Missing Presumed: Susie Steiner

Susie Steiner’s Missing Presumed is the first Manon Bradshaw novel (1 of 3) and since the author died this year at age 51 from brain cancer, there will be no more.

The crime under investigation is the disappearance of Emily Hind, a 24-year-old post graduate student from a privileged background, who vanished from her home. Emily lived with her good-looking boyfriend, Will, and he returned to their home to find her gone, some blood on the floor and two used wineglasses. Since Emily is missing, we get various views of what sort of person she was, and the views offer a range of opinions about Emily. There’s Helena, aka the limpet, Emily’s friend, a slightly sleazy older male fellow student who has a sour view of Emily’s privileged social posturing, and Emily’s ‘perfect’ and perfectly boring boyfriend, Will Carter. As time passes with no news of Emily, details about Emily’s private life float to the surface. Emily is the daughter of Sir Ian Hind (Dr to the stars royals) and his wife, Miriam. Her father resents the media coverage of Emily’s relationships and uses his connections to try to control the narrative about his daughter’s life.

As always with police procedurals we see the lives of the detectives handling the case. DS Manon Bradshaw is working the case along with several other officers. There’s Davy, always upbeat who has an unpleasant girlfriend and also a strong interest in foster kids. DI Harriet Harper, in charge of the case, must juggle the intricacies of the investigation against keeping her superiors happy.

Police Procedurals are my least favourite type of crime novel but I thoroughly enjoyed this. Police work is presented as a hard, unglamorous slog with not enough sleep for those on the case and not enough time to have much of a private life. The main player here is Manon, who at age 39, throws herself into internet dating with depressingly similar results. She has a best friend who is married with kids and Manon feels that life has passed her by. While Manon is devoted to her career, she “remained a DS because if you were smart, you realised things didn’t get better when you climbed the ranks.” Most of the officers we see have failed at relationships (even the ones who are supposedly happily married) and so they plough into the one thing they are fairly good at: police work.

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My Phantoms: Gwendoline Riley

Gwendoline Riley’s novel, My Phantoms, is a detailed painful look at divorced parents through the eyes of Bridget, one of two daughters. I came to this novel with no expectations, and found bitter observations and a blistering analysis of two flawed people who met and unfortunately had 2 daughters. While childhood and child-parent relationships are fraught with emotional issues, the author uses the precision skill of a practiced, emotionally detached surgeon to dissect these relationships. The father-child interactions here are toxic, but the decades longer mother-daughter relationship is even more so.

Bridget’s parents divorced when she and her sister, Michelle, were very young. So when Bridget begins her analysis of her parents, it’s post divorce and we are in the long bitter period of visitation. Bridget’s father, Lee, is a horrible man–no he doesn’t molest her or whack her; he harasses her and perhaps I’ll ‘generously’ say attempts to engage her by belittlement. He seems to be threatened by Bridget’s intelligence and education. “His company was something to be weathered.”

Bridget’s almost reptilian nature coldly records her father’s petty, predictable behaviour. He nurses an image of himself as authentic, a “swashbuckling bandit.” He brags about not paying maintenance to his X, and “could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him.” Yes a real winner.

Later, when I applying to universities, he told me that at his job interviews he always put his feet up on the desk, lit a cigarette and asked the panel what they could do for him. Was that from television? I wonder. I’m afraid that one might have been taken from life.

It is strange when somebody talks to you like that. When they’re lying, but somehow you’re on the spot. Was he trying to impress us? But that could hardly be the case: you couldn’t value someone’s good opinion while thinking they would buy this kind of crap. And then there was the fact that no one was required to respond to his grandstanding.

After hearing about Bridget’s awful father, we learn about Bridget’s mother, Helen. ‘Hen,’ is also a difficult person. Post divorce Hen begins a “programme of renewal” in Liverpool which involves chaotically throwing herself into hobbies, outings, and events which hold little or no interest. Bridget notes that her mother “was never not out, it seemed. She was never not busy.” Yet “the fabled friends never materialized.” The one person who remains in Hen’s life is a gay man, Griff:

They were a sort of old-style double act, with him the tyrantacolyte and her in a state of perpetual effort.

