Category Archives: Fremlin Celia

King of the World: Celia Fremlin (1994)

“The intensity of a mad person’s certainty is irresistibly compelling.”

If I had to pick an alternate title for Celia Fremlin’s King of the World, it would be: Spot the Looney (yes I know, I’m insensitive); this idea came to me repeatedly as I read the book. Not first tier Fremlin, but still an interesting read, which centres on this author’s dominant theme: mental illness.

It’s London, and Bridget and Diane, both successful, young career women, decide to advertise for a flatmate. Problems immediately arise when Alistair, Diane’s annoying, ever-present boyfriend, fields phone calls from a bunch of applicants. He, with his “self-absorbed smile,” declares that the applicants are “gibbering,” yet he favours one particular woman who is “self-effacing to the point of non-existence. Pathologically anxious to please. Anxious altogether, I’d say–a genetically programmed worry-guts. But that will make her all the more malleable, won’t it?

Fremlin’s final novel

When Alistair adds that this woman, Norah Payne, is a battered wife, a woman who has fled an abusive husband and now seeks shelter, Diane and Bridget both agree that she is not a good option for a roommate. But Alistair had already invited the woman around to the flat, and the next thing you know, Norah is in the flat with a “harrowing story.” Already irritated beyond measure by the meddlesome Alistair, Bridget has no patience for Norah:

A born victim-type, no wonder her husband beat her up.

There’s something about Norah’s story that doesn’t add up, but Diane, who “sets up documentaries relevant to one or another of today’s fashionable concerns,” sees raw material in Norah’s plight. Initially, with Bridget arguing against renting a room to Norah, the runaway wife is allowed to stay just a few days until she can arrange something else, but Diane’s rather morbid interest in Norah’s situation, drags Bridget, Diane and Alistair into Norah’s life, and guess what… she hasn’t quite told her new flatmates the whole story.

Given the vagaries of human nature, marriage is never an easy proposition, but I often chew over how particularly difficult it must be to be married to a therapist… or a psychiatrist. Perhaps I am being unfair, but I imagine the weariness, the tediousness of having one’s actions constantly analyzed. … But back to the book….And let’s peel back the layers of Norah’s home life–a home life so dreadful, she ran away.

Norah’s memories reveal the layers of a pathological home life. Norah is married to Mervyn, an arrogant hospital consultant psychiatrist, and they have a son, Christopher. Mervyn is intelligent, patronizing and commanding; he’s proud of his son and considers him to be a genius (a chip off the old block?). When Christopher begins to show signs of mental illness, Mervyn blames Norah: according to Mervyn, and after all he’s the expert, she’s controlling, suffocating, plagued with “mad delusions.”

There were moments when she couldn’t even believe it herself. Was she (as Mervyn kept assuring her) imagining things? Once again, she found herself in the grip of those doubts about her own sanity which are an occupational hazard for carers in her situation. To be in the presence of distorted thinking twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, takes its toll in the end. One picks up the distorted logic in just the same way in picks up a foreign language when living abroad; it lodges in the brain effortlessly, and almost without conscious awareness.

Abusers, and Mervyn is an abuser, create greenhouses for their victims–I say ‘greenhouse’ because it’s a structure, an environment, in which all aspects of the emotional and physical climate are controlled by the abuser–Mervyn decides who is mentally ill and why. There are no other opinions allowed, and as the situation at home becomes worse, Mervyn slides into pathological denial. Not my favourite Fremlin as I was not attached to the characters in any way–they remained at a distance, but still… Fremlin’s recreation of Norah’s home life and the escalating denial is all-too credible.

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Possession: Celia Fremlin (1969)

“Sensitive people always make me see red. They just mean that want special privileges, emotionally speaking.”

In Celia Fremlin’s engaging, and frequently witty, mystery novel, Possession, 19-year-old Sarah Erskine has a history of loser boyfriends. Is she one of those forgiving types or does she just have poor judgement? Well the jury is out on that question, but when Sarah announces that she’s marrying her latest, Mervyn, a 31-year-old accountant who lives with his mummy, Sarah’s mother, Clare, the novel’s spiky narrator, has mixed feelings. On one hand, he’s so much older than Sarah. Then there’s that red flag: still living with mummy… but he does have a decent job and seems the reliable type. This is a clever, multi-layered novel which examines parenthood, the difficulties of remaining clear-eyed about one’s children, and the responsibility parents have towards children. At what point should parents ‘let go’ of their children and watch them make their mistakes? What the hell do you do when a precious child decides to marry a weirdo? Possession has a wonderful gossipy quality, and this is firmly established on page one when Clare’s best friend, Peggy, “always ready to enjoy a crisis,” warns that Mervyn’s possessive mother is “ghastly.”

