Category Archives: Fiction

Visitors: Anita Brookner

Old age should be a time of great and significant self-indulgence, she thought; otherwise it is too bitter.

In Anita Brookner’s novel Visitors, the arrival of an unexpected guest disrupts the quiet, ordered routine of a 70-year-old widow, and over the course of a few days she confronts her past, her present and her uncertain future.

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Dorothea May, following the death of her husband Henry, has been widowed for 15 years, but in his absence, Dorothea maintains relationships with Henry’s two cousins: the very glamorous Kitty who is married to Austin, and Kitty’s sister  Molly who is married to Harold. Both Kitty and Molly are ‘sensitive’ and suffer from ‘nerves,’ and they’re both lucky enough to be married to husbands whose mission in life seems to be to protect and coddle these two women–although to be honest, of the two sisters, Kitty is much more extreme.  Dorothea maintains legacy relationships with Kitty, Molly and their husbands, dining at their houses, attending their birthdays and wedding anniversaries, but she’s always remained very much an outsider. Both Molly and Kitty phone and check on Dorothea periodically.

This was what really spurred them to keep in touch, not her own health (monotonously good they supposed, since she never complained), not the reminiscences, but their own unquestioning acceptance of Henry’s priorities. Even though she remained so puzzling a stranger, she was still Henry’s wife.

Dorothea’s routine is disrupted when Kitty’s estranged granddaughter Ann announces that she and her fiancé David are travelling from America in order to be married in England. With virtually no notice and a wedding to plan, this throws Kitty into a panic, and she asks Dorothea if she’ll house the best man, Steve Best. Reluctantly, and against her better judgement, Dorothea agrees.

To her surprise, Dorothea (Thea) finds herself rather enjoying all the domestic drama that unfolds around the upcoming nuptials. Kitty and Austin have an estranged son, “the missing link” Gerald, rumoured by some to have joined a commune, thought by others to be in prison. Austin made contact with Gerald a few years previously and the resulting meeting almost killed him. It seems possible that Gerald will attend his daughter’s wedding, a possibility fraught with tension and emotional upset.

Part of the reason that Dorothea is able to enjoy the proceedings with the very sullen Ann and her zealously religious fiancé, David, who’s always on the lookout for a convert, is that she has no emotional investment in these relationships. Whereas Kitty is constantly (and vainly) trying to please Ann, Dorothea finds Ann, David, and Stephen graceless, ungrateful and devoid of any charm. Ann’s drama brings Dorothea into the inner family circle in a way that marriage to Henry never did.

Visitors is a meditation of the unbreachable gap between youth and old age: those who think their whole lives await, and those who live with disappointment and regret. To Ann and Stephen, Dorothea and Kitty are bourgeois and mainly concerned with money–yet both the self-focused Ann and the rudderless Stephen have somewhat conveniently latched onto the wealthy David. Stephen’s presence in Dorothea’s life awakens memories of Henry and also of her first love affair. It’s because of Stephen that Dorothea and Molly think about their childlessness (which may be a blessing given how anguished Kitty and Austin are over their absent son), but also Dorothea finds herself mulling over the limitations of her life–past and present.

Mrs May found that she did not miss the young people, not even Steve. With her new old woman’s perceptions she saw them as crude, affectless. She was willing to concede that they felt affronted by their enforced contact with Kitty, with Molly, with herself, but at the same time she saw little evidence of wit or charm. Charm alone would have done, she thought, but they had not mastered the art. Worse, they were unaware it was recommended. 

The characters of Ann and Stephen were particularly annoying as, I think, they were meant to be–at one point, Dorothea thinks of them as “predators.”  Ann moans about the big wedding and all the fuss, but she must have wanted that–otherwise why contact an estranged, wealthy English grandmother and tell her that she wants to get married in England? For this reader, Stephen and Ann got away with far too much bad behaviour. One moan from Ann about the fuss, and Kitty should have put her cheque book away and cancelled the honeymoon to Paris, but Kitty and Austin are people who throw their money at problems.

As for Stephen, he manages to get under Dorothea’s skin (as he intends to) and she loses her equilibrium as a result. He awakens a deep-seated fear she has of losing her home, and yet Stephen’s barely veiled contempt for Dorothea’s restrictions leads to her wondering just how valuable her life really is and whether she has lived too “unadventurously.”

