Category Archives: Dale Celia

Act of Love: Celia Dale (1969)

There is some terrible flaw in me against which I must always struggle.”

I’ve been on a Celia Dale roll lately: A Helping Hand-is a very credible crime tale of what to do with your elderly relatives when they annoy you. In Sheep’s Clothing– two con-women find that the elderly are easy pickings. Helping With Inquiries concerns the murder of a married woman in a quiet suburb. And this brings me to Act of Love; it’s another crime novel, but this time it’s with a Victorian gothic setting.

22-year-old Bernard West, “Bun” to his family, leaves the impoverished family home to accept the job of tutor to the 2 children of Henry and Isabel Mortimer. The tale is partly narrated by Bernard, who is, as it turns out, somewhat unreliable, or at least less than truthful. We know he’s been “ill” with “brain fever,” but that now he’s “completely recovered.” Bernard’s father, who is another private tutor, is “ruined,” when he “imprudently stood guarantor” for a “rascal who defaulted.” Bernard also has two sisters, doomed to spinsterhood: Agatha and Mary. According to Bernard, all the hopes and fortunes of the family rest with him.

The first few days at Bulmer Hall are not good. Bernard is very quickly relegated to a lowlier position in the household than he expected. Mr. Mortimer, who is pleasant enough, has a very strong personality, disappears frequently to London to indulge his vices, and walks with a cane due to an old wound. His much younger wife, Isabel Mortimer is the snot here. She’s beautiful, a wonderful horsewoman, and she immediately puts Bernard in his place :

She was slender, with dark hair piled high under a small cap, a perfect cameo-line of brown and nose, lips and chin; eyes of the same inky blue as were her daughter’s but cool as ice, as was her smile, which seemed to glide over us all like skates. I had never before seen anyone so perfectly indifferent to other people, so actuated by nothing but the thinnest pretense of politeness.

It’s soon abundantly clear that while the house is magnificent, and while the Mortimers are wealthy, there is something not quite right with life at Bulmer Hall:

Yet it had no heart. It ran with the mechanical motions of a clockwork toy, lifelike but artificial.

The only regular guest at Bulmer Hall is the oily Dr. Brooke, who at one time practiced in the slums of London. He’s seen enough of “the debasement of the human animal” that he is now more or less retired, thanks to an inheritance, with only the occasional wealthy client to fuss over. Dr. Brooke befriends Bernard, and appears to take an interest in the young man’s future. And while at first Isabel humiliates Bernard every chance she gets with “her glance shifting over [him] as indifferently as a searchlight over the sea,” a turn of events throws Bernard and Isabel together.

Act of Love is mostly cleverly constructed, and for a while I thought I was reading something as magnificent as My Cousin Rachel. Unfortunately, the book slides into purple prose, with rather long passages so torrid and yet vague that I was forced to reread these sections several times to understand the implications. The ending seemed a little hurried which was unfortunate given the cleverness of the plotting.

Still… I enjoyed the structure if not the execution. The characters are great creations but this is my least favourite Celia Dale to date.

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A Helping Hand: Celia Dale (1966)

In A Helping Hand, author Celia Dale, whose books seem to have dropped off the radar, shows exactly what can be done with a crime novel. No ritualistic serial killers, no gore, no teenage girls chained up in the basement–the crime in this book is a crime so subtly committed, no one seems to notice. This is the third novel I’ve read from this author; I’m currently reading a fourth, and for crime fans who are interested: Helping with Inquiries is the story of a murder investigation following the bludgeoning death of a married woman in her home; Sheep’s Clothing is the story of two con-women who mercilessly prey on the elderly. All of the novels create a sense of suffocating claustrophobia, and even though none of the sensationalistic elements of crime novels exist within these pages, somehow Celia Dale’s crime novels are sinister and terrifying–simply because they seem to occur in such ordinary, mundane circumstances.