“You’ve spoilt it all for me,” I complained childishly. “Why did you have to tell me? It’s nothing to do with Sarah, either. She doesn’t have to like her mother-in-law, does she? Nobody does! It’s unnatural.”

Clare is determined to accept Mervyn and overlook any ‘difficulties’ in the match, and while she has major misgivings about Meryvn (still sight unseen at this point) she is determined not to let these doubts surface in front of her younger daughter, Janice, friends and neighbours. Not a brilliant idea then when Clare organizes a party, inviting friends neighbours and relatives, to meet Mervyn. But Mervyn doesn’t show as it “meant leaving his mother on her own.” When Sarah finally brings Mervyn home to meet the family, Clare sets eyes on him and feels “dismay.” But she’s determined to put a brave face on it and focuses on the positive–but apart from the premature balding and not being very attractive, it’s Mervyn’s manner with Sarah that is disconcerting. He infantilizes and patronizes Sarah, and she responds with nauseating “faked idiocy.” Their relationship dynamic makes the age gap stand out in neon.

I began to feel uneasy. Was this to be the pattern of their married life: she acting the part of the silly little girl in order to feed his masculine vanity? Having–perhaps deliberately–chosen a woman so much younger than himself, was he now determined to make sure that she was also sillier?

While Clare has reservations about the match, her feelings become much more confused after meeting Mervyn’s mother:

Our eyes met: we weighed each other up, Mrs. Redmayne and I, like two generals on the eve of battle. On my side were young love, common sense, and popular psychology; on hers I could see nothing but the dank and cloying weapon of emotional blackmail. I thought that there could be only one outcome: I imagined, then, that popular psychology was always bound to win. I did not know, then, how strange would be the terrain over which we would be fighting; how I would soon be stumbling, blind and mapless, into a lurid, unimaginable landscape within which she would be dreadfully horribly, at home.

The plot thickens when Clare learns some ugly things about Mervyn’s past.

Clare is first and foremost a parent, and author Celia Fremlin places Clare firmly in the midst of other parents–all of them with problem children. Some parents brag how great their kids are, but in this book, the focus is the opposite. Clare’s friend Liz moans about her kids:

Not that it matters, when one of them never looks in the mirror at all, and the other spends the whole of her ample allowance on making herself look like the cheapest little tart that ever crawled out from under a hair dryer.

There’s talk of arranged marriages as a less-worrisome alternative to free choice, and then dowries enter the discussion with one mother concluding “there’s no one, now, whom you could pay to take your daughter away at eighteen.” One mother, Liz, had 3 brilliant sons, and she used to lord it over the other women in the neighborhood. Oh be careful who you step on on the way up–you’ll pass them on the way back down, and this is true of Liz whose sons all dropped out of school, all moved back home dragging along a caravan of itinerant girlfriends. Liz and her husband have been shoved into a corner of their own home as their unreasonable sons take over; she wistfully says “But when we used to swear we’d never interfere with the boys’ leading their own lives, it never occurred to us that they’d be leading them here!There’s a marvellous mischievous sense of humour here residing in “the Failed Parents’ Association.”

I knew why, of course, I was being welcomed back into the Failed Parents’ Association, in which poor Liz had been languishing for so long. I knew she would be delighted to have me; we are fond of each other, Liz and I, and she longs to tell me about her problems; but how could she while Sarah and Janice were doing so well and causing no trouble? But now, with Sarah newly jilted and Janice a black thundercloud of mysterious teen-age obstructiveness, she could seize her chance and tell me all about Giles, Pete and Tony. The borrowed money, the chucked jobs, the never-ending breakfast time that goes on in her kitchen like a Mad Hatter’s tea party throughout the daylight hours–all this could now be revealed without reserve; it could fairly be swapped for Sarah’s humiliation and Janice’s bad temper. I saw her point. Indeed–and this is the final, unmistakable sign of having joined the club once more– I felt the same myself. I longed for the comfort of her troubles just as she longed for the comfort of mine; within minutes, it was arranged that I should come straight around.