When she thought of Henry it was of someone in another room, laughing, talking on the telephone: she could almost smell the fragrant smoke of his cigar. Although he was so gregarious and she so solitary they had been good friends. Perhaps it was easier for her to make adjustments, concessions: she was of an obedient disposition. 

Visitors is my least favourite Brookner so far, but I still liked it which says a great deal, doesn’t it?

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The 12:30 from Croydon: Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

“All this morality business was just an old wives’ tale.”

The 12:30 from Croydon, a 1943 crime novel from Freeman Crofts Wills, refers, not to a train schedule as I first thought, but to a flight from Croydon to France. The plane carries a handful of passengers on board: Andrew Crowther, his son-in-law Peter Morley, Peter’s daughter Rose, and Crowther’s butler/manservant Weatherup. The family members are making an emergency trip to Paris following the news that Crowther’s only daughter Elsie, Peter’s wife, has been knocked down by a taxi. However, when the plane lands, Crowther is dead. Crowther was a sickly man, and so at first it’s thought that he died of natural causes, but following an autopsy, poison is the known cause of death

This British Library Crime Classic reprint is not concerned with the mystery of the killer. The book steps back in time and quickly reveals the murderer to be Andrew Crowther’s nephew, Charles Swinburn, a middle-aged man whose business is about to go bankrupt. Swinburn hits his uncle for a loan–after all reasons Charles, he’s going to inherit half of his uncle’s estate. Everyone is of the opinion that Andrew Crowther doesn’t have many months of life left in him, and so reasons Charles, where is the harm of advancing the money in order to keep him afloat?

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Andrew Crowther is shown to be crotchety, unreasonable and completely out-of-touch with the 30s economy, and he thinks bankruptcy can be avoided if everyone just works harder, so it’s easy for us to have sympathy for Charles’s dilemma when faced with his uncle’s irrational objections. At the root of Charles’s distress is a woman–he’s head-over-heels in love with a local heiress, the coldly materialistic Una. He doesn’t have a hope in hell of winning her hand, and yet sadly he thinks he does as long as he can stay solvent. There’s also a degree of sympathy roused for Charles when his peers begin avoiding him yet hypocritically re-friend him when they learn that he won’t go bankrupt after all.

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and the obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early!

The 12:30 from Croydon, a very strong entry in the British Library Crime Classics oeuvre is primarily a psychological novel. First murder is contemplated as an abstraction but then Charles hatches a plan. The plot follows Charles’s reasoning as he argues himself into murder, and then meticulously follows the plan which Charles is sure is foolproof. …

Author  Freeman Wills Crofts shows complete mastery over the plot as he creates each stage of Charles’s emotions; we see his anxieties, his paranoia and then his joy when he thinks he’s got away with murder, but then Chief Inspector French from the Yard arrives on the scene. There’s a lot of detail here as we move through the preparation for the crime, two inquests, jury selection and a murder trial. Apart from the last couple of chapters, we always see things through Charles’s eyes, and what a convincingly deluded Dostoyevskian view it is.

Once again Charles felt a wave of bitterness sweep over him. If his uncle had only acted with reasonable decenecy. this horrible enterprise into which he had been forced would have been unneccesary. Well Andrew had only himself to thank. 

Antidote to Venom is my favourite Freeman Wills Crofts to date followed by The 12:30 from Croydon and then The Hog’s Back Mystery. 

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Hotel du Lac: Anita Brookner

“Good women always think it is their fault when someone else is being offensive. Bad women never take the blame for anything.”

Edith Hope, an unmarried author of romantic novels has done something bad. Initially we don’t know quite what ‘it‘ is, but whatever happened may have something to do with the affair she conducted with a married man. Edith is packed off, by a somewhat domineering friend, to a Swiss Hotel, the Hotel du Lac which gives “a mild form of sanctuary.”  It’s off-season in this grand, off-the beaten-track, old-fashioned hotel that accommodates to a certain type of guest catering to “the respected patrons of an earlier era of tourism.”

It seems to be permanently reserved for women. And for a certain kind of woman. Cast-off or abandoned, paid to stay away, or to do harmless womanly things, like spending money on clothes.

As an author, Edith is a veteran people-watcher and she is intrigued by the guests. There’s the very popular, elegant Mrs Pusey and her fleshy, robust daughter Jennifer, an aged comtessa who’s been shuttled off to the hotel by a daughter-in-law who doesn’t want her around, and then there’s the very beautiful, languid Monica who has an eating disorder which she shares with her co-dependent dog, Kiki.