The novel is almost in 2 parts: Bridget’s childhood and then Bridget as an adult. While reading Bridget’s childhood memories I hoped things would improve with time, but adulthood doesn’t seem much better. However, it must be admitted that Bridget’s adulthood is seen only as it pertains to her mother Hen. In childhood Bridget was subject to her parents’ whims and fancies, and in adulthood tensions remain and games–oldies but goodies–are played.

Bridget’s mother lives in Liverpool and later in Manchester so their meetings are, mercifully few, but nonetheless the annual birthday date is an arena for challenges, snide observations, and sly criticisms. The book is beautifully written, and I felt as though I knew Bridget’s parents. I had tremendous sympathy for Bridget the child–many of us must endure parents who appear to have no genetic connection to us, but by the time Bridget the adult appeared, I wanted her to lighten up. Bridget’s mother is a flawed sometimes frustrating human being but honestly… is she that bad? OK so you have little in common with your mother, but is that her problem or your problem?

She painted a beguiling picture, if you were susceptible to that kind of thing: lonely only child; breathless little girl who had to do this and had to do that. I was not susceptible, but then nor did I ever quite feel that I was the intended audience when she took on like this. There was some other figure she’d conceived and was playing to. That’s how it felt. Somebody beyond our life.

Slowly we see the lines of Bridget and Hen’s carefully crafted relationship–adversarial, toxic, petty. Why isn’t Hen allowed to meet Bridget’s long-time companion, John? Why isn’t Hen allowed into Bridget’s home? Who has the problem here?

This is the sort of book that can get under your skin and one which will generate a range of opinions. One of the most fascinating things here (and I’ll admit I was fascinated by several–it’s like watching a slow poisoning) is the underlying idea of the narratives we give our lives and the lives of others. The novel was, for this reader, a intriguing read. It raises some great questions about the cross generational transference of toxic behaviour. Bridget initially is the recipient/observer of her parents’ behaviors and games, but then when she is an adult, she’s into the games too. I cringed at several points when she lodged a pointless barb like a poison arrow at her mother.

The brilliancy here is embedded in Bridget’s description of her mother’s life narrative. Most people tend to have a narrative of their lives–some are spot-on and some are wildly inaccurate. In this novel, Bridget has a narrative of her mother’s life–Hen’s life is one of disappointment and exclusion. Hen has tried throwing herself into a social whirl but somehow never is included, and her life long friendship remains with Griff who seems alternately tickled and frustrated with Hen. Bridget seems to take a perverse delight in poking her mother for reactions that will then slot into that grim narrative. Additionally Bridget contributes to that narrative by excluding her mother from her life, refusing to let her visit her home to meet her long-time boyfriend, and keeping contact to a superficial minimum. My Phantoms is an excellent–albeit depressing read.

review copy

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An Old Man’s Love: Anthony Trollope (1884)

The old man in the title of Anthony Trollope’s novel, An Old Man’s Love, is William Whittlestaff who is 50. This was a re-read for me, but the ‘old’ leaped out at me again. Apparently in 1885, 45 was the average life expectancy. Yikes! Trollope establishes immediately that William Whittlestaff, a country gentleman who leads a quiet life and is a creature of habit, was disappointed in love decades earlier when he was jilted by his fiancée. The emotional wounds are buried but not healed when Whittlestaff decides to take in Mary, a young woman, the daughter of a friend who is left without means. Whittlestaff’s housekeeper, the indominable, opinionated Mrs. Baggett sniffs trouble on the horizon and she is right.

In time, Whittlestaff falls in love with Mary and eventually proposes. Mary takes a “full disclosure” stance and tells Whittlestaff that she was once in love with John Gordon, a young penniless man. He was dismissed by Mary’s stepmother and although words of love never were spoken between John and Mary, she continues to think of him and loves him still years later. Whittlestaff is concerned about the news that Mary loved another but presses his suit anyway. Mary is penniless and feels grateful and obligated to Whittlestaff, but does gratitude and obligation justify a trip to the altar? The fact that Whittlestaff even proposed has created a monumental dilemma; Mary can accept the offer of marriage and stay or refuse and then, due to the awkwardness of the situation combined with propriety, Mary would find it impossible to remain. Mary’s eventual acceptance is fraught and tainted with pressure from both the housekeeper and Mr. Whittlestaff. Mrs Baggett is an old family servant. She doesn’t want to be replaced by Whittlestaff’s young wife, but she also takes umbrage at the idea that Mary may refuse the offer of marriage:

“Here’s a gentleman as you owe everything to. If he wanted your head from your shoulders, you shouldn’t make any scruple. What are you, that you shouldn’t let a gentleman like him have his own way?”

