The Edgar Awards Revisited: Death and the Joyful Woman by Ellis Peters (Best Novel; 1963)
By Susanna CalkinsMarch 8, 2019
Up next in our Edgar Award re-read is 1963's winner Death and the Joyful Woman by Ellis Peters, a mystery with an unconventional choice for narrator: a teenage boy. Susanna Calkins reviews.
In 1963, Ellis Peters’ Death and the Joyful Woman was awarded the Edgar for Best Novel, edging out Dell Shannon’s Knave of Hearts, Mark McShane’s Séance, Shelley Smith’s The Ballad of the Running Man, Jean Potts’ The Evil Wish, and Ross Macdonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse.
I’d never read any novels by Ellis Peters, one of several pseudonyms assumed by British novelist Edith Mary Pargeter (1913-1995). Growing up, my mother had been a big fan of Peters’ better-known Brother Cadfael mysteries, and I remember her talking about that sleuth’s medieval exploits, but I don’t remember ever knowing much about Peters’ earlier series, which featured Inspector George Felse and his family.
So it was with great interest that I picked up Death and the Joyful Woman, knowing nothing of Inspector Felse, his investigative style, or anything about the world in which he operated.
I admit I had to read the book twice to “get it.” On my first, overly quick perusal, I thought the book was a decent enough whodunnit, albeit one with a surprising set of narrators. I had expected the story to focus on Inspector Felse and his method of investigation, but much of the story was told by Felse’s sixteen-year-old son, Dominic, offering a surprising and somewhat moody adolescent perspective not often found in adult novels.
As the story opens, Dominic meets and falls in love with Kitty Norris, a young twenty-something heiress, while she is waiting to donate blood. Several days later, a local millionaire is found murdered in an old pub—The Joyful Woman—and Kitty is arrested for the crime by Dominic’s father, Inspector Felse. Furious and refusing to believe that Kitty could have done such a terrible deed, Dominic ends up investigating the crime himself, despite his father’s resistance to his efforts.
On this first go, I found it hard to get into the rhythm of the story, finding Peters’ writing style somewhat off-putting, with its head-hopping, odd switches in narration, heavy foreshadowing, and the unexpected musings of an omniscient and somewhat maudlin narrator. To be fair, the book is a product of a different era, with different writerly conventions, and as such, deserves to be read on its own terms. So I read it again, setting aside my expectations as a reader of crime fiction.
Reading the book a second time gave me new insights. This time I realized that it was through Dominic—with his singularly focused, dogged, and love-driven pursuit of the truth—that we find the true heart and ingenuity of the investigation; by contrast, his father’s approach is more prosaic, more routine, and far less imaginative. Ultimately, it is the family relationships—most notably the fraught dynamics between father and son—that drive the investigation and the narrative, making it a truly remarkable and unique story.
This heated exchange between Dominic and his father over Kitty’s arrest says it all:
“Dad, you’ve got to let her go now, don’t you see that? You’ve no right to hold her now that I’ve told you about it. She’s innocent, and if you won’t prove it, I’ll damn well do it myself.”
George had had more than enough. He opened his mouth to say something for which he would quite certainly have been sorry next moment, and which would have cost [Dominic’s mother] days of patient, cunning negotiations to put right again between them; and then the violent young voice that was shouting at him cracked ominously, and stopped him in his tracks, and he was saved….Understanding hit George like a steam hammer. Someone you’re used to thinking of as a child, someone who sounds like a hysterical boy, suddenly looks at you with the profound, solemn, staggering grief of a man, and knocks the breath out of you.
Within this mystery, Ellis offers some unexpected truths which may resonate with readers as they did me. Perhaps because I have two sons who are close to Dominic’s age, I found the conflicts and everyday tensions between Dominic and his father both plausible and heart-rending. Although I think that if I had read this book when I was sixteen, I would have rebelled against Inspector Felse alongside Dominic, thinking him an unimaginative and unromantic foil to his far more poetically-minded son.
Curious about the book’s initial reception, I came across this faintly dismissive review from 1962, written by Jacques Barzun, then Provost of Columbia University, for The American Scholar. Of Death and the Joyful Woman he wrote:
[I]t stands just short of excellence in the mixed genre of detection and character study. After a somewhat prosy start it depicts the love of a young boy for an older girl with a precision and charm that make me doubt other evidence in the book that Ellis Peters is a woman. At any rate, the adept joining of lives and motives into a tightly plotted whole inspires the sort of gratitude that is the lively expectation of good things to come. I shall hope that they come under a more attractive title than this first installment, but I shall be content if they are as full of unassuming art.
Other than his questionable gender-related remarks, I thought Barzun’s assessment of the novel to be fair and somewhat prescient. In April 1963, the year the book won the Edgar, it was also made into a teleplay for The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, featuring Laraine Day and Gilbert Roland, receiving a lukewarm response from its viewers. Over the rest of the decade, Peters went on to write seven more novels featuring the Felse family, although the series ended when she turned her attention to the Brother Cadfael mysteries in the 1970s.
Where it fits now is hard to say.
Physically, the book was definitely hard to track down—no library in my area owned even one copy, and it took me a while to purchase a decent used copy online. The literary importance of the book seems even more difficult to pinpoint. While Brother Cadfael is frequently discussed in scholarship, poor Inspector Felse rarely gets a mention. It’s hard to say why, but I’m guessing that he just wasn’t a unique enough detective to stand the test of time. It was, after all, his moody and stubborn son that set the story apart.
Notes from the 1963 Edgar Awards:
- As mentioned above, the other nominees for Best Novel included: Dell Shannon for Knave of Hearts, Mark McShane for Seance, Shelley Smith for The Ballad of the Running Man, Jean Potts for The Evil Wish, and Ross Macdonald for The Zebra-Striped Hearse. (This marked back-to-back losses for Macdonald.)
- Robert L. Fish won Best First Novel for The Fugitive. He beat out Daniel Broun (Counterweight) and Richard Unekis (The Chase).
- John Dickson Carr served as the Grand Master.
- Three Special Edgars were awarded: to E. Spencer Shew for his two-volume reference work Companion to Murder; to Philip Reisman for the NBC television show Cops and Robbers; and to Patrick Quentin for his collection of short stories published under The Ordeal of Mrs. Snow.
- David Ely won the Edgar Award for his short story “The Sailing Club” which originally ran in Cosmopolitan (October ’62).
- Patricia Highsmith lost in the short story category with her story “The Terrapin.”
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Thanks again for joining us as we work our way through this list. Make sure to stop by next week when Gabino Iglesias discusses 1964’s winner, The Light of Day by Eric Ambler. Look for it on Friday.
A special thanks goes out to The Mysterious Bookshop for donating many of the review copies of the award-winning books. For the latest on all new releases, as well as classic books for your collections, make sure to sign up for their newsletter.
 Barzun, Jacques. “A Brief bag of Felonies.” The American Scholar. (1962): 628-636.