Celia Fremlin’s tremendous talent lies in her ability to take a mundane situation, a daughter bringing home a boyfriend the mother doesn’t like, and infuse it with horror. The very pedestrian nature of the Erskines’ life make the ‘Mervyn situation’ plausible. No doubt most of us have dealt with the boyfriend/girlfriend of various family members and we have to sit there smiling politely when we really just want to throttle them and throw them out the door. Children grow old enough to make their own choices: good or bad. How much should we intervene? And if we don’t intervene, we live with the shared consequences until we decide otherwise.

And yet it has a fascination of its own, this underworld of parenthood. You can confess to fellow members disasters which you would never dream of admitting to the outside world, and after a while you begin almost to feel, like a bizarre kind of elite with your own secrets, you own special rites and customs. You become adept at recognizing potential fellow sufferers in all sorts of places: in the street, at school medical inspections, at meetings of the parent-teacher association. There is a sort of brightness about these doomed people, an unnatural eagerness to talk about your children instead of their own. The apparently innocent questions they put to you vibrate like an electric drill as they probe desperately to find out if you, too, have Backward Reader or a delinquent fifth-former.

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Appointment with Yesterday: Celia Fremlin (1972)

“What happened to Milly was what happens to most people when they are confronted by mistakes or disasters too big to be borne; they let in the reality of it inch by inch, as it were, a little bit at a time, avoiding at all costs the full, total shock of it.”

Celia Fremlin’s suspense novel Appointment with Yesterday is packed with the author’s signature theme: the suffocation and claustrophobia of domestic life. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother who feels inadequate (nosy neighbours, nasty critical husband) but her biggest threat is the woman who rents a room in her home. Uncle Paul is the story of very different sisters who go on holiday together but find that the past catches up to their present. Listening in the Dusk is the story of a woman who takes a room in a third rate boarding house after being kicked to the curb by her husband. So that brings me to Appointment with Yesterday, my favourite of the lot so far. Yes, it’s definitely Celia Fremlin–here she’s in top form and … there’s humour.

The novel opens with a middle-aged woman who is on the run. Just what she is running from .. what and who … becomes apparent over the course of the book as hints slide into memories and flashbacks. At first the woman who, like a hunted animal, is so terrified she’s not rational, spends a day riding the Tube. She’s certain the police will be looking for her, so she fabricates a name, Milly Barnes. She has no possessions, no luggage, just a coat, and a handbag containing a little over 2 pounds. Eventually she calms down enough to make a decision of sorts; she takes the first bus that comes her way and ends up in the small coastal town of Seacliffe.

Milly’s survival instants kick in. Soon she’s rented a room in a drab boarding house and she starts cleaning houses–at least she can eat and pay the rent. Gradually over time, we learn Milly’s story. She was, at one point Candida Harris, a plump, plain little nurse who caught the eye of a “promising young house-surgeon,” good-looking egotistical Julian Waggett. Many nurses tried to get his attention, “wear[ing] their sober uniform[s] as if it were part of a striptease.” But Julian shocks the entire hospital community when he marries dumpy little Candida (aka Milly).

Milly, of course, knew why. She had known all along, but had no intention of allowing the knowledge to mar her joy and excitement over her extraordinary good fortune. She had known right from the start that what Julian wanted–nay, needed–was a wife who would serve as a foil for his own brilliance. A woman so retiring, so inconspicuous, that in contrast to her dullness his own wit, his own charm, would shine out with redoubled radiance. A woman who never, ever, in any circumstance, would draw attention away from him and on to herself.

Well it worked for a while, but as Julian goes up in the world, the poor dowdy little Mrs. can’t keep up with his glittering peacock image. Milly “had seen it coming.” It happened a lot “in their sort of circle.

The brilliant, ambitious husband rocketing his way to the top and discarding his dowdy, middle-aged wife en route, like a snake shedding its outworn skin in springtime. She’s met the wives, too, after the amputation was over: drab, dejected creatures moaning on and on about the meagerness of the alimony, and about ‘his’ ingratitude after all they had done and all they had sacrificed for him during the early years of struggle.