A Helping Hand opens with the death of an elderly lady. It sounds as though it’s a gentle, expected death and former nurse Mrs. Maisie Evans and her hubbie Josh who were the deceased woman’s caretakers, meet the necessary legal obligations: contacting the doctor, checking documents and putting aside the pension book. It’s May, and by summer time, Josh and Maisie are on holiday in Italy where they run into the elderly, widowed Cynthia Fingal and her middle-aged niece Lena. A long way from home, it seems perfectly natural that the 4 British people should strike up a relationship with Maisie befriending Lena and Josh shepherding Cynthia around the cafes and the more accessible tourist spots. It doesn’t take long for Lena to spew forth complaints about her aunt: how much she sacrifices for the “spoiled” old lady, how she can’t have a personal life, and how what Aunt Cynthia pays for room and board doesn’t compensate for “the inconvenience of always having her under my feet.” Lena actually voices the opinion that “when old people get so they can’t control themselves they ought to be put away.” Or does she mean put down? While Lena confides in a sympathetic Maisie, Josh is busily and tediously squiring Cynthia around town with an element of low grade flirtation, letting her talk endlessly about her past life while he ogles the girls on the beach.

Before the holiday is over, Cynthia decides she wants to live with Maisie and Josh which suits Lena. She practically begs the Evanses to take her aunt off her hands. After all, why not? The Evanses are experienced caretakers of the elderly. Mrs. Evans always seems to have various medicines on hand, and she’s a dull woman, respectable, caring, a wonderful cook and an avid crafter. Josh pays attention to Mrs. Fingal who soaks up male attention, so it’s an arrangement that suits everyone. And what a warm welcome the Evanses give Mrs Fingal when she arrives.

It’s a good thing really that Mrs. Fingal is not a particularly sympathetic character. Good for the reader that is. Maisie Evans, so experienced in the care of the elderly knows just what to do. …

There was an air of quiet cheerfulness about the Evanses that weekend. Josh got out in the garden, mowed the grass, staked the fast-growing plants, weeded–although that made his back ache. Mrs Evans started on an order for six embroidered tea cosies, all in autumn tints. Mrs Fingal lay in her bed, a shell from which the tide had receded. Sometimes she shuffled through the old magazines which sagged on the bedside table, but mostly she just lay, waiting for Josh to visit her, but he did not.

A Helping Hand is a very realistic crime novel. No fireworks, no brilliant detective to swoop in and save the day, but two very experienced minders who know how to fleece the elderly. There’s another character here, a young Italian girl, and her character seemed a bit overdone. She is innocence personified (that’s the overdone bit) and her introduction to the Evanses’ household is beyond anything she can imagine. There’s a simply wonderful twist at the end. Shan’t spoil it, but for vintage crime fans who like their crime bloodless yet cold as ice, this is recommended.

 

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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. 

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2018: It’s a Wrap

Towards the end of 2018, I started thinking about which books would make my best-of-year-list. Several of the titles I’d read this past year came to mind, and I began to think that I would, perhaps, have a difficult time narrowing down just a few titles to the list.

Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

A husband returns home to find his wife battered to death. The investigating detectives tell the husband, Leonard Henderson, to write down his statement, so we get his version of events which is contrasted to his memories of growing up with a cold, critical mother, and his marriage to the murder victim, Enid. Yes this is the story of a murder, but it’s also the story of a marriage (always impenetrable to outsiders). This is the first book I’ve read by Celia Dale, and it was on my shelf far too long before I finally picked it up. The tale is an insightful look at a claustrophobic marriage and I’ll be reading more from this author who now seems to have faded from view.

New World in the Morning: Stephen Benatar

A middle-aged, married antique seller gets a new lease on life when an attractive female customer walks into his shop. Narrated by 39-year-old Sam, this tale of a man who feels hampered by family life, ‘could’ be very 70s in its portrayal of a man who springs free of his commitments. Instead, in the capable hands of author Stephen Benatar, we see a selfish twerp with illusions of an acting career who proceeds to blow up his very comfortable life. While Sam may think his infidelity is paramount to a heroic selfless act: “one thing was sure … both of them would benefit. I’d be doing it for the three of us,” in reality, even though Sam is in control of the narration, we begin to wonder just who puts up with who in Sam’s marriage.