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Edith watches Mrs Pusey “as if under hypnosis.” Mrs Pusey is a favoured guest with the hotel management and whereas Monica sometimes acts badly, Mrs Pusey can be relied upon to behave graciously.  Everything that Mrs Pusey does is an extravagant performance, from her entrance into the dining room, the tales of her tragic widowhood, to her drinking of tea. Since every performance needs an audience, Edith is co-opted by Mrs Pusey to listen to her “opinions, reminiscences, character readings or general views on life’s little problems.” The sole purpose for the Puseys to be in Switzerland seems to be shopping as “abroad was seen mainly as a repository for luxury goods,” especially lingerie. They’re always off buying knickers according to the refreshingly acidic Monica whose occasionally embarrassing displays are in welcome contrast to the affected manners of the Puseys and their self-loving, fawning mother-daughter routine.

Enter Mr. Neville… an attractive,  comfortably well off, divorced man whose presence shakes up the hotel’s female guests. It’s perhaps no surprise that he zeros in on Monica first, but by the next morning, she’s avoiding him. Assured and slightly sleazy, Mr Neville professes to have “the secret of contentment,” and he advises Edith that “to assume your own centrality may mean an entirely new life.”

Without a huge emotional investment, one can do whatever one pleases. One can take decisions, change one’s mind, alter one’s plans. There is none of the anxiety of waiting to see if that one other person has everlasting she desires, if she is discontented, upset, restless, bored. One can be as pleasant or as ruthless as one wants. If one is prepared to do the one thing one is drilled out of doing from earliest childhood–simply please oneself-there is no reason why one should ever be unhappy again.

Brookner’s books don’t quite seem to fit in the age in which they take place. I noticed this in Dolly, Undue Influence and Look at Me. All of these books concern single, genteel solitary women engaged in bookish professions. Occasionally some reference brings the reader to a recognition of the times, but it was so easy to imagine we were in the earlier world. Incidentally, Hotel du Lac reminded me of A Month by The Lake which is set in 1937.

In Hotel du Lac there’s once again the theme that the writer’s life and marriage/cohabitation don’t mix (it also appeared in Look At Me). There’s also the idea, touched upon in Look At Me and Undue Influence, that men like a certain kind of woman–these days we’d say ‘high maintenance.’ We only see echoes of Edith’s married lover’s wife, but even these tiny glimpses hint that she is one of Brookner’s high maintenance women. Interesting that the high maintenance women land the men (and sometimes the life of ease) while Brookner’s protagonists are left solo, wondering where they went wrong.

Once again, this is a Brookner novel I loved, and after reading the very melancholy Look At Me, I was ambushed by the book’s humour. I wasn’t quite sold by the ending (can’t give away spoilers here, but I don’t think that Edith would have even contemplated going down the same road twice–if you’ve read the book you’ll know what I mean). But the rest of this wonderful book is perfect: Mrs Pusey and Monica are brilliant character studies. Monica’s edginess and irritability is in perfect contrast to Mrs Pusey’s saccharine perfection. Here’s Monica without her enabler for once:

“But where is Kiki?”

Monica’s face fell. “In disgrace. Locked in the bathroom. Well, you can’t expect a little dog like that to behave as well as he would with his own things around him. And the Swiss hate dogs. That’s what’s wrong with them, if you ask me.”

There’s one wonderful scene in which Mrs Pusey describes her married life with an emphasis on how her late husband used to spoil her, and this gives Mrs Pusey plenty of opportunity to wax on about her wonderful life, her amazing self-sacrifice and her wonderful things while commenting on how good the local shops are:

She dabbed the corners of her mouth again. “Of course, I have everything delivered,” she added. 

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The Old Jest: Jennifer Johnston

Jennifer Johnston’s short novel, The Old Jest, a coming of age tale, takes place over a number of days in 1920. The main focus is an 18-year-old girl named Nancy, and when the book opens it’s her birthday. On the cusp of adulthood, Nancy has finished school and plans to attend Trinity in the autumn. There’s not enough money in this faded Anglo-Irish gentry family to send her to Oxford university–plus there are rumblings of “a war with England.”

Nancy is an orphan. Her mother died some years earlier, and she never knew her father, a man who remains a mystery figure. She’s been brought up by her Aunt Mary who bears the burden of the household since her brother, Gabriel died at Ypres. Nancy’s grandfather, General Dwyer is “potty,” but these days we’d probably say he has Alzheimer’s. One of the biggest dramas in Nancy’s life is her crush on a young man named Harry who has his eyes on the bigger prize of the heiress Maeve.