Milly is humiliated, of course, when she’s dumped for a young movie star, but not ready to be defeated, she marries again. The scenes of Milly’s new life in Seacliffe are splintered with memories of the tortured path that led to her panicked, desperate escape. Two young men who also live in the boarding house adopt Milly and their haphazard chaotic lives spill over into Milly’s terror-ridden loneliness. In Seacliffe, her first cleaning job is for a ridiculous, desperate, harried, upper middle class woman. The job is supposed to be cleaning, but the woman suddenly produces a baby, and dumps the neglected child into Milly’s care. Like Drums Along the Mohawk, word of Milly, a domestic savior, echoes around Seacliffe, and with dizzying speed, other women flock to poach Milly’s services. These harried wives frantically juggle the demands of their cluttered lives with appeasement of sulky, peevish spouses and each household has its own miserable pathology and chaos. It’s through these jobs, each which presents a window into a variety of unpleasant, tortured marriages, that Milly begins to put her own life, her own marriages, with the constant conditioning of appeasement, into perspective. Victimhood may be instant, but all too often it’s a slow process–confidence and courage slowly chipped away for weeks… years…. It’s through Milly’s views of various versions of dreadful home life that the humour appears:

Already she had sized up Mrs. Lane (or Phyllis, as she must remember to call her) as one of those employers who have at the back of their minds an imaginary dream-home: one which has no relation to the one they are actually living in, but which they believe –and continue to believe–will one day suddenly materialize if they only go on faithfully paying someone forty pence an hour, like sacrificing enough sheep at the temple of Athene. With an employer of this type, a Daily Help’s first task is to get as clear a picture of this imaginary dream-home as she possibly can, so that she can then make all her efforts tend in this direction, or at least appear to do so.

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Listening in the Dusk: Celia Fremlin

The novels of Celia Fremlin remind me of the intensely psychological crime books written by one of great favourites: Ruth Rendell. In The Hours Before Dawn, a young mother, overwhelmed by her new responsibilities, fails to see the danger close at hand. In Uncle Paul, the inescapable past catches up to three very different sisters. That brings me to Listening in the Dusk, a novel set in a third rate London boarding house, and here the psychological threat is the sensation of ever encroaching danger. Do the walls protect the tenants from the hunter who lurks outside?

I have a soft spot for novels set in boarding houses and hotels as the plots hold the promise of throwing characters together in settings which create relationships which would not exist in other circumstances. This is definitely true in Listening in the Dusk and the boarding house owned by the eccentric Mrs Harman–a woman with a penchant for taking in strays–not cats–stray human beings.

“You’ll like Hetty, Alice, she’s as kind as can be, as I expect you’ve discovered. She just loves people with problems. Do you have a problem, Alice? A real, juicy humdinger of a disaster? If so, you’re in!”

Alice, “a deserted wife, pushing forty,” arrives on Mrs. Harman’s doorstep. Mrs. Harman, “call me Hetty,” is an unconventional, haphazard landlady. Alice has no references and she’s desperate, so she moves in with just a suitcase and a set of Jane Austen novels, to the only space available–a bleak attic room which serves as a storage area for all the other tenants. Somehow, the room which is beyond substandard, seems a perfect place for Alice to heal from her husband’s unexpected betrayal. It matters little that the room is freezing, filthy and full of junk; to Alice it’s a refuge. Maybe the dump just matches her mood.

It had been a good marriage, despite being childless. Or maybe because of being childless, each of them having no one but the other to please. Over the years, they’d had lots of fun together as well as love; indeed, it was the memory of the fun, and the betrayal of it, that hurt even more than the betrayal of love. She felt that she could perhaps have forgiven Rodney’s loving another woman; it was the drying-up of intimate, long-standing jokes that hurt most; the blank uncomprehending stare with which he began to greet her amusing little anecdotes that would once have sent them into fits of shared laughter. This was the real betrayal.

Thanks to Hetty’s unconventional arrangements, Alice finds herself mingling with the other tenants–all other strays in one way or another, all damaged people. But perhaps the biggest puzzle is Mary, a young girl who fends off all attempts at friendship, and who can seem downright hostile when approached.