A Little Love, a Little Learning: Nina Bawden

Told in retrospect, this is the story of short, but significant period in the life of 12-year-old Kate who lives with her mother and stepfather, a doctor. It’s 1953, and a friend of Kate’s mother comes to live with the family. The guest is a rather gossipy but supposedly good-hearted woman, and her arrival sparks a series of events. Through these event, Kate learns that life is not black and white. I usually dislike books written from the child’s perspective but this tale, told with an adult’s view, is simply marvellous. This was the second novel I’d read by Bawden. I wasn’t that keen on the first so I’m happy I tried again.

The Good House: Ann Leary

If forced to pick ONE book as the best-of-the-year, then The Good House would be the choice. I read this early in the year so it set a high standard for comparison. This is the story of a high-functioning alcoholic, a divorced real-estate agent who thinks her drinking is no one else’s business. The unreliable narration here is tart, funny, and entertaining. I laughed out loud several times and was sorry to see this one end. Brilliant.

The Fall Guy: James Lasdun

One lazy summer, Matthew stays at the vacation home of his much wealthier cousin, Charlie. Matthew’s grateful for a place to stay while he mulls over the next phase of his life, but does Charlie really want Matthew there?  Matthew has a thing for Charlie’s second wife, Chloe, and when Matthew discovers that Chloe is having an affair, he finds himself in a moral dilemma. Should he tell Charlie? Nothing is quite what it seems in this novel.

A Change in the Lighting: Amy Witting

Amy Witting is a great favourite. and I knew I’d love this novel. A Change in the Lighting is the story of a middle-aged woman who is floored when her professor husband casually announces that he wants a divorce.  Ella whose whole life for the past 30 years has been raising three children and taking care of the household, doesn’t know what to do. She teeters on the edge of madness but sinks into elaborate rug making. Her children take sides in the divorce war, and yet .. in spite of everything that goes wrong, Ella finds that her life expands into new territory. Witty and wise.

A Wreath of Roses: Elizabeth Taylor

Two childhood friends, Liz and Camilla, spend the summer at the home of Liz’s former governess, Frances. The novels examines the choices made by these women and how taking chances opens up the possibilities of hurt and even danger. In life, we make our choices and then wonder if they were the right ones. Elizabeth Taylor takes that central idea and runs with it. This is a very dark novel. When I picked it up, I wondered why the title was A Wreath of Roses and not a vase or a bunch etc. The word wreath reminded me of death…

Mrs Sartoris: Elke Schmitter

A middle-aged woman who married decades earlier on the rebound finds passion, but will this end happily? No of course not. This is narrated by a woman who seems in control of her passions, but is she? She functions well as an employee and a wife, but like an iceberg, what you see on the surface is only a fraction of what’s there. She may seem in control, but once unleashed, there’s no telling what may happen.

Hell Hath No Fury: Ingrid Noll

A middle-aged woman goes off the rails when she becomes infatuated with a self-absorbed, married academic. A deranged narrator who is also unreliable. How can you go wrong? This was close to being my best read of the year….

Accident on the A-35: Graeme Macrae Burnet

A man dies in a car accident and a police detective investigates. In one sense this is a police procedural (my least favourite crime novel),  but has a crime even been committed? As the investigation continues, the detective finds that the inhabitants of this small French town are less than cooperative. But the crime/investigation is not the main story here: surely it’s the view of small town life, frustrated ambitions and a disintegrating marriage.

Adolphe: Benjamin Constant

A wealthy young man persuades an older woman, the mistress of another man, to become his mistress. The young man cannot live without this woman–or so he thinks, and then he gets her… this rather cynical (realistic) look at love and passion peels back the human psyche and it’s not pretty. But that’s why it’s such a great book.

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Helping with Inquiries: Celia Dale

“The slivers of ice which were her buried resentments against Leonard strangely hardening rather than melting in her astonishingly found new climate.”