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Nancy’s diary entries make up some of the novel, so we see her confessional thoughts, and her desire that her grandfather die “before we become damaged by his decay.” She’s still a girl, and yet she’s supposed to act like an adult. Nancy chooses her moments to flip back and forth as if she can’t quite accept the responsibilities and polite behaviour of adulthood.

Outside of the safety and security of Nancy’s home, civil unrest occasionally washes up on their doorstep. There’s mention of the Black and Tans, but life in the household is mainly untouched by what goes on in the outside world until Nancy meets an IRA man who’s hiding out in an abandoned beach hut she frequents. He calls into question everything she’s been taught to believe:

“After all,” he said gently, “Your grandfather was a killer too, and no one makes sarcastic remarks at him for that. Not at all. They gave him medals and a pension, He wasn’t even killing to defend his own fatherland, indeed the very opposite. He was taking other people’s land away from them. Creating an Empire for a little old lady with a thing like a tea cosy on her head.”

There’s a sweetness hovering over the novel that partially comes from Nancy’s innocence and zest for life. (Some readers found Nancy annoying–I did not.) Some of the sweetness comes from the idea that we are glimpsing the last days of a particular lifestyle–although Nancy is initially unaware of the truth of the family’s circumstances.

I liked this novel, which has the feel of a well-fleshed out short story, for its bittersweet glimpse at Nancy’s life; by the time the book concludes, it’s easy to see that her world has irrevocably changed. Her innocence is gone, and so her childhood passes away, leaving her to face an uncertain adulthood.

Review copy

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Look at Me: Anita Brookner

Anita Brookner’s novel Look at Me is the story of Frances (Fanny), a young librarian, a burgeoning writer, who makes friends with a glittering handsome couple only to find that she is completely out of her depth.

Fanny lives in a large inherited London flat, which was purchased, furnished, during WWII. It’s full of wonderfully bizarre furniture “which looks like something sprung direct from the brain of an ambitious provincial tart,” and Fanny (who hates to be called that, by the way) lives with an elderly Irishwoman named Nancy. Nancy is a legacy from Fanny’s mother; she nursed Fanny’s mother in her final illness, and she still takes care of Fanny. Nothing has changed in spite of the death of Fanny’s parents, and now Fanny goes to work at a reference library of a medical research institute “dedicated to the problems of human behaviour.” There are some delicate references to a broken love affair which Fanny very occasionally refers to later in the novel as “the time of which I never speak.”

look-at-me

Some of the novel’s action centres on the library and its frequent visitors: Mrs Halloran, who drinks too much and who writes articles for psychic magazines, using the library (sometimes inappropriately) to escape her hotel room And then there’s Dr Simek, a serious, courtly “Czech or Pole,” a nice, polite man but he’s not nearly as attractive as Nick Fraser, one of the two doctors whose research is being funded by the institute. Nick is “everybody’s favourite.” And why not: he’s “tall and fair, an athlete, a socialite, well-connected, good-looking, charming.”  He makes lightening visits to the library, flirts, and with his boyish charm manages to get the two librarians, Fanny and Olivia to do his bidding. Nick is a perfect example of someone who floats by in life with superficial charm. If he were taciturn or unpleasant, his behaviour would be seen for what it really is. But neither Fanny nor Olivia mind being used by Nick because it’s enough to have that golden gaze fall upon them–if even for a moment.

Nick is married to a woman named Alix, a woman who is always the centre of attention. She’s supposedly ‘come down in life,’ and while she (and Nick) have the power to make people feel fortunate when she turns her attention to them, she is also capable of casual cruelty. In their circle of friends,  “everyone succumbs to Alix.” There’s a great scene in the book as Alix first sweeps into the library and grabs everyone’s attention when she tells Fanny that she and Nick are having an argument about how she should wear her hair.

“I think it looks very nice either way,” I said lamely, but that didn’t seem to matter either because she had already turned to Nick and posed with one hand on her hip and the other smoothing up the escaping strands on her neck. Mrs. Halloran and Dr Simek had suspended their research and were looking on as if some voluptuous cabaret had been devised for their entertainment.

A more experienced woman would see Alix’s behaviour for what it really is, but Fanny,  who is lonely and who sees the Frasers as offering her an option to her staid boring life, launches full steam ahead into a close friendship with Nick and Alix.

