Reputation for a Song, by Edward Grierson

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[Warning – spoilers]

Indeed the Idols I have loved so long
Have done my Credit in Men’s Eye much wrong:
Have drown’d my Honour in a shallow Cup
And sold my Reputation for a Song.

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (Edward FitzGerald, 1859)

Originally published in 1952, Reputation for a Song was Edward Grierson’s first novel, a crime story set in the fictional English cathedral town of Turlminster.  It features the Anderson family: Robert, a long-established and very staid solicitor, his wife Laura, bitterly disappointed with the turn her life has taken with her dull husband, and their three children, Margaret, still at home at the age of 31, the somewhat underwritten Kay, and 18-year old Rupert.  The novel opens with Rupert on trial for the murder of his father before moving back in time to establish the events leading to Robert’s death.  The book is split into two main parts.  In the first we meet the family and see its dysfunctionality at first hand.  The hinge is the murder of Robert at the hands of his son, allowing the reader to see precisely how it occurred, and the second half is the account of the trial.

The family dynamics are well drawn, on the one hand Robert’s decency but old-fashioned rigidity, on the other ghastly Laura’s long-simmering disdain both for Robert and for Margaret who is close to him, contrasting her obsession with the spoilt Rupert that borders on the torridly oedipal.  Grierson shows that if a person is manipulative and deceitful, unconcerned with damaging lives as long as they achieve their own ends, they can poison others’ relationships and even make the most inoffensive of men appear to be a monster when he is no longer there to defend himself.  The game-playing Laura is the sort of person who would lie as easily as tell the truth just to keep her hand in, indeed one of the precipitating factors in the family crisis is her admission to Robert, in order to hurt him, that Rupert is not his child.

With Robert dead at Rupert’s hand, Laura will do anything to protect her beloved son from a conviction, lying to the police and in court, traducing Robert’s reputation by making him the aggressor in order to buttress a case of self-defence.  The reader, having spent time in Robert’s company, is well aware of how unscrupulous she is in painting Robert in the blackest light possible, making him out to have been a violent unpredictable drunk.  When Margaret demurs at Laura’s character assassination, not knowing Rupert’s true paternity, Laura hypocritically argues that family was everything to Robert and he would not want to see Rupert hang, that her perjured character assassination in court is worth it to persuade the jury of the essential truth (though a lie) – that Rupert did not mean to kill his father.

Grierson had practised as a barrister before the war, and later had been a magistrate, so he writes about the law with an insider’s knowledge.  He is excellent on the theatrical aspect, and gets inside the psychology of those who have spent their working lives in the courtroom.  One weakness is his curious decision to begin the book with a brief courtroom scene, then go back to show the relationships within the Anderson family.  It’s a dramatic opening, and by telling us so early that Robert is dead and Rupert is on trial for his murder we read the first part of the book with that horrible foreknowledge, but it robs the murder itself of surprise.  A more satisfying strategy would have been to omit the opening scene so that the murder when it came had more shock value.

Our pity for the abused Robert is aroused early on, and the jury’s finding of self-defence removes the opportunity for catharsis at seeing justice done.  Despite being leavened by a dry humour it’s a cynical book, perhaps reflecting the prevailing mood of post-war pessimism (the issue of Rupert’s paternity would have been quite racy for the period).  For someone so steeped in the law it is surprising to see Grierson show that justice is not infallible and the adversarial system – in which appeals to emotion are such a significant element, and juries’ verdicts are based on sentimentality as much as the balanced interpretation of unclear and biased evidence – not necessarily the best way to arrive at the truth.  We see how innocent facts can be bent to suit a particular purpose until they present a picture totally at odds with what happened.  The inference is that if the law can err in finding the guilty innocent, it can also err in finding the innocent guilty.  Did contemporary readers, at a time when there was still a death penalty for murder, see the novel’s implication?

One has to wonder if Grierson was writing from personal experience of an unhappy marriage because he manages to portray Laura’s narcissism and insecurity so convincingly.  She has no redeeming features – as Margaret points out, she does not even love Rupert, only aspects of herself that are in him.  Those unfortunates who are married to their own Lauras will find this an uncomfortable read.  Grierson seems have been largely forgotten since his death in 1975, and Reputation for a Song is an underrated novel.  Julian Symons thought enough of it to include it on his list of ‘The 99 best crime stories’ in the Sunday Times, 21 December 1958, and while inclined to plod, the adroit dissection of character makes up for plotting deficiencies.

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