So Mary accepts Whittlestaff’s offer of marriage, and the day after Whittlestaff proposes who should return from the diamond mines… but John Gordon and so the drama commences.

An Old Man’s Love centres on the subsequent behavior of Whittlestaff and Mary. The novel isn’t one of Trollope’s best, and for this reader Whittlestaff is the most interesting character since his belief that Mary must/should keep her promise to him drives the action. The attitudes in the novel to the diamond mines are interesting. Trollope doesn’t detail conditions there but we get the idea that it is hellish and a den of vice. The idea that Gordon has spent time in the mines is to Whittlestaff distasteful. On one hand he sees Gordon as a moneygrubber but also as depraved. Gordon’s idiotic friend, The Rev. Montagu Blake, a man who about to get married, stirs the pot with his gossip and insensitivity. We get glimpses of Blake’s fiancée Kattie Forrester, and she seems quite aware that she is marrying an idiot. While Blake looks forward to married bliss, it’s clear to the reader that Kattie will rule the roost. But considering how stupid Montagu Blake is, perhaps that’s just as well.

Marriage isn’t exactly portrayed positively here. Mrs Baggett rues the day she married her sailor husband, who is now a one-legged drunk. If Montagu Blake maintains his level of idiocy he may continue to think he’s a lucky man snagging Kattie Forrester for a bride, but there’s the implicit idea that life in the Blake household won’t be much fun.

Trollope gently juxtaposes two possible worlds here: the safe world of the ‘elderly’ bridegroom and the potent brawn and sexuality of adventurer John Gordon. Once Gordon appears on the scene, Whittlestaff creates a number of moral arguments for keeping Mary to her promise of becoming his wife even stating that Mary can be “a young man’s slave” versus “an old man’s darling.” Whittlestaff takes a patriarchal approach towards Mary and declares that he is the safer, better choice. According to the Trollope Society, An Old Man’s Love is categorized as one of his Comic novels, and I can’t see that at all. I suppose Montagu Blake and Mrs. Baggett’s reprobate husband provide some comic relief but IMO not enough to make this a comic novel.

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Lucy by the Sea: Elizabeth Strout

It was inevitable that the COVID lockdown entered the realm of fiction: after all, it is an historic event and to be honest, I was rather interested to see how authors incorporated the many aspects of life during COVID into novels. That brings me to Elizabeth Strout’s Lucy by the Sea, a seemingly child-like title which belies the reality… or does it?

Lucy is a reappearing character in several Strout novels: My Name is Lucy Barton (have to backtrack to read this one), Anything is Possible, and Oh, William. In Oh, William, Elizabeth Strout gave us a first hand look at the after-marriage of Lucy Barton and her X-William. In that novel, writer Lucy Barton, freshly widowed from her second husband, becomes embroiled in the life of her self-focused X when his much-younger wife, unsurprisingly, moves onto fresher pastures. William is a Dickhead. Selfish, self-focused, not, I suppose a ‘bad’ man, but in his prime a serial adulterer who now aged 70 seems as little aware of the damage he caused as when he had numerous affairs.

Lucy by the Sea takes us to COVID lockdown. Lucy, like many people, hears about the virus tangentially in the news but William, who after all is/was a scientist, takes the news very seriously indeed and drives Lucy to a rental house in Maine for the duration. This is not an action novel by any means–instead this is Lucy’s tale as she sits out the virus–until vaccination time that is. So it’s a novel about waiting, watching the news and missing loved ones. In other words, this is a relatable novel. Bob Burgess makes an appearance as a supporting character. He helps arrange the Maine rental, and when the situation allows, he and his wife Margaret visit Lucy and William, maintaining social distance of course. For Lucy, this period takes on a dream like-quality. Watching the news, seeing the deaths, from a safe distance, seems almost surreal. Lucy and William’s two daughters Chrissy and Becka, each have their own crises during lockdown and Lucy cannot run to their sides to help. She can only wait for news at a distance. Bob Burgess (The Burgess Boys) is a kindred spirit to Lucy and helps with William and Lucy’s Maine transition.