With Alix, everyone in her circle must be inferior and owned, added to the circle to be part of the selected audience to admire this golden couple, and it’s when it comes to ownership that the situation becomes destructive and painful.

She is one of those fortunate women who create circles of loyal friends wherever she goes, so that being with her is like belonging to a club.

I loved Look at Me, and of the three Brookners I’ve read so far, this is my favourite, and I was rather surprised to discover that it was written early in her career (1983). Dolly was published ten years later in 1993 and Undue Influence appeared in 1999.  In Look at Me, Brookner gives us another quiet, solitary woman who has a bookish job, and there’s another legacy relationship (Fanny inherits Nancy from her mother) just as Jane inherits Dolly from her mother. Alix reminded me of Cynthia in Undue Influence, but Alix is crueler, more destructive.

I loved Fanny’s dreaded visits to the former librarian, Miss Morpeth who “seems sealed off from the vital interests of the living world.” This is another relationship that gives Fanny a shock–how funny to think we are being so gracious and kind to visit someone only to discover that they loathe our visits every bit as much as we loathe to make them. There’s quite a bit of self-deception going on which Fanny manages, painfully, to finally shirk at the end of the book. She says she needs the Frasers “for material,” but the pull towards the Frasers originates in a desire to avoid “that withering little routine that would eventually transform me into a version of Miss Morpeth.” We see destruction and unhappiness rolling towards Fanny long before she does. Fanny is an introvert, and her attraction to the Frasers and her desperate gratitude to be included is the action of an introvert admiring an extrovert when really there’s very little to admire. And finally why am I not surprised to read that Brookner never married and nursed her aged parents?

Gert’s review is here

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The White City: Karolina Ramqvist

Karolina Ramqvist’s moody novel, In the White City, takes us into the life of a young woman named Karin who finds herself in a life she never imagined. When the novel opens, Karin is living in a huge lakeside home bought for her by her criminal boyfriend, John. John is gone, presumably (?) in prison and Karin, feeling bitter and betrayed, is left with their baby Dream, the child that John pushed for against Karin’s nagging feelings that having a family was not a wise move.

Karin, alone in the rambling house with just the baby, has just a few days before she is to be evicted. The utilities have been cut off and the house is freezing. She has nowhere to go, the little cash she has is running out, and the friends she thought she had from John’s criminal gang have evaporated when times got tough. The police and the tax authorities have documented the house’s contents and Karin faces a crisis that she is completely unprepared for.

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This is a short novel, moody and depressing which nonetheless manages to incorporate a dreamlike quality into its style. This is a white world (as the title suggests). The house is cold and unwelcoming, and it’s surrounded by a frozen world of snow and ice, but there’s also a sense of blankness in Karin’s mind. She’s stunned by events and unable to cope.

Karin reaches out to a number of people for help–some of whom appear sympathetic and some who do not. Meanwhile she lives in a haze of depression, foraging in the house for food, and neglecting her baby.

The book’s blurb mentions “the coke-filled parties, seemingly endless flow of money, and high social status she previously enjoyed.” Scant reference exists of Karin’s former life, and I would have enjoyed knowing a bit more. When the book opens, everything has changed and not seeing how things were before, gives us little point of contrast, little point of loss. I was reminded of series 1 of Prisoners’ Wives and the glory stripped from Francesca Miller, but in that series we see Francesca’s fall from affluence each step of the way. Francesca finds her own worth in the series, tries to work a ‘normal’ job only to be dragged back in the Life. In The White City, it’s the aftermath of the party and Karin is left with the mop-up.  There’s no such character development here–just a woman floundering in hopelessness.

The novel is strongest when describing the police who visit the house and deliver the news that Karin must leave:

And then they moved deeper inside the house. With quiet purpose. Greedily. Even if this was a purely routine call, they approached their plunder with an ill-concealed excitement. They stared in hot silence through her dirty windows, drinking in the view. Her view. They turned around and stared at the fireplace; its little white remote control was on the coffee table even though the gas had run out and it could no longer be lit. They looked at the painting on the far wall, her painting, the one she’d assumed was stolen when John gave it to her.

They had already sent an appraiser around, who’d gone through everything.