The novel’s setting and characters are marvelously done. The serial killer aspect was a tad too dramatic for my tastes and the other two Fremlin novels I read, also Women in Peril tales, focused on fear and paranoia. Serial killers within crime novels up-the-stakes and take crime to another level. Still I enjoyed Listening in the Dusk, but it ranks at the bottom of the 3 read so far. If you like Ruth Rendell, and you haven’t tried Celia Fremlin, what are you waiting for?

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The Hours Before Dawn: Celia Fremlin (1958)

Celia Fremlin’s Uncle Paul explores the relationships between sisters, a past crime and a threat in the present. The Hours Before Dawn is the story of a young mother, Louise Henderson, who is so overwhelmed by motherhood, nosy, nasty neighbours, and a critical husband that she ignores the warning signs about her new tenant.

the hours before dawn

Louise has two little girls and a baby boy named Michael. The novel opens with Louise saying:

I’d give ANYTHING-anything-for a night’s sleep.

Louise is so sleep deprived that she even nods off in the waiting room before the baby’s checkup. She tries to tell the nurse that she can’t get the baby to sleep at night; she’s probably hoping for advice, but all she gets is a disinterested, patronizing woman who doesn’t want to hear complaints.

And the patience in Nurse Fordham’s voice was like the swell of the sea, in which a thousand boats can sink unnoticed.

“You see, Mrs. Henderson,” she was explaining, choosing her words carefully, as if Louise could understand human speech little better than the writhing baby in her arms–“you see, as I’m always telling you mothers, you mustn’t worry. He’s gaining splendidly–

Poor Louise. Her husband, Mark, comes home expecting cooked meals (including cooked lunches) and a clean calm house. It doesn’t occur to him to pitch in and instead he complains constantly telling her to keep the children quiet. One of the neighbours hints that she might take her concerns about Louise’s capability as a mother further, and Mark’s mother makes it clear she’s not lending a hand. According to Louise’s mother-in-law, “the most wonderful moment in a woman’s life is when her last child clears off and leaves her free.”

Amidst all the domestic chaos, the sleepless nights, and a husband who acts like the kids are nothing to do with him (I wanted to smack him upside the head), Louise rents out a spare room to a single woman. The new tenant is a schoolteacher named Vera Brandon. It occurs to Louise that there’s something off about Vera Brandon. She’s a little too old and successful to be renting a room, “not at all the sort of person whom one would expect to choose for her home an inconvenient, ill-equipped attic in someone else’s house.” Why would anyone want to rent a room in a house when the baby cries and fusses all night long–especially if the prospective tenant has options? While the warning signs flash in the periphery of Louise’s brain, she’s overwhelmed, living in perpetual distraction and exhaustion so doesn’t act on her instinct.

This is a domestic crime novel published in 1958 long before the genre became popular. While some novels rely on glamour to whip up the plot, The Hours Before Dawn (the title makes me think of an execution) concentrates on Louise’s life and her isolation in domestic hell. The claustrophobic nature of the plot is alleviated with humour–mostly found in the other characters who either commiserate with Louise or condemn her. She forms a relationship (and I’m using the term loosely here ) with another  mother, the delinquent Mrs Hooper. Mrs Hooper, who believes in letting her children be ‘independent,’  frequently dumps her neglected children (Christine and Tony) on Louise, and Louise can’t say ‘no.’ Louise finds that she likes Mrs. Hooper but can’t quite articulate why.

“Hullo-I thought you were in such a hurry to get to your pottery class,” remarked Louise. “Look-can you get your pram out first? No, -Turn it a bit sideways-that’s right.”

A violent jolt form her mother’s rather heavy-handed manoeuvres sent Christine’s cauliflower bouncing on to the gravel, and her shrill, peevish wail silenced further conversation until the cauliflower, rather battered by now, had been restored.

“I always think that’s such a natural way for them to get their vitamins,” beamed Mrs Hooper, as a muddy, mangled bit of stalk dangled from Christine’s mouth on to her knitted jacket. “She got it all by herself. you know, out of the end of the pram. When Tony was a baby, I always used to let him help himself to the shopping on the way home. I remember once he got hold of a mutton chop. Raw. People were terribly shocked,” she added wistfully, with the far-way look of one recalling past triumphs. 

The novel is its strongest in the depth of the domestic details of Louise’s life as she tries to cope with constant criticism, no help and very little sleep. The crime element of the plot is not shabby either–after all we’ve all read stories of similar sorts of things happening. But it’s the claustrophobia and Louise’s desperation that rings true here.