In Oh, William, a highly enjoyable read, a great deal of the delight came from Lucy’s observations of William, a selfish sod whose world consists of two daughters, ex-wife Lucy and his much younger wife and third daughter who have just left him. William’s two adult daughters and Lucy seem to spend a great deal of time worrying about William–a man whose self-focus guarantees he puts himself first. In Lucy by the Sea, William appears to be thinking of someone else for a change.

When I read the synopsis of the novel, I thought Poor Lucy… imagine being in lockdown with that prick for a year.. but Elizabeth Strout chooses not to play the novel that way. I had imagined them driving each other crazy, and while that does happen to a mild degree, lockdown pushes William into protective mode, and brings panic attacks to Lucy. What happened to William’s dickheadedness? Or does COVID bring out the best in William–at last? Is his desire to ‘save’ Lucy sincere or is her just using COVID to control her? Strout does a wonderful job of recreating a COVID lockdown experience (many varieties exist): the ennui, the feeling of suspended animation, the heartbreak of being unable to have physical contact with family, and the bitter crunch of being housebound 24/7 with someone whose habits drive you around the bend. At some point, I became disappointed with the plot, but I came to that conclusion too soon. Ultimately, Elizabeth Strout did not disappoint me. There’s a wonderful scene with William and Lucy in which William confesses that he wished he had lived his life better:

“Oh Lucy, come on. I sit here and think over my life , and I think, Who have I been? I have been an idiot.”

“In what way?”

I asked him. And interestingly he answered first about his profession. “I have taught student after student after student, but did I make a real contribution to science? No.”

I opened my mouth, but he held up his hand to stop me.

“And on a personal level, look how I have lived my life.” I thought he must have been talking about his affairs. But he was not.

Lucy had a terrible childhood, and now in her 60s, she is, to this reader, surprisingly childlike. That kind of abuse creates permanent damage, yet somehow Lucy is cocooned by her belief in the beauty of the world. In her head she has created an imaginary mother–a loving kind mother who supports her and comforts her. It’s a great coping mechanism. Lucy is a believable character because she is so consistent. She never acts outside of the character created by Strout. To this reader, Lucy is remarkable because she is so good in spite of all her horrible experiences. But, at the same time, even though Lucy is good and believable, she is a little vanilla. Lucy is an observer of the world more than anything, and she is a passive character. In Oh, William, William’s dickheadedness added spike and spice to the plot, and there were times when even Lucy got sick of him. Olive Kitteridge appears in the sidelines and there were times I longed for Olive’s acidic tongue. She would make short work of William.

There’s a sequel here. I know it. And the big boom is coming.

review copy.

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Fathers and Children: Ivan Turgenev (1862)

Ivan Turgenev’s Fathers and Children, perhaps better known as Fathers and Sons, is a look at the tangled state of Russian society through two young men, Arkady Kirsanov and Bazarov. They met at university in Petersburg and appear on the surface to share a great deal of common values, but when they arrive at the Kirsanov estate, known as Marino, the friendship unravels.

Arkady is welcomed home by his widowed father, Nikolai, and Nikolai’s brother, former army officer, Pavel. The estate is in disarray–in 1861, serfs were freed under Tsar Alexander II. The former owners then received taxes from those same freed serfs as compensation, but in the novel, which opens in May 1859, serf emancipation has yet to take place; Nikolai, however, has freed his serfs already and has a useless manager for his estate. Just taking a look around the estate, it’s clear that the new system isn’t working. It probably wasn’t working under the old system either.

Nikolai who owns 5,000 acres and, at one point, “200 souls” has taken a young serving girl, Fenichka as his mistress. While Fenichka is portrayed as innocent and almost fey, the novel steers away from the uglier aspects of exploitation and places Fenichka in a state of awe for Nikolai rather than plodding obligation.

Fenichka has given birth to a son, so Arkady has a new half brother. While this fact might startle other only sons, Arkady takes it in stride. Fenichka is secreted away in part of the house when Arkady returns, but Basarov and also Pavel make a point of seeking her out. Pavel, who was once slated to have a meteoric military career, made the fatal error of falling in love with an unstable married Russian woman. Pavel’s obsession for this woman led him to abandon his career, but the affair came to naught and Pavel, a dispirited man, has retreated to Arkady’s estate. Every aspect of the estate needs attention: but Pavel is a dilettante. He has long nails, wears backless red Chinese slippers and sports a fez.