The descriptions of the landscape are excellent, and while the novel’s mood and atmosphere are well created, there’s just too many endless references to breast feeding that added nothing to the story, nothing to the plot. Karin is still in shock, her senses dulled and blunted. All this is conveyed well, but it is continual and after a while (and a visit from the Pizza guy) we realise that Karin must stop wallowing in the mess that landed on her doorstep and come to her senses. We get tiny glimpses (and I wish there had been more) into Karin’s former life–the bullet proof glass in the lakeside house, for example. Details of Karin’s former life infuse energy into this otherwise bleak, depressing tale:

Everything had been documented, every one of her purchases, each step she’d taken, or so it seemed. Pictures of her on airplanes and at the watchmaker. Tickets to Thailand and Brazil, gym memberships, dermatologists, timepieces, jewelry, cars. boats. The dog and the horse each had their own column.

Review copy

Translated from Swedish by Saskia Vogel

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But a Short Time to Live: James Hadley Chase (1951)

“There are some girls, Harry, who are no good.”

James Hadley Chase’s wonderful noir novel, But A Short Time to Live, is set in dreary post WWII London. Harry Ricks is one of several photographers employed by a failing business to take photos of people in the street, and it’s his job to try to make a sale. It’s depressing work with a very low success rate, and Harry is struggling to make a living. This is how the book opens just after Harry snaps a photograph of a woman passing by:

The fat woman smiled self-consciously at Harry as he gave her the card. It was a pity, he thought that she had let herself go. Her uncared for hair straggled from under a hat that didn’t suit her, her eyes were heavy and tired, and there was a shine on her face that made you think she had just this moment finished cooking a stodgy, uninteresting meal.

It’s the end of a long day, and Harry is in the Duke of Wellington having a pint when he notices a stunning woman drinking whisky with a much older, fat and unpleasant man. Harry’s first impression is that while the woman is beautiful, the situation indicates that there’s some funny business afoot.

Her companion wasn’t the polished Stewart Granger type Harry expected to see, but a short, fat elderly man whose face was the colour of port wine and who was as near being intoxicated as made no difference.

A few hours later, a series of events leads Harry to taking the woman in the pub, Clair, home to her very large, expensive flat. While everyone else still feels the belt-tightening of the war, Clair seems immune to deprivation: her flat is well-stocked with whisky. She claims she’s a model, drives a sports car, dresses in expensive clothing and Harry desperate to avoid some nasty conclusions about Clair’s behaviour,and ignoring “how hard she looked,” believes every word she says. …

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Some of the characters in the book, even though they are astonished that Harry would land such a woman, admire Clair, but Harry’s best friend and roommate, Ron, warns against getting mixed up with Clair. Ron, a tragic figure, who has had bad experiences with what he calls “glamour girls” warns Harry that these relationships never work out for the “poor mug who marries them.”

There’s another great character here–Mooney, a strange, shady figure, who starts out in the book as Harry’s employer. Mooney is lazy, unambitious  and happy to sail on the talent of others. Later in the book, Mooney’s more exploitative side takes over as he starts using Harry, but by the time the tale ends, Mooney reveals more character than we thought he had:

If you’re not settled in a job by the time you’re forty, it’s curtains. Watch that. You’ve got to be fixed up by forty, kid. Don’t forget. it’s important. No one wants a man when he’s over forty these days.

Clair is the dominant partner in the relationship with Harry. Everything runs the way she wants: what she spends, where they live, who they see. Harry makes a few objections, but he’s weak when it comes to Clair. In this story of doomed love, Harry has plenty of warnings about Clair; he sees things, he’s told things, but he keeps on … committed and devoted to the end of the road.

But A Short Time to Live follows the trajectory of Harry and Clair’s relationship, and the book took a number of unexpected twists and turns as this troubled couple try to (and seem to) elude fate. This is an excellent noir tale, set in a dreary post WWII London, peopled with spivs, prostitutes and cheap entertainment; it’s a story oozing with desperation and darkness spiraling towards its inevitable end.

This is the first James Hadley Chase novel I’ve read set in England. It’s available for mere pennies in the US. My kindle version has a few typos but nothing that inhibited readability.

 

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Her Every Fear: Peter Swanson

I somehow missed Peter Swanson’s blockbuster The Kind Worth Killing; I’ve heard so many positive things about the book that I knew I couldn’t miss Her Every Fear.  After finishing Her Every Fear, I took a look at reviews and the consensus seems to be that The Kind Worth Killing is a better read. That’s reassuring; I liked Her Every Fear but found the book to have problems–more of that later.

So here’s the plot: London-based Kate Priddy agrees to a six-month long apartment swap with her second cousin, Bostonian Corbin Dell. The two have never met, but arrangements are made via e-mail. For Kate, who has always been on the neurotic side and is still recovering from a horrible experience involving an ex-boyfriend, the opportunity to live in Boston for six months allows her to try and put the past behind her.