I can’t remember where I first heard the name of author Celia Dale, or how I came across her books, but a recent dig through the TBR stacks led me to grab Helping With Inquiries, a novel from 1979. At first I thought I was reading a police procedural, but no, this is a deeply psychological character study–a tale of bitterness, isolation, control and motivation for murder.

helping with inquiries

Helping with Inquiries (and what a great innocuous title that is) begins with Leonard Henderson, a married man in his 60s, a creature of absolute rigid habit, an advertising manager at an old-fashioned dying company, arriving back home after a day’s work. Leonard and his wife, Enid live in a pleasant, semi-detached home in a quiet, middle-class neighbourhood. It’s a terrible shock, then, for Leonard to return home to Cherrywood Crescent and find his wife Enid, a woman that no one seems to really know or talk to, battered to death in the front room.

The Hendersons have lived next door to the their neighbours, the Thorpes for over 20 years, and although they share a “thin party-wall” the two couples only ever exchanged a nod or the few odd words. The Thorpes heard nothing, saw nothing, and are in a state of shock that something like this could have happened in their quiet street.

D.S Simpson and DI Hogarth, two very different men with two very different styles investigate the case. There’s a definite good-cop-bad cop game afoot with Simpson’s strong social skills and affability and the laconic Hogarth who prefers to ambush suspects and witnesses with rudeness. Whereas Simpson is “delighted” by human nature “as intriguing manifestations of the bizarre,” Hogarth is interested in motive only in as much as it furthers the investigation

This view of his profession gave him a majestic insensitivity which was often useful, outraging or stunning people into shows of emotion that under gentler handling they might have controlled. While they erupted or collapsed, a mind as shrewd if not as intelligent as any judge’s ticked away inside Hogarth’s balding head. If there were something to be noticed, assessed, slotted into place, Hogarth would do it.

As the police detectives poke around the Henderson home, they discover that while no one seems to really know Enid (she has no friends, no social life) she was a magpie, “her untidiness had been concealed, stuffed into drawers and cupboards.”  According to Leonard his wife was “a middle-aged woman, –a domesticated, simple, not very clever housewife,” and yet someone hated her enough to beat her to death. But is this a random crime? There’s an alley that runs along the back of the houses. Did some “maniac” wander into the home and murder Enid? 

As the novel unfolds, a couple of suspects emerge. Leonard is required to make a written statement, and Leonard’s short, succinct sentences are then juxtaposed with the history of Leonard’s miserable childhood, dominated by a cold, cruel and domineering woman while Leonard’s father cringed in the background. As Leonard’s statement later continues to explain how he met Enid, author Celia Dale cleverly reconstructs their courtship and married life. Enid is dead when the book opens, and yet her character is constructed in detail, so that just who she really was is clearly evident.

Yes, this is a crime book, but it’s brilliantly constructed with Dale showing just how much can be accomplished by a crime novel, and while bulky DI Hogarth may not care about motive, readers do. Dale creates a fascinating picture of domestic life and an inexorable case of murder.

Finally, Dale can write. There are some marvellous moments here–most I can’t include due to spoilers. At one point, Leonard lands a job, after the war, at Forbes’ for Furnishing.

Behind their majestic frontage decline and fall could be sensed. The Board was ageing, the holding company impatient for them to be gone; real estate was more real now than Forbes’ for Furnishing. There was no future there and Leonard knew it with a bitterness that burned deeply behind his cool facade. The Advertising Department consisted of no more than Leonard himself, whatever trainee youth was going through the store, and a typist. The advertisement copy was written by an outside agency and appeared mainly in appropriate local and provincial newspapers. It was, he knew sourly, a dead end job. But at least, he was, at last, Manager.

Enid’s happiness was tactlessly great. She brought a bottle of sparkling white wine with which to celebrate his first week, kissed him and pressed her face against his for a moment. ‘I’m so glad for you Lenny darling. It’s such a relief. I know how anxious you’ve been all these months. And being in an old-fashioned firm’s much nicer really, isn’t it. even if it’s not quite so important.’

In a way she was right. Shutting his mind to everything he might have preferred, he sank himself into the work, treating his tiny department as though it were the most important in the firm, himself its ruler. So the years settled in Cherrywood Crescent, muffling all sounds. 

The book is also a snapshot of its times with reference to Mrs Woodhouse, Women’s Lib and bottom-pinching considered normal behaviour at work.

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