Not long after Arkady and Bazarov arrive, these two young men explain to Nikolai and Pavel that they are nihilists. Both Nikolai and Pavel struggle with that announcement–especially since Bazarov, who is ‘lower’ socially than the Kirsanov family, treats Pavel with disdain. Bararov is a medical student who is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the older generation. To Bazarov, while he has marginal tolerance for Arkady’s father, he considers Pavel to be useless.

He’s an odd fish, that uncle of yours,” said Bazarov, sitting in his dressing gown by Arkady’s bedside and puffing at a short pipe “What a dandy, in the depths of the countryside! Those fingernails, those fingernails–he should get them framed!”

“Of course, you don’t know,” answered Arkady, “but he was quite a lion in his day. I’ll tell you his story sometime.. He used to be very handsome, women went crazy over him.”

“Well there you are! It’s all for old time’s sake, then. Sadly, there’s nobody out here for him to fascinate. I couldn’t take my eyes off him. He has such amazing collars, they look as if they’re made of marble, and then that perfectly shaved chin! Honestly, Arkady Nikolayich, it’s a bit ridiculous, isn’t it?”

“I suppose so. But he’s an excellent man all the same.”

“A museum piece! But your father’s a fine chap. Wastes his time reading poetry and hasn’t a clue about managing his estate, but he’s a good sort.”

Arkady and Bararov are seen as sons through their relationships with their respective fathers. Both fathers place more significance into the relationship than their sons, and Arkady and Bazarov minimize their fathers under the ‘label’ of Duty rather than become embroiled in the their emotional lives.

At one point in the novel, Arkady and Bazarov launch out into society when they visit a relative. Bazarov may have revolutionary thoughts but when it comes to women, he discovers that he’s just the same as other men. Characters with revolutionary beliefs are portrayed as superficial posers. Bazarov is perhaps the most serious of the lot, but as a nihilist, his outlook on life is bleak. Avdotya Kukshina, who calls herself Eudoxia holds salons for revolutionary dialogue, but she’s as pedestrian and pretentious as they come. The young widow, Odintsova becomes a sort of femme fatale who hastens Bazarov’s doom. When considering the ending (which I won’t detail), we see the simultaneous erosion of friendship and nihilism, both countermanded by love and desire.

Review copy

Translated by Nicholas Pasternak Slater and Maya Slater

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Mrs Zant and the Ghost: Wilkie Collins

In Mrs. Zant and the Ghost, a novella from Wilkie Collins, a widower in his 40s becomes involved with a woman he meets in Kensington Gardens, and this casual meeting becomes a pivotal moment in both of these characters’ lives. The widower, Mr Rayburn, devotes his life to his small daughter, Lucy, but one day in the park, she slips out of his sight and returns frightened. The reason for her fright is, it turns out, due to the behaviour of a young woman who appears to be mad. Mr. Rayburn talks to the woman, Mrs Zant, and, concerned about her health, follows her to her lodgings. Eventually Mrs Zant tells her story of great love and loss. She was widowed shortly after her marriage.

Mr. Rayburn feels morally involved, and concerned with Mrs. Zant’s well being, he approaches her brother-in-law, John Zant.

His personal appearance was in harmony with his magnificent voice. He was a tall, finely made man, of dark complexion with big, brilliant black eyes, and a noble curling beard which hid the whole lower part of his face. Having bowed with a happy mingling of dignity and politeness, the conventional side of this gentleman’s character suddenly vanished and a crazy side, to all appearance, took its place.

Rayburn has a very unfavorable impression of Zant and he begins to suspect Zant’s motives towards his sister-in-law. Zant has a very polished exterior, yet there is something slimy about this man.

Mrs Zant and the Ghost is an excellent ghost story. It’s fleshed out by Rayburn’s gradual involvement in Mrs Zant’s affairs. Mrs Zant believes that her husband’s ghost meets her in Kensington Gardens, and that the ghost of her dead husband watches over her. Rayburn isn’t sure if Mrs. Zant is mad or just grieving, but either way, he feels a desire to protect her. I listened to this as an audio version, and it was beautifully read by Gillian Anderson.