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Problems for Kate begin almost immediately; she hasn’t even entered the front door of her cousin’s large, lush apartment (“like something out of a Henry James novel,“) when she meets a young woman who is knocking frantically on the front door of the next apartment, looking for a neighbour who is apparently missing. The neighbour is, or should I say, was Audrey Marshall, and she’s been murdered and mutilated inside the apartment right next to Kate.

Enter two new men in Kate’s life: Alan Cherney, a man whose voyeuristic tendencies led to an obsession with Audrey, and Jack who claims to be Audrey’s ex-boyfriend. Soon Kate is communicating with Corbin via e-mail, and he claims he barely knew Audrey. Yet according to Alan, who constantly observed Audrey from afar, Corbin and Audrey had a sexual relationship…..

The first part of the book, with the action focusing on Kate’s perspective, was compulsively readable, and the plot moves along at a terrific, nail-biting pace, but then the plot slows when it switches to Corbin and his past.

The plot requires the reader to wrestle a bit with plausibility. Kate is already badly damaged by her past when she lands in the middle of a murder in Boston. How likely is it that she would open herself up to a strange man knowing that there’s a killer on the loose? I struggled with this, but then decided to accept Kate’s actions as she has a history of being a psycho magnet. The plot makes it clear that Kate isn’t the most stable woman on the planet–she forgets where she’s put her medication, and she forgets, or thinks she forgets or misplaces, several other things at crucial moments. And here’s a plot element I struggled with: I don’t know about you, but if I had a door going from my apartment to the basement, I’d go buy a hammer and nail that sucker shut, but Kate, who has a history of panic attacks,  manages to live with it…..

I had a more difficult time, for reasons I cannot extrapolate, with the character of Corbin. Those of you who’ve read the book may know what I mean….

Anyway, Her Every Fear is a good beach, plane or train read. You could even be stuck in the middle of a doctor’s office with half a dozen annoying conversations flying over your head, and the plot will keep your attention. This Female in Peril novel, with its emphasis on slimy, creepy voyeurism, is flawed but entertaining.

Review copy

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Undue Influence: Anita Brookner

Fresh on the heels of Anita Brookner’s Dolly, I turned to Undue Influence, the story of a young, single woman who becomes embroiled in a peculiar marriage. Claire Pitts’s mother has recently died when Claire meets an attractive married man who comes into the bookshop where she works. He’s looking for a copy of Jenny Triebel, and Claire, remembering where a copy is located in the shop, offers to drop it by. She doesn’t waste any time, and on the way home from work, she stops by his house only to discover that he’s married…but what a strange marriage it is. His wife, Cynthia Gibson, an attractive woman, is an invalid. She never leaves her room and has the care of a daily nurse. It’s her heart, apparently, but in spite of the fact that Cynthia is bedbound, she controls everyone in her orbit–starting with her husband Martin and soon Claire is swept up in the Gibson’s self-focused world.

“She’s lovely,” I said, quite sincerely. That air of a full-blown rose just going to seed was one I could appreciate. It went with ample forms, still visible beneath the elaborate negligées, anxious eyes, and a mouth that implied that no quarter would be given. She looked like what she was: a hardened coquette.

undue-influence

Claire has a habit, and we know this very early in the novel, of writing scripts for the lives of the people she’s met. This is an imaginative way of filling in the blanks. Claire does this with her employers–two elderly spinsters: Hester and Muriel Collier, the Gibsons, a neighbour she barely knows and even her own mother. While this speculation is mostly harmless, Claire assigns emotion and difficulty to people where it is perhaps absent, or at the very least different. She tells us within the first few pages of the book that her speculations can be wrong:

People are mysterious, I know that. And they do reveal mysterious connections. But sometimes one is merely anxious to alter the script. It was not the first time I had been guilty of a misapprehension.

Claire is intrigued by the Gibsons, and perhaps some of that interest is sparked by her own father’s long illness and by the sacrifices, as she sees it, made by her mother as she nursed her husband for about a decade. And of course, Claire’s interest in Martin Gibson is warped by attraction–she imagines Martin and Cynthia’s courtship, and their marriage ruled by the “tyranny” of the ill. Over time she builds an entire narrative of the Gibsons’ relationship, and it’s easy to see why; the Gibsons live in their own world, and other people are the entertainment.

