“A fast-paced plot with plenty of false leads keeps the reader turning the pages.” –Publishers Weekly
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: PW above is describing Sandra Parshall’s brand new Poisoned Ground—but Sandy wants to talk about a different “fast placed plot with plenty of false leads.”
Yes, we watch it. Yes, we love it. Yes, we simply cannot get enough of it.
And today, we delightedly feed our DT addiction—as Sandra Parshall takes on—gasp—Julian Fellowes. Stand back, y’all!
The Downton Whodunnit
I know, I know — reams have been written about it on the internet and in the press since the season finale. Nobody cares whether Mary marries the lovesick Lord or the farming expert who turns out to be heir to a baronetcy. Nobody cares about the world of future heartache poor Edith is setting herself up for by bringing her illegitimate daughter to Downton to be raised as the adopted child of the pig manager. All people have talked about is the murder mystery. Did Bates kill the valet who raped Anna? Even those who believe he did (and I’m one of those) try to find ways to excuse him.
But nobody seems to have noticed how Julian Fellowes pulled his punches at every turn in writing the rape-and-revenge tale. As a piece of storytelling, I think it fails on all levels.
First, it’s preposterous for the valet, Green, to be so confident he can get away with a sexual assault under the circumstances. He is the servant of Lord Gillingham, who is courting Lady Mary, the daughter of an Earl. While they’re visiting the ancestral home of that Earl, the valet rapes Anna, a married woman who is lady’s maid to Mary and spends hours every day in her company. Not only does Green rape Anna, but he hits her, leaving visible damage on her face. A servant would have to be insane to think he could get away with this, but Green seems blithely unconcerned about Anna telling either her husband or her employer. Maybe we’re supposed to believe he’s nuts.
All that aside, Fellowes passed over a chance for real drama by ignoring the vulnerable position of female servants in relationship to their male employers and other men in their social circle. Suppose Lord Gillingham had a younger brother who has embarked on a promising career in the military or diplomacy. Suppose that young aristocrat accompanies the Lord to Downton, sneaks downstairs during the concert, and rapes and beats Anna. And Carson, the butler, witnesses the attack. The rapist makes threats, Anna pleads for silence out of fear of what Bates would do, but Carson, being Carson, cannot stay silent. Because his integrity is unassailable, Lord Grantham will believe him.
Now we have real drama. Can Bates be restrained from taking revenge on a member of the aristocracy? Will Lord Grantham allow a maid to bring criminal charges against a young man of his own class, thereby destroying what promises to be a brilliant future? What will Lord Gillingham do? Which side will Mary be on? If Lord Grantham wants to hush up the matter, will Tom Branson, the chauffeur who married into the family and has never felt comfortable about it, take his daughter and leave Downton in protest, depriving Cora and Robert access to their granddaughter?
Fellowes tends to draw a strong, thick line between upstairs and downstairs in the stories he writes for Downton Abbey. The two are intertwined only in the romance and marriage of Lady Sibyl and Tom the chauffeur. In the rape story, he has mostly kept the people upstairs ignorant of what’s going on, allowing only Mary to become involved in a minor way. When pressed to explain her glum mood, Anna serves Mary an absurd story about a stranger, a passerby, who entered the house, raped her, and disappeared. Mary gives only a moment’s thought to reporting the incident to the police. How realistic is it that she would not want her father, the Earl, to know that his grand estate had been invaded and one of his employees attacked?
After sussing out the truth, that Lord Gillingham’s valet was the culprit, Mary gives in to Anna’s protest that Bates must never know who did it because he might kill the man. (How could he kill Green if Green were under arrest and in jail?) Mary takes the wishy-washy step of telling Lord Gillingham that his valet has done something naughty and should be fired, but she won’t tell him what Green did. After Bates learns the truth and Green dies under suspicious circumstances, we’re supposed to sympathize with Mary’s crisis of conscience as she wonders whether to turn Bates in or keep silent.
Some commentators have remarked on the condescending and male-centric approach Fellowes took in handling the rape story. Anna was made to play the stereotypical victim throughout, weeping about feeling “dirty” and moaning that her husband would never want to touch her again if he learned she’d been raped. Fellowes put a gag-inducing line of dialog in Bates’s mouth when he had the devoted husband tell Anna that the rape didn’t make him love her less, it made him love her more. I know Fellowes is writing about an earlier period, almost a hundred years ago, but this stuff is drivel. A little emotional originality would have improved matters — but the basic storyline would remain wimpy and lacking in dramatic punch.
It could have been so much better if Fellowes had been willing to drag one of the upstairs dandies downstairs to do something criminal and disgusting — and then forced the aristocrats, and not just the servants, to deal with the fallout.
HANK: So, what do you think? Cannot wait for Julian Fellowes’ comments.
And Sandra has a signed POISONED GROUND for one lucky commenter!
Sandra Parshall is the author of six Rachel Goddard mysteries set in Virginia. Her 2006 debut, The Heat of the Moon, won the Agatha Award for Best First Novel. Her latest title is Poisoned Ground (March 2014). A longtime member of Sisters in Crime, she has served on the national board and managed the SinC members= online community for many years. She lives in Northern Virginia with her husband, a veteran Washington journalist, and their cats Emma and Gabriel. Visit her website at http://www.sandraparshall.com.
"Parshall expertly maintains the tension until the surprising conclusion." -- Kirkus Reviews
Gunshots on an autumn day leave a beloved local couple dead and signal the start of a vicious battle over the future of Mason County, Virginia. A powerful development company has chosen this small community in the Blue Ridge Mountains as the site of a sprawling resort for the rich, and the local people are taking sides. No one opposes the project more vocally than veterinarian Rachel Goddard, and her outspokenness complicates the job of her husband, newly elected Sheriff Tom Bridger. Many see the project as the cure for poverty and high unemployment in a dying community. Others, including Rachel, know the firm behind it is notorious for mistreatment of employees, and they’re alarmed by the prospect of the entire county becoming financially dependent on a predatory company. Rachel’s friend, horse breeder Joanna McKendrick, owns the most desirable land, and she’s fighting intense pressure to sell and make way for the development. When Joanna’s neighbors, an older couple who also refuse to give up their farm, are gunned down outside their house, it appears supporters of the project will stop at nothing to push it through. Soon a small-scale civil war is raging in the county. As the violence escalates, Rachel and Tom realize the truth behind the attacks is far more sinister than it seems, rooted deep in the poisoned ground of the past.