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A Rogue’s Life: Wilkie Collins (1856)

A Rogue’s Life from Wilkie Collins is a lighthearted, picaresque tale which follows the career of Frank Softly, the ne’er-do-well son of a mediocre London doctor. Frank is the grandson of Lady Malkinshaw, and so Frank’s father, rather than have a little country practice, must live in a “fashionable square” and keep up a pretense of affluence. Frank’s maternal uncle tainted the family by going into business and Frank refers to him as “that inhuman person committed an outrage on his family by making a fortune in the soap and candle trade.” Frank’s father is determined to raise his son in the shadow of his noble grandmother, and spares no expense on his education. Frank’s school years are mostly peppered with scrapes, and the idea of university is abandoned when his father “lost a lawsuit just in the nick of time.” Frank has to chose a profession.

While Frank favours the glamour of army life, there’s no money for a commission. Law is too tedious a goal, and it seems as though Frank is destined to follow in his father’s footsteps as a medical man. But bored, Frank begins selling caricatures as a “source of profit and pocket money.” This hobby comes to the horrified attention of Lady Malkinshaw, and following a quarrel with his father, Frank leaves home.

Frank’s fate is tied to the life of the ancient Lady Malkinshaw. Frank’s uncle, the candle maker, left 3,000 pounds in his will to Frank’s sister Arabella “in the shape of a contingent reversion […] payable upon the death of Lady Malkinshaw, provided” Frank survives his grandmother. So it falls upon Frank’s sister, and more importantly, Frank’s brother-in-law, Mr. Batterbury to ensure that Frank lives. When Frank falls into one scrape after another, he knows that his reliable brother-in-law will bail him out. This leads to some of the stories most amusing sections. Frank has a brief career as a creator of caricatures. This leads to a more lucrative, albeit an equally brief career as a forger. But then Frank falls in love, but even this leads to a life of crime.

As Frank sinks into a life of debt, prison and crime, Lady Malkinshaw has a series of near-death experiences.

“Her ladyship’s sight having been defective of late years, occasions her some difficulty in calculating distances. Three days ago, her ladyship went to look out of the window, and, miscalculating the distance–” Here the butler, with a fine dramatic feeling for telling a story, stopped just before the climax of the narrative, and looked me in the face with an expression of the deepest sympathy.

“And miscalculating the distance?” I repeated impatiently.

Put her head through a pan of glass,” said the butler in a soft voice suited to the pathetic nature of the communication. “By great good fortune her ladyship had been dressed for the day, and had got her turban on. This saved her ladyship’s head. But her ladyship’s neck, sir, had a very narrow escape.”

Frank Softly is a rogue so he survives by his wits, exploiting his connections, and he makes a marvelously entertaining, irreverent narrator. The tale begins with a superb intro from Wilkie Collins who explains that he always meant to return to the tale, but never did. He adds that the story was written during one of the happiest times of his life when he was living in Paris and met frequently with Charles Dickens. This lighthearted tale is a joyous romp, and far different indeed from the much-more famous Lady in White and The Moonstone.

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The Doomsters: Ross Macdonald (1958) Lew Archer 7

“You don’t play footsie with a homicidal psycho, Mister.”

In Ross Macdonald’s gritty PI novel, The Doomsters, PI Lew Archer opens his front door late one night only to become embroiled in a tangled web of murder, deceit and toxic family relationships. Carl Hallman knocks at Archer’s door after escaping from a mental institution. Carl, who is irrational and raving, has a story to tell: sent there by fellow escapee Tom Rica, a heroin addict from Archer’s past, Carl claims that he’s been locked up by the family’s crooked doctor on orders from Carl’s older brother, Jerry. There’s a large inheritance at stake: the family’s orange orchards. Archer agrees to help on the condition that Carl return to the mental institution. Carl agrees, but on the way back, he overpowers Archer and steals his car. Archer, trying to track his car, and Carl, ends up on the Hallman estate along with Carl’s patient, long-suffering wife, Mildred. According to Mildred, the Hallman household is toxic:

A building can soak up emotions, you know, so that after a while it has the same emotions as the people who live in it. They’re in the cracks in the walls, the smokestains on the ceiling, the smells in the kitchen.

