Six Letters, Starting With B
Dorothy Bowers was a crossword compiler, born in Leominster, Herefordshire in 1902. She was the daughter of a bakery owner, and after a short and not especially joyful life died at 46 from tuberculosis.
At least she had the satisfaction of knowing that, on the basis of just six books, she had just been inducted into the Detection Club, the society formed in 1930 by a group of Golden Age mystery writers that included Agatha Christie and GK Chesterton. She might have gone on to greater things but for her ill-health.
After being one of the first women accepted at Oxford, Bowers struggled for several years to find a job as a history tutor, supplementing her meagre income by compiling her own crossword puzzles. Keen to write, she found herself drawn to detective novels, but this was a career that usually attracted ladies of leisure.
Still, she quickly found her feet in the field. Her first novel, ‘Postscript To Poison’, was well received and inspired her to continue with the same leading characters, Inspector Dan Pardoe and Sergeant Salt, featuring in another three volumes.
According to Rue Morgue Press, who rescued her mysteries from obscurity, critics felt she might have gone on to succeed Dorothy L Sayers, but Bowers’ time was occupied by her lowly teaching job and hampered by her delicate constitution. Her crime thrillers were championed by the press as ‘fair play’ mysteries where the clues are cunningly displayed within the context of the story, but in such a way that the reader is misdirected to disregard them.
‘Postscript To Poison’ features a hateful victim, Cornelia Lackland, who constantly changes her will and terrorizes her two granddaughters before being dispatched by an unknown member of the household. ‘Shadows Before’ also features a poisoning – in the tea, of course. Bowers’ plots are intricate and her prose is thoughtfully crafted, with a certain amount of careful, eloquent wordplay integral to the solutions. If there’s a criticism, it’s that she coolly moves her characters like chess pieces, but this was a traditional approach in Golden Age crime.
One of the most skilful wielders of the red herring, it’s conceivable that Bowers would have gone on to produce a full body of work, for that is the best way to achieve a degree of artistic immortality.
Rue Morgue are to be commended for resurrecting them even though the covers appear to have been drawn by a not especially talented child, and the prose has been peppered with Americanisms.