David Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons is what you get when you cross a Golden-Age mystery with P. G. Wodehouse, which would be high praise indeed if not for caveats.
Set in a 1929 England ignorant of the economic cataclysm to come, Stafford’s mystery centres on a loveable, of-working-class-stock barrister and his efforts to exonerate Mary Dutton, accused of poisoning her abusive husband; the novel’s blurb offers some further details:
Before propelled to front-page fame by winning the case of the century, Arthur Skelton was a fairly unremarkable barrister. Now, he is enjoying the attention that being dubbed a hero by the press brings – namely practising his distinguished pose and his autograph – much to the amusement of his wife.
But January 1929 brings another high-profile case. Mary Dutton is accused of murdering her husband, although there are few people who dispute her guilt. The case is considered unwinnable; however, despite the odds, Skelton agrees to defend her – a decision that has absolutely nothing to do with her resemblance to a beautiful Hollywood actress …
With an army of flappers set to cast their inaugural votes in the looming general election, both sides of the political divide are keen to secure their support by turning the case to their advantage and begin to lean on Skelton. Aided by his trusty clerk Edgar, Skelton faces mounting pressure to find the truth. But will that be enough to save a young woman’s life?
Stafford’s quasi-comic, quasi-tragic mystery may be divided into disparate parts: the marvelously comic characterization and dubious mystery.
Arthur Skelton is adorable; his wife, Mila, hilariously, sharply forthright. (He is sooo in love with Mila that I resented the blurb’s suggestion Arthur is susceptible to Mary’s Lillian-Gish looks.) We are introduced to them as Mila ruffles through newspaper articles lauding Arthur:
‘Look at this one. You’re posing,’ she’d said, brandishing the News of the World.
‘I am not posing.’
‘You’ve got your distinguished face on.’
‘Is it my fault if my face, in repose, can sometimes appear distinguished?’ It wouldn’t have been so bad if he hadn’t been so conspicuous, but he was six foot three, with a face like a horse and round glasses with lenses so thick that his eyes filled them like moons. And he had a limp.
Arthur is of that wonderful ilk of detective: bumbling, seemingly slow, and yet, he figures out how to save his client, win his case, bring justice every time. There is an endearing quality to Arthur’s naïveté (but his intelligence and persistence should not be underestimated). Arthur’s research into the case that made him famous represents his lovable “innocence” and Stafford’s ability to reduce me to snorting guffaws: “Although he was a thirty-six-year-old married man with two children, the witness statements frequently alluded to sexual practices of which he was entirely ignorant. His Latin — fello, lingua and so on — led him to make some educated guesses, but French — never his strong subject at school — led him to translate Maitresse de la Douleur as ‘Our Lady of the Sorrows’, a misapprehension that was thankfully cleared up before the trial began.”
The great comic strength of Stafford’s novel lies in Arthur’s partners-in-solving-cases, wife Mila and clerk, Edgar Hobbes, Jeeves to Arthur’s Bertie. One of the most adorable moments of Arthur and Mila’s relationship is Arthur’s memory of their courtship: ” … she criticized the Labour Party’s policy on conscription while he ate chocolate creams. They took bus rides out to Holcombe Moor and up Worsley Woods. Eventually they held hands and went in for a bit of kissing. Neither of them was very good at that sort of thing but they’d always muddled through, well enough to have two children, anyway. ‘Are there any biscuits?’ Skelton said. ‘No.’ Mila disapproved of biscuits.” She also disapproves of singing (which made me love her forever and finger-cross we see more Mila in Stafford’s next Skelton’s Guides mystery): “There was a Girl Guide troop attached to the Lambourn Academy. Mila had been camping with them once and had been impressed by the girls’ resourcefulness, but, as an atheist republican, she was put off by the amount of God and King involved. Also, the singing. ‘They sang,’ she had complained, ‘endlessly and incomprehensibly.’ ” As someone who has endured many girls school choirs sounding like about-to-be-garotted cats, Mila is my girl. (Mila is so smart, she’s actually the one who finds the solution to Arthur’s Mary Dutton case!)
To Mila, add a Girl Guide leader named Rose who wants to be a solicitor, Arthur’s revival-circuit cousins who sleuth for him on the side, Edgar with his head out of vehicles to prevent car-sickness, and the funniest encounter with a recalcitrant horse I’ve ever read and you have the makings of a great comic novel. What of the caveats you opened with, you’re thinking. Amidst my hilarity was a horrifying awareness of the seriousness surrounding Mary Dutton’s case: domestic abuse, family tragedy, suicide, the still-felt ravages of the Great War. Underlying Skelton’s Guide is a sense all is not right with the world and the way it treats women. In the ambiance and characterization of Stafford’s wonderful “people”, the all-knowing, all-seeing, all-anticipating Edgar; intrepid Girl Guide leader, Rose; Valkyrie-like Mila; foolishly bumbling, hearts-in-the-right-place cousins, I found a keeper of a mystery series, reminiscent of McCall Smith’s gentle, loving No 1 Ladies Detective Agency, except McCall Smith’s characters and atmosphere are matched with equally gentle “crimes”. In Stafford’s novel, the awfulness of the Mary Dutton revelations were dissonant given the Bertie-Wooster, Nick-and-Nora vibes of his main characters. Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading Arthur and Mila, Edgar, Rose, and the world Stafford created and I want to know how they solve their next case. Miss Austen and I agree Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons offers “real comfort,” Emma.
David Stafford’s Skelton’s Guide to Domestic Poisons was published by Allison and Busby. It was released in September 2020 and may be found at your preferred vendor. I received an e-galley from Allison and Busby via Netgalley.