Mildred, who currently takes care of her boozy mother, says she was glad to leave the Hallman ranch. She claims that Carl’s incarceration at the mental institution is about Jerry controlling the money. Everyone on the Hallman estate, hearing of Carl’s escape, is on edge. Jerry Hallman returns home only to be murdered a few minutes later. Carl is the prime suspect, but he can’t be found. Archer has his doubts that Carl is the killer; it just all seems a little too convenient. And then again, Dr Grantland, the man who helped Jerry lock up Carl, seems to have a cozy bedside manner with Jerry’s wife, err.. make that widow. Add to the mix, a violent sheriff, and the body count rises–and then there’s the murky question of Carl’s parents’ deaths. …

The Doomsters, as its title suggests, is a novel that festers with people headed for doom. In this world of toxic relationships, many of the characters seal their own fate due to their choices or actions. Macdonald creates a number of fascinating women here: Miss Parrish, who seems so perfect and proper, works at the mental institution. A zealot, she has various theories about Carl’s breakdown, and she voices those theories with no small amount of snobbery. Mildred, Carl’s wife seems weighed down by responsibility and bad luck, and Zinnie, Jerry’s widow sizzles when a man casts his eyes her way.

A nice machine, I thought: pseudo Hollywood, probably empty, certainly expensive, and not new; but a nice machine.

A little of Archer’s past is revealed along with regret at the loss of his wife. He observes Zinnie, Mildred and Miss Parrish, noting that their affections are for others:

She sat down on the piano stool and took out a cigarette, which I lit for her. Twin lights burned deep in her eyes. I could sense her emotions burning behind her professional front, like walled atomic fires. They didn’t burn for me, though.

He seems to be just at the boundary of accepting that he’s too damaged to sustain a relationship with a woman. He’s not quite reached that cynical point of no return:

Try listening to yourself sometime, alone in a transient room in a strange town. The worst is when you draw a blank, and the ash-blonde ghosts of your past carry on long twittering long-distance calls with your inner ear, and there’s no way to hang up.

Lew Archer novels paint twisted images of family life, and this one is no exception. The ending is one long confession, and yet that detailed confession, a few pages later, is seeded with doubt. The entire experience leaves Archer hollow as he notes that people from the past “wait for you in time,” to “ambush” us in our memories

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Prisoner’s Base: Celia Fremlin (1967)

In Prisoner’s Base, author Celia Fremlin creates another hellish domestic environment which involves three generations. Grandmother Margaret owns a large home on land, and her married daughter, Claudia lives there too along with Margaret’s mostly absent son-in-law, and Claudia’s daughter, teenager, Helen. Claudia, known for her interest in strays (humans, not animals) brings a series of damaged people to stay in Margaret’s house. It is easy to describe Claudia’s interest in these strays as charitable, or even misguided, but Claudia’s fascination with damaged people is far more complicated. She loves to psycho-analyze, but there’s more to it than that; housing these strays inflates Margaret’s massive ego, sense of self-importance and righteousness. Margaret loves the vision of herself being generous, high-minded, and tolerant. But also these acts of charity, which appear to claim the moral high ground, seemed designed to feed hostility between Claudia and her mother, Margaret. There are frequent “Claudia-isms” “typical manoeuvre [s] to belittle and undermine” her mother whenever a point of dispute erupts. One Claudia-ism is to impute her mother’s opinions to the narrowmindedness of her generation. Another is to imply that any difference of opinion between mother and daughter is a sign of Margaret’s mental decline.

Claudia’s latest stray is the neurotic Mavis, who has been living with them for the past 5 months. Mavis, a little mouse of a woman who wanders around in her dressing gown has, according to Claudia, an “inferiority complex,” but with her self-effacing ways, she manages to ruin Margaret’s day by continually invading her privacy. Oh the delicate people of this world who must be handled like bone china.. . in case they break.

If she’d stolen ten shillings out of your handbag every day at one o’clock you could have had her put in prison, reflected Margaret sourly, and yet you had to stand by, helpless, while she stole one by one, far more than ten shillings worth of happy hours of solitude.

Claudia thinks Margaret should be grateful to have Mavis for company. So why doesn’t Margaret just tell Claudia that this is her house, that she won’t tolerate any more unwanted guests? The answer is that Claudia claims Margaret is small-minded and selfish and then again Claudia seems to be so good with these damaged souls which causes Margaret self-doubt. Margaret makes the error of questioning the validity of her own feelings and so she can never tell Claudia where to shove it. Claudia’s impositions are just part of an elaborate psychological game between Claudia and Margaret–Claudia with the moral superiority and Margaret painted, by her daughter, as selfish and dotty.