This was their secret, I decided; they had both decreed, with some justification, that they were tragic figures, whose pleas must be heard at a higher court. They were not simply solipsists, they were soliloquists, drawn together in a fateful bond which demanded witnesses There was no room, there was no place, for outsiders, for third parties. my role was to register their predicament, in which they were so far gone that nobody but themselves could understand it. 

As in  Dolly, this is the story of a young woman whose parents are dead, but whereas in Dolly, the main character Jane is alone, but not lonely, Claire is definitely feeling the need for attachment. Claire is employed by the Collier sisters to memorialize their beloved father’s work, but as Claire pieces together the long-dead St John Collier’s work, she realises that this is the mediocre work of an unhappy man. Hester and Muriel Collier were devoted to their father, and their own long lives are sterile as a result of that devotion. Claire understands that sickness and devotion can create a sort of serfdom, and she has a horror of being trapped in a relationship in which her partner becomes ill. There are undercurrents buried in the sentences here of Claire’s sexual flings which seem to occur while she is on holiday–adventures which occur separately, and far from, her regular life.

Martin isn’t a particularly attractive figure, but Claire’s fascination seems to reside in his devotion to his wife, but there’s also something darker here; Claire identifies with Martin’s subjugation to the sick bed, and that makes her vulnerable. Brookner seems to argue that we can never really understand other people no matter how hard we work at building scripts of their lives.

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The Antiques: Kris D’Agostino

There’s a frenetic energy to Kris D’Agostino’s novel The Antiques which matches both its backdrop, an epic storm which engulfs Hudson, New York, and the lives of the Westfall family. When the novel opens, the Westfall family is in crisis, but I’ll back up here and say ‘crises.’ Yes it’s multiple; family patriarch George Westfall, cofounder of George and Ana Westfall Antiques, is dying of cancer. His wife Ana, hearty and healthy, but wrapped in her own concerns, isn’t sure how she’ll continue the business alone, and that brings us to the three Westfall offspring: sex addict Josef, daughter Charlie, out in California pursuing a career in publicity, and Armie, who still lives in the basement.

the-antiques

With George taking a turn for the worse, Ana begins frantically contacting Josef and Charlie, but they both ignore the desperate messages as they are deep in their own problems. In Josef’s case, the problems revolve around his sex addiction. He’s on the brink of making a huge, lucrative business move, and while he waits for news, as is typical, he distracts himself with thoughts of sex. Every woman, including his therapist, is a potential sex partner. This is a recently divorced man (no shock there) who buys used female underwear to sniff and claims that “it’s like my penis led me astray.”

Enough of Josef.

Onto Charlie.

Charlie works with P.Le.A.Se. Publicity LLC’s “most needy and lucrative client,” Hollywood starlet, Melody Montrose. Melody’s latest claim to fame is the starring role as a “vampire heiress” in  a “teen-fantasy saga based on a cycle of YA bestsellers called Thornglow.” Melody’s needy life is one publicity nightmare after another, and that leaves Charlie mopping up Melody’s messes and performing the work of a PA. There’s a pull between Melody’s petulant immature demands and Charlie’s personal life. Charlie has put her private life on the back burner, but after finding a pair of women’s underwear at her home, Charlie suspects her French husband is cheating. Meanwhile their son, Abbott is thrown out of school for violence towards another child.

As for basement dweller, Armie, he’s seriously damaged after being tangled in a questionable business deal which involved Josef and led to a stressful session with the FBI. He’s almost afraid to leave the safety of the basement, and yet love calls him in the shape of a young woman who occasionally offers to walk the Westfall family dog.

All the Westfall children converge on the family home, and there a drama unfolds over the sale of a valuable painting….

The book is well-paced and well-plotted but it is full of unpleasant people–I even disliked Ana, a character who should, technically speaking, be somewhat sympathetic. But it’s never a problem for me to read books about unpleasant people–after all, they’re usually much more interesting than ‘good’ people. But here, the characters were unpleasant and uninteresting–a deadly combination. Josef was a waste of good oxygen and Charlie … well there’s a telephone conversation that takes place between Charlie and another parent which left me shaking my head. While the author certainly mined aspects of today’s superficial culture, somehow that vapidity stuck to the plot with the result that I couldn’t wait to leave these people.

The Antiques is being compared to The Nest, and while I can see the connections: siblings and an inheritance, the resemblance stops there.  Most of the reviews of The Antiques on Goodreads are overwhelmingly positive, so I am in the minority opinion.

Review copy

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