Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street by Mark McShane

Fresh from reading Australian author Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I tracked down a copy of Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. This novel sets three very different characters on a collision course that will change their lives, and it reminded me of the work of Muriel Spark for the decidedly nasty edge to its humour.

The novel begins with Tom Brady, a shabby former Londoner and a rather disreputable character who now lives in Sydney. Tom has a checkered past which includes a long-distant stint as a policeman, but it’s been downhill from there. His last job as a night watchman ended 5 months before when he was caught sleeping. Now unemployed, he hangs about in the shops and watches people as a way to pass his time. Tom was married once:

love came into the life of Tom Brady. Or at any rate, during a period of indigence wherein he was unable to make his fortnightly visit to a King’s Cross prostitute, he met a girl from Brisbane who was game for anything, even marriage. They married and lived rather drearily in small furnished flats. The children which might have held them together did not come. They drifted apart without rancour, she returning to Brisbane, living with another man and bearing three children, of the last of which she died. The whole marital episode concerned Tom less than a change in jobs.

While Tom dawdles on the streets of Sydney, he runs into Jack Partridge, an affluent man who owns a profitable motorcycle repair shop. In just one second, Tom recognises Jack as a man he saw at the scene of a brutal murder that took place in London 30 years before.

Jack Partridge, unlike Tom Brady, has aged very well. Perhaps this is partially due to clean living and a lifetime of established good habits. Perhaps it’s also due to his affluence. So while Tom and Jack would seem to be opposites in many ways, Jack also has a strange approach to matrimony. He married the boss’s daughter, Mildred–a woman he did not love–who was the practical choice at the time.

So after setting up this initial brief, wordless encounter of recognition, author Mark McShane introduces his third main character, the delightful Janet Tree, a WWII widow who owns and operates a boarding house on Dimple Hill right opposite Jack Partridge’s home. And it’s to Mrs. Tree’s house that Tom Brady moves to in order to spy on Jack Partridge….

In order to supplement her widow’s pension and the income from her boarders, Mrs Tree engages in something she calls “free shopping,” and she plans her days around shoplifting excursions and trips to a local fence to sell her “unwanted birthday presents.” Here she is scoping out the first take of the day:

Mrs Tree turned into a covered arcade of shops, a window-sided tunnel full of the clattering and echoing of the feet on its tile floor. A number of shops were fronted by tables that held special bargains, which is to say, soiled articles that refused to move unless glamourized by the bargain mystique.

By one of these table Janet Tree stopped. A little hors d’oeuvre? she mused.

At the front were evening purses priced at three dollars, the foremost a packing-bloated skin of white sequins, like a pig in tight drag. Janet looked through the store window. There were two salesgirls, neither watching, one was busy applying make-up, the other stared at herself insolently in a mirror.

Forty-two-year-old Mrs. Tree is a nervous, high-strung woman. Plagued with fears that her knickers will fall down in public, she pins them firmly “fore and aft with large safety pins.” This irrational paranoia is of course part of her sexual repression, so along with the details of her throughly secure underwear are insights into her life–a life that would appear to be the epitome of boring, sterile respectability: an immaculate home and a horror of bodily functions. But then there’s her secret life and just what is her relationship with her fence, Mr. Becker? Does the private afternoon tea behind closed shutters lead to anything else?

Perhaps by this point, you can see the connection to Muriel Spark. Mrs. Tree could have stepped out of one of Spark’s novels and found herself in Mark McShane’s Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. Of course the boarding house connection helps. So the story is set in motion through a chance encounter on the streets of Sydney, and now the rest of the story plays out through its three main characters. Part of the story takes us back into Partridge’s past and his poisonous relationship with a rapacious, cruel femme fatale.

Apart from the denouement which I found a little unrealistic, I throughly enjoyed the book, loved the set-up and the three well-drawn main characters. Opportunistic former policeman Tom Brady and seemingly respectable widow Mrs Tree align against poor Partridge, and he’s arguably just as much a victim as he was 30 years before.

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14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McShane Mark

14 responses to “Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street by Mark McShane

  1. I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts on McShane and hope to get around to reading him soon. Prompted by your last post, I re-watched Seance on a Wet Afternoon recently and found it wonderfully creepy and absorbing (plus, something I’d not noticed before, an almost certain connection to Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? in the couple’s pathologically motivated replacement of a child missing from their marriage – I wonder if Albee read the book while writing the play, since the former appeared the year prior to play’s debut).

    • It’s funny that you mention Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? as I thought of Taylor’s performance when I rewatched Kim Stanley in Séance again. There does seem to be a connection there.

      • I do think there’s something to this – and your mentioning Elizabeth Taylor makes me think the connection may be more in the choice of how those similar scenes get acted out than in the similar thematic elements between the novel and play.

    • Elle

      Hi – same here – “I just watched Seance on A Wet Afternoon” and was surprised by the “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” aspect of it. I have to wonder if Albee was inspired somewhat by the former. Not that it matters – his play is brilliant. Interesting, however!

  2. I need to read one of his novels as well. Not sure which one I would like to start with. I should also watch the movie. I haven’t seen Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf but I read the play. I love Albee’s plays.
    The “free shopping” was amuisng. All in all it’ sounds entertaining.

  3. I’ve been hearing a lot about Mark McShane, but your review, and particularly the Muriel Spark reference gave me the final push I needed to go grab this book. Thank you for the lovely review :)
    Loved your blog! you have great taste in books. following you now…

    Please do visit my book blog, and if you like it, please follow!

  4. A weak ending is an issue, particularly for this kind of book where plot is more relevant.

    Like Caroline I can’t find this guy’s books. Has he fallen out of print?

    • Max: Yes, he’s mainly OOP in the US and the UK these days. I found some used titles on Amazon Uk with a wide variance in prices depending on the book. Some titles 30-40 pounds but then a few priced cheaply. Of course it’s hard to tell what you are getting with no synopsis. Then again, there are also a lot of titles in French (One depicts a man licking a knife edge). There were also a couple of titles still in print around the 15 quid mark.

      Mysterious Press (Otto Penzler) recently resurrected Séance on a Wet Afternoon for the kindle in the US but I don’t see that option for UK readers. Used copies are pricey on Amazon UK.

  5. Sorry, but what does the title mean?

    I looked for the French cover with the knife. hmm, interesting. It’s the only rather recent edition.

    • It’s a play on words from a Shakespeare quote:
      Ill met by Moonlight, proud Titania. (from Midsummer’s Night Dream)

      Ill met means basically bad luck.
      There’s also a book called Ill met by Moonlight which is a non fiction book about the kidnapping of a German officer during WWII. I expect that McShane was referring to Shakespeare.

      The two characters in the McShane book run into each other in front of a fish shop. It’s terribly bad luck.

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