Claudia had always been an adept at putting you in the wrong before you had so much as opened your mouth; Margaret had been waiting for her to grow out of this unlovable talent ever since she was thirteen; but she never had. Indeed, she was getting better at it, and now, at nearly forty, she could switch off the family arguments before they began at all; like turning off the water at the main in some depressing outhouse to which she alone had access.

Problems in Margaret’s household erupt in two ways: First, Margaret discovers that Claudia is trying to sell the field (owned by Margaret) and is having it appraised:

“Now, don’t panic, Mother. Just relax. Why is it that women of your generation always have to be so tense? Naturally, the field has to be valued; and to be valued it has to be looked at. Doesn’t it? Surely that’s common sense? They have to send a man along. To look at it.” Claudia was emphasising the simplest of the one-syllable words as if she was hoping that these, at least, might come within the range of her mother’s intelligence.

Margaret is battling Claudia’s bullying attempts to sell when Claudia takes in a new stray. This one, Maurice, is an ex-con–possibly even a murderer, and Claudia is determined to bag this trophy after he pops up at the local poetry group. She brings him home to dear old mum. Even Mavis, who is Claudia’s sycophant, is disturbed by Maurice’s presence in the house. Convinced that Maurice is going to sneak into her room, it’s more than her nerves can handle. Claudia, ever a armchair voyeur, loves to hear about Maurice’s criminal exploits, but he’d rather she type up his 100s and 100s of dreary poems. The household becomes a simmering stewpot of resentments, fears and suppressed rage. So of course, something violent is going to occur. Prisoner’s Base is my favourite Fremlin novel so far. The dynamic between Claudia and Margaret is brilliantly drawn. For this reader, the relationship between mother and daughter was bitter and all-too real. On the surface, they coexist and are cordial, yet under the familial membrane are festering skirmishes. Fremlin creates a very a credible hell of everyday domestic nastiness, dominance and unhealthy relationships.

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The Next Time I Die: Jason Starr

“This version of me has made some bad decisions.”

Author Jason Starr marks a change of pace with his new novel, Next Time I Die. Starr has an impressive number of crime novels under his belt, with everyday ordinary protagonists who are caught in a web of criminality and claustrophobic deceit. In this novel, lawyer Steven Blitz is preparing for the upcoming murder trial of Jeffrey Hammond. Hammond, an artist, is accused of murdering three men, and Blitz has constructed an insanity defense. As he chews over his statement, his wife, Laura, a sometimes violent manic-depressive now off her meds, announces she wants a divorce. Laura tells Steven to leave and he drives, in heavy snow, to his brother’s home.

Stopping at a gas station, Steven encounters a man and a young woman engaged in a possible domestic dispute. Steven intervenes, the man stabs Steven in the stomach, stuffs the girl in the car, and drives off leaving Steven bleeding heavily. As he passes out, he hears a voice, “I saw you, Steven Blitz.”

Steven wakes up in a hospital, but something is horribly wrong. His wife, Laura, a viper at the best of times, is loving, sweet and concerned, and Steven suddenly has a daughter. Disoriented, Steven tries to latch onto the world he knew before he was stabbed, but he soon learns that the world he is in has no coronavirus, 9/11 didn’t take place, major political figures don’t exist, and while Steven’s brother Brian visits, Brian’s life is totally different. Of course, by this time, an alternate reality seems the only possible explanation. Hospital staff chalk up Steven’s behaviour as the after effects of concussion.

When Steven is released and returns to his life, the new version that is, he finds that Hammond, the psycho he was representing is not accused of murder, and Steven decides that Hammond has not yet been caught. Steven notes, “the idea of a free Jeffery Hammond terrifies me,” and he starts digging into Hammond’s life. When Steven starts getting anonymous threatening texts, Steven’s paranoia ramps up to fever pitch. Gradually as Steven sinks into his new life, he realises that he’s not one of the good guys, but surely he can’t be as bad as that sociopath, Hammond, right? You know, the sociopath who chops up his victims.

As always with any Jason Starr book, The Next Time I Die is a page-turner. The author’s strength lies in his ability to create relatable characters who seem to be bludgeoned by the sort of everyday problems most of us have. Starr seems to like to create these connections between reader and protagonist but then just as we relate, it’s off down the rabbit hole. …

Review copy

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