Sunday, 6 July 2014

Penguin no. 740: Carteret's Cure
by Richard Keverne

'Carteret, I've been dealing with crime in one form or another practically all my life. You know that, of course. Things perhaps don't shock me as they would other people; one grows callous, to regard the criminal as a specimen, to put him under the microscope, as it were, to look for the causes that led to the results, so that one may fight the causes. And the main cause in the East is drug-taking.'

For at least 200 of this book's 286 pages I felt as though I was reading a love story rather than a crime novel, and at times it seemed the dullest vintage Penguin I had yet read. The plot improves markedly towards the end, although it never loses a quality which seems best described as awkwardness, with events that are just too convenient for the plot and which seem, on reflection, to make little sense. I have since learnt from The Passing Tramp that this was the first novel written by the now-forgotten Richard Keverne, and having read a few of his others, I know that this is not his best.

Michael Carteret is a rising young London barrister who visits an isolated part of Suffolk and falls for young Molly Seymour, daughter of a local squire, when she rescues him from what she insists would have been certain death. He had ventured too far in a small boat on a cold winter's evening, and unable to return against a strong tide, and fearful of being swept out to sea, he had beached himself upon the mud and prepared to wait it out until the tide turned. Molly finds him hours later, inadequately attired against the wind and icy rain, and nearly frozen to death.

Once he recovers from his ordeal, Carteret realises that their romance is unlikely as Molly is a headstrong young woman who has involved herself in activities which he cannot condone. He is concerned for her, and for the illegality of her actions, and he determines to save her from her youthful follies. She, however, is inclined to view his interest and concern as interference and to resent them both. You could almost describe the first 200 pages as the story of the smitten Carteret's endless worrying about whether his interests lie in supporting Molly's clandestine actions or in opposing them.

Carteret had headed to Suffolk under the instruction of his doctor. He had been lately suffering from a nervous conditions which appears to have the primary symptom of insomnia combined with a perfectly reasonable aversion to flying, given that he crash-landed during the War. His Harley Street specialist, Richard Sark, insists that the only effective treatment for his condition is submission to a term of absolute boredom of several months duration, so Carteret puts aside his work and prepares to spend his next few months in a nursing home so expensive that he is sure to spend his time cloistered with people from his own social class.

With nothing to occupy him mentally, Carteret indulges in the recreations offered by the local environment, embracing a cure of long coastal walks, and fishing and bird-shooting expeditions. You cannot help but wonder, later in the novel, why they ever let him out of the front door and why they encouraged him to spend so much time wandering about, for by doing so he discovers that the entire village seems to have embarked upon an enterprise founded upon smuggling, including the squire and his daughter, and that a certain untenanted and dilapidated building in the area is operation's focal point. Having discovered this, Carteret makes a nuisance of himself to all and sundry by refusing to keep away.

One interesting aspect of this novel is the way it portrays the sense of entitlement of the landed gentry. Molly is clearly intended as a sympathetic character, but it is difficult to have sympathy with some of her views. After a fortnight in London living the high life, she fumes about being so financially constrained that she is only able to indulge in such pleasures occasionally, and only due to the indulgence of friends. In her view she is entitled to a life of pleasure, and she resents having been denied it, apparently by the government and its high rates of taxation. That such a leisured life is necessarily supported by a legion of hard-working people for whom two weeks in London is an impossible dream seems never to occur to her, nor does the option of working in some law-abiding occupation to secure such a life. Instead she becomes a advocate of smuggling, arguing that such behaviour is entirely justifiable when it undermines a government which has treated her family so unreasonably.

The other interesting aspect is the idea, which you regularly encounter in stories from this era, that the ideal solution to any problem is the one that avoids scandal. No one seems concerned here that the guilty thereby evade justice, as long as those for whom the protagonist has strong feelings are protected from the natural consequences of their actions.

Originally published 1926. Published by Penguin Books 1950.

Some books by Richard Keverne which I found more entertaining:
Penguin no. 90: The Sanfield Scandal
Penguin no. 410: Artifex Intervenes

Carteret's Cure reviewed elsewhere:
The Passing Tramp

1 comment:

  1. Well put! I think we are in basic agreement on this one. It was hard to understand the author's expectation that we would find the heroine so darn sympathetic. He clearly was operating under a different set of sociocultural assumptions! I did like the setting, but, I agree, Keverne did better.



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