After a couple of years considering the Greyladies list I finally found a title I had to have. There have been plenty of these 'Well-mannered books by ladies long gone' that have sounded tempting but at just over £13 a copy for a paperback (including postage) it's the sort of thing I might well buy on impulse when it's in front of me but hesitate over when it's online and I've never seen one for sale.
What Greyladies do (though I suspect most people reading this will already be familiar with them) is publish adult titles by children's authors of a certain vintage. As the product of a horsey sort of family (with a total inability to stay on one as well as a deep mistrust of the beasts - all very disappointing) I inevitably had some of Josephine Pullein-Thompson's pony books on the shelf as a child and remember loving them. Honestly though the motivation for buying this book was purely title based. My relationship with gin is an entirely positive one.
Happily the Greyladies Site provides reasonably long extracts from their books as a taster so I knew I'd find this a reasonably fun read when I bought it but it turned out to be far better than I expected. The murder takes place in the heart of a hunting set, all very Horse and Hound, with the Master at odds with a rich young man who has his eye on buying into the hunt and sweeping off with the girl. Matters are further complicated by the fact that the Master is already married to the hopelessly alcoholic Clara so is in no position to object to the girl being swept off. Things all get a bit tense at a cocktail party and then the rich young man suddenly dies.
The plot is clever, it's also believable, but what really makes this book something special is the portrait of a particular sort of world and the sympathetic treatment of Clara's alcoholism. First published in 1959 it feels like the action takes place a couple of years earlier. Youthful War time experiences may be increasingly distant but aren't forgotten, there are standards to be maintained, and complicated codes of honour to be observed amongst this horsey part of the county set. With the possible exception of the female 'partners' who live together with their horses and a lot of dogs (the exact nature of their relationship isn't entirely clear). All of the characters can still be found in a smart market town near you (certainly near me in rural Leicestershire) and whilst some of them might be elderly and anachronistic now I don't doubt my parents would recognise every one of them. My grandfather could have easily have had a walk on part.
Meanwhile there is alcoholic Clara. It's a very good example from both inside and out of a woman quietly destroying herself with drink. There is the effect it has on the home, the determined efforts towards oblivion from the woman herself, and the isolation that comes from being a social liability.
First time round, reading mostly to find out whodunnit, this was an entertaining way to spend an afternoon. What makes it worth the money and reading again is the clear sighted, non judgemental, portrait of a set of people it would be easy to caricature. They may be stereotypes but Pullein-Thompson gives them real life. It's a gem of a book.