Death and Mary Dazill, by Mary Fitt

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Mary Fitt’s 1941 novel Death and Mary Dazill has a curious structure, switching from the present to the 1890s and back again, as it recounts the complexly shifting relationships that follow Mary Dazill’s introduction into a Victorian household as companion/governess to two motherless teenage women, Lindy and Arran de Boulter.  Unfortunately for all concerned their father promptly falls in love with Mary and proposes to her, setting off a chain reaction of mysterious deaths.  In the present, police Superintendent Mallett and a couple of doctors are visiting the local church for the funeral of a policeman.  They become acquainted with the tragic history of the family from the local vicar and his wife, the latter’s late mother having been peripherally involved in it.  The stimulus is the appearance of the now-elderly sisters, come to lay a wreath at the tomb of their brother and father, and it also emerges that Mary Dazill is buried elsewhere in the graveyard.

Mallett and the doctors hear about what went on fifty years before from the vicar’s wife while the reader is also privy to the events themselves, told as if that is what the audience in the present is hearing, though actually containing information they could not know about.  It’s an odd device when the entire story could have been told, more credibly, as a complete flashback, but it allows Mallett at the end, literally an armchair detective, to outline how the murders were probably committed.  The solution, while plausible, feels arbitrary as Fitt has not left a trail of clues for the reader to pick up.  Fitt has a dig at a certain sort of reader who claims to have solved a mystery while having done no such thing: ‘You’re exactly like the people who read detective stories: you suspect all the people concerned, and when the guilt is plain, you say, “I was right after all.”’  Really though, Fitt has given her reader little reason to suspect one character rather than another.

The emphasis though isn’t about the pleasures of the classic detective story but on the exploration of the dynamics of the household.  Mary Dazill is considered a cuckoo in the nest, yet her acceptance of an eligible husband with a large fortune is a reasonable act for a woman with distinct social disadvantages (her mother had murdered Mary’s father, who was with another woman) and alone in the world.  It is her aloofness which marks her as odd and suggests her undesirability as a wife and stepmother.  Yet we learn that while she is unconcerned if men fall in love with her – after all she does nothing to encourage it – she does herself have the capacity for emotional attachment, and ironically she falls in love with someone who does not reciprocate her feelings.

The women are better drawn than the men, who remain two-dimensional, and Mary Dazill’s enigmatic character is cleverly depicted.  It would have been easy to invest her with an air of melodrama, instead she is a quiet centre at the heart of the maelstrom, passive while the household falls apart around her.  Her name is entirely appropriate as she dazzles men, while alienating the women, until finally she has acted as the catalyst that deprives the family of its menfolk, leaving only unhappy spinsters to remember them.

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