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Uncle Paul: Celia Fremlin (1959)

Three sisters under pressure and the vagaries of love and marriage are under examination in Celia Fremlin’s novel, Uncle Paul. Meg is the main character here, and when the novel opens, she receives a telegram from her sister Isabel regarding their older half-sister, Mildred. Isabel is on holiday in Southcliffe with her new-ish husband and her sons from a previous marriage. Mildred, the most troubled sister of the three, is also on holiday, but in Mildred’s case, she’s left her current husband (yet again) and Isabel is worried.

Uncle paul

So it’s Meg to the rescue, but first she asks for advice from her boyfriend Freddie (an Oscar Wilde-ish character who lounges around in a scarlet silk dressing gown and who is the book’s greatest character):

“Quarrel with them,” came the instructions down the wire, decisively. “It’s the only way with families. Quarrel with them now, while you’re still young. If you leave it till you’re older, you’ll find that you owe them all so much money that you can’t afford to. So quarrel, girl, quarrel for your life! And then come round and have a drink. In about half an hour.”

Meg packs up and goes to join Isabel at the seaside. Isabel and her sons are holed up in the grotty family caravan, and Isabel’s hubbie…. well he’s nowhere in sight.

As for Mildred, she booked a holiday rental, a remote cottage which happens to be the same place she stayed 15 years earlier on her honeymoon with Uncle Paul. But the honeymoon went horribly wrong. Paul went to prison, and Mildred went on with her life. Staying at the cottage again brings back painful memories for Mildred, but there’s something else afoot. Has Paul returned and does he seek revenge?

Uncle Paul is a slow burn novel with fear, suspicion and hysteria built slowly, so don’t expect a page-turner. Meg is the sensible, most solid sister, Isabel is scattered and nervous, and Mildred, with her tendency towards drama and self-involvement, is the most unstable of the three. At first, Meg dismisses Mildred’s concerns as yet another play for attention, but after spending a night in the cottage, Meg has cause for alarm.

Author Celia Fremlin juxtaposes the simple, sometimes tedious activities of the day (sitting in the hotel with other guests and playing on the sand with the children) with the nameless fear that awaits in the night. The plot emphasizes how suspicion can undermine even the strongest bonds, and that concern can easily grow into hysteria. There are so many weird things going on in the lives of these sisters; Isabel seems overly anxious about her husband’s imminent arrival, and Meg even begins to question who Freddie really is.

Uncle Paul, a Woman in Peril novel, is a precursor to the extremely popular Domestic Thrillers of today–the books where wives start to question who their husbands really are. Uncle Paul’s strength is its characterizations. I was impressed by how women dominant this story, and how the men, for the most part, are almost entirely absent. There’s some wonderful humour here especially when author Celia Fremlin dabbles with hotel life, the precocious child Cedric and the dapper Captain Cockerill.

I’ll be reading more from this author.

Review copy.

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Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction ed. by Sarah Weinman

With the title Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives: Stories from the Trailblazers of Domestic Fiction, how could I pass up reading this collection of 14 stories? And here’s the line-up:

  • Patricia Highsmith: The Heroine
  • Nedra Tyre: A Nice Place to Stay
  • Shirley Jackson: Louisa, Please Come Home
  • Barbara Callahan: Lavender Lady
  • Vera Caspary: Sugar and Spice
  • Helen Neilsen: Don’t Sit Under the Apple Tree
  • Dorothy Hughes: Everybody Needs a Mink
  • Joyce Harrington: The Purple Shroud
  • Elizabeth Sanxay Holding: The Stranger in the Car
  • Charlotte Armstrong: The Splintered Monday
  • Dorothy Salisbury Davis: Lost Generation
  • Margaret Millar: The People Across the Canyon
  • Miriam Allen Deford: Mortmain
  • Celia Fremlin: A Case of Maximum Need

Some of the names were familiar thanks to previous reading: Shirley Jackson, Patricia Highsmith (Strangers on a Train, A Suspension of Mercy , The Cry of the Owl as well as a couple of short story collections) Vera Caspary (Bedelia, Laura, The Secrets of Grown-ups) and Dorothy Hughes (The Expendable Man, Ride the Pink Horse. I’d also heard of, and been meaning to read Celia Fremlin, Charlotte Armstrong, Elizabeth Sanxay Holding, Helen Neilsen, Margaret Millar (who seems to have faded from view while her husband Ross Macdonald remains widely read). Unknowns were: Miriam Allen Deford, Nedra Tyre, Barbara Callahan, Joyce Harrington, and Dorothy Salisbury Davis. After reading the line-up, I knew I’d come away pleased to meet some old friends and delighted to find new names to explore. My expectations were fulfilled–although oddly enough, I was disappointed in the Highsmith story which was rather predictable, and the Dorothy Hughes story which fell flat.

