Sheep’s Clothing: Celia Dale (1988)

“Once you get working regular you never know where it will end.”

Celia Dale’s Sheep’s Clothing, a tale of two con women who prey on the elderly is a penetrating study of criminal behavior. Grace, a woman in her 50s with a long criminal past, met Janice, young and gormless in Holloway prison. Criminal pairs usually comprise one dominant partner who takes the lead and one submissive partner who obeys. In this case, it’s not hard to see that Grace is the boss, and with her experience working in nursing homes, she’s cruel, crafty and savvy when it comes to understanding the elderly and how to allay their suspicions. Janice, however “went along with whatever happened to her, always had, a jellyfish in a tepid sea.” 

sheeps clothing

When the novel opens, Grace has developed a successful scam. She scouts out the elderly in the street (prefers women, no foreigners) and then once she ascertains her potential victim’s living situation (alone), Grace and Janice dress modestly and go knocking on the door; Grace carries a briefcase and fake ID cards and claims to be from the DHSS, there to correct an accounting error. Once inside the door, Grace says the victim is owed hundreds of pounds. Grace chats up the victims, gets them talking while Janice makes drugged tea. Next thing you know, the elderly person is asleep and Grace and Janice loot whatever goodies they can find. 

Of course, these are despicable crimes. While no one is supposed to get hurt, these two women steal bits and pieces that hold mostly sentimental value to their owners. It’s pathetic and mean. The elderly victims own very little but they’re not quite on the bottom of the totem pole, and along come Grace and Janice to strip them of anything of value.

It’s a great scam, and Grace knows full well that many elderly victims will be too ashamed to report it or perhaps they won’t even realise they’ve been robbed. Grace understands the elderly population all too well. She knows they often don’t see well or hear well, but that they avoid acknowledging any deficits. She knows that they are lonely and love to talk about their pasts and their families. Get in the door and get them talking and the job’s done. 

Perhaps Grace and Janice would have continued their scam forever, but Janice meets a man who calls himself “Dave,” in a pub, and they strike up a strange relationship. It’s mostly sex but there’s something about Janice’s vulnerability that appeals to Dave. Soon Janice thinks she loves Dave and wants to clean up her act to get his approval. Grace, meanwhile, scouts out a late middle aged man in a pub and once she learns that he’s quite well off, she very carefully reels him in. She just didn’t count on him living with his mother. …

Sheep’s Clothing is a study of the criminal mind. Both women have an opportunity, or an option if you will, to move towards a non-criminal life. Can they make the adjustment? Do they want to? This could be a tale of redemption; a tale of redemption for Dave and Janice, but we all know that Grace is too far gone. Grace is a hard worker when she wants to be. In a different life, she would get a job and earn a living, but instead it’s all about setting up the scam, scoping out your victim’s assets and weaknesses, worming your way into their lives and gaining their trust. Grace is a malicious, chilling, cruel predator.

She certainly missed the planning, tracking and carrying out of her old occupation; the calculation, the marking of the subject, the excitement and power of the call, the spiel, the subjugation, the gathering up, the walking away, the confirmation that she was in control of them, of Janice, of herself. She missed too the wary give and take of her “outlets,” the sharp eyed old men in dusty shops, the hard-eyed younger men or women on the antique stalls. Still. if her plans world out right, it would be worth it. 

Janice, on the other hand, is a pretty pathetic, weak-willed and stupid criminal. She’s not focused, she’s careless and she makes mistakes. Her biggest mistake is forming a relationship with Dave. 

This novel at just over 180 pages is an intense, realistic read. Definitely recommended for crime fans who want something off the well-beaten track. 

3 Comments

Filed under Dale Celia, Fiction

3 responses to “Sheep’s Clothing: Celia Dale (1988)

  1. Great cover. A Virago Modern Classic if I’m not mistaken. This scam is an early version of one that still continues via threatening phone calls. Sounds good and quite different. Have to look out for a copy.

  2. Yes it’s a blurry pic but Virago, you’re correct.

  3. This author was recommended by one of the guests on a recent episode of the Backlisted podcast. She sounds right up my street…suitably dark with an interest in the psychological. I shall take a closer look – thanks!

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