstonehaugh’s, a club run by corrupt, decadent geriatrics which nevertheless resembles respect-able clubs in its passion for tradition and daft rules.
Robert answers a call for help from Cambridge (where I was a student) from Jack Troutbeck, whom he knew in the Civil Service, in Matricide at St Martha’s (1994), and finds himself undercover in her women’s college immersed in a war to the death over academic priorities. I had not planned this, but by the end of that book, the domineering, opinionated, brave, insensitive, sybaritic, charismatic Jack Troutbeck—hater of all things politically-correct—had become my main character and Robert was henceforward relegated to the role of clever but complaining sidekick (slightly reminiscent of Archie Goodwin vis-à-vis Nero Wolfe). Thus in Ten Lords a’Leaping (1995)—when as a new member of the House of Lords Baroness Troutbeck needs help to defeat those trying to ban hunting—Robert is based in that glorious building as her research assistant finding out how it ticks and picking his way through the corpses.
In Murder in a Cathedral (1996), Baroness Troutbeck has dragged Robert out of his beloved London to Westonbury to solve the problems of a beleaguered Church of England bishop, and in The Anglo-Irish Murders (2000), they go to Ireland to mediate fruitlessly between warring factions. But they are back in London in Publish and Be Murdered (1997), where Robert is put in charge of rescuing The Wrangler, a distinguished weekly journal, from being ruined by the weird staff who inhabit the decrepit building in Percy Square: the baroness is a confrontational columnist. It is the baroness who takes over when the Chair of the judges of a famous literary prize is murdered in Carnage on the Committee (Poisoned Pen Press, 2004); the Thames sees off one of the others. And although most of Murdering Americans (Poisoned Pen, 2007) is spent in Indiana, London is the location at the beginning and the end.
At the moment I’m writing “Killing the Emperors”—which takes its inspiration from the London art-world’s obsession with talentless conceptual art. As with all the novels since Baroness Troutbeck’s coup, London is a place of one or two memorable buildings and venues where the food is excellent, the waiters skilled and she can bend to her will those she wants to help her preserve the best of Western Civilization and, particularly, the wonders of England and its institutions. The London of my books is that of the people who care about issues to do with academia, politics, culture, tradition and history that im-pinge on the country’s way of life. My books do not try to teach geography, but I hope they’re an entertaining glimpse of what makes London movers-and-shakers fall out and even kill.
Ruth at Poisoned Pen Bookshop in Arizona, run by her editor, Barbara Peters, who is married to her publisher at Poisoned Pen, Rob Rosenwald.