Troubled DaughtersBut onward…

The gem of the collection here, and why am I not surprised, belongs to the Divine Vera Caspary. Yes, Sugar and Spice is a wonderful tale–either a long short story or a novella–it’s hard to tell on the kindle. This is a story within a story which opens with a California woman named Lissa who has a visitor one Sunday afternoon named Mike Jordan. He asks to put through a long-distance call to New York, and when he returns from making the call he asks Lissa if she would like to know who murdered the famous actor, box-office heartthrob, Gilbert Jones. This is an  unsolved murder, so naturally Lissa wants to know the answer, and Mike tells his tale which goes back several decades. In his youth, Mike made the acquaintance of two cousins–the very beautiful but very poor Phyllis, and the very plump, unattractive but very rich Nancy. These two girls grew up in bitter rivalry, and just how this rivalry plays out creates a tale of jealousy and revenge with Nancy and Phyllis fighting over the same man on more than one occasion. Phyllis, elegant, cool and slim looks beautiful no matter how poorly she’s dressed, and little fat Nancy wears the most expensive designer creations and always manages to look like a stale, overstuffed cupcake. This story would have made a great film, but that’s not too surprising given how many story treatments, screenplays and various adaptations Vera Caspary penned for the big screen.

Another favourite for this reader is “Louisa, Please Come Home.” This is the story of a young woman who flees her affluent home on the eve of her sister’s wedding. Is she motivated by fear, a desire for independence or is this simply an attempt to upstage her sister? I kept waiting for the motivation to be revealed, but author Shirley Jackson doesn’t take the stereotypical approach here, and instead the ending, which leaves more questions than answers, is deeply unsettling. Here’s Louisa, at a distance, keeping an eye on her disappearance through the newspaper stories:

I followed everything in the papers. Mrs. Peacock and I used to read them at the breakfast table over our second cup of coffee before I went off to work.

“What do you think about this girl who disappeared over in Rockville?” Mrs. Peacock would say to me, and I’d shake my head sorrowfully and say that a girl must be really crazy to leave a handsome, luxurious home like that, or that I had kind of a notion that maybe she didn’t leave at all–maybe the family had her locked up somewhere because she was a homicidal maniac. Mrs. Peacock always loved anything about homicidal maniacs.

Sarah Weinman’s introduction addresses the history of Domestic fiction, some of the best known names in the field, and the contribution to crime fiction by female authors. The stories in this collection address the rot within the domestic environment and also examines assaults against domestic security, so one story includes the Nanny from Hell while another story includes a nurse who simply can’t wait for her patient to die. We see women as victims, women as perps, women fighting over men, and while there are a number of deranged and damaged females in these pages, underneath the collection lies the unasked question: what happened to these women? Have they been damaged/driven to the point of insanity due to the constrictive roles handed to them by society? It’s an unsettling thought. In Elizabeth Sanxay Holding’s excellent story, Stranger in the  Car, family patriarch, the very wealthy Carrol Charleroy, a man who imagines that he is ‘in charge’ of his household, discovers the hard way that he’s ‘managed’ by the women in his life, and he’s about to learn that he really knows nothing at all about these women–women he’s known for years. And finally, I have to mention Celia Fremlin’s wickedly nasty story A Case of Maximum Need, the story of an old lady who gets a phone installed in her apartment by a do-gooder who has no idea what she is dealing with. I particularly liked this story as I knew a woman in her 80s who masqueraded as a 29 year-old-woman in many internet courtship relationships with young males. I wonder what Celia Fremlin would make of that? Anyway, there’s a good range here, and this volume is especially recommended for those, like me, who’d like to discover some ‘new’ writers. It’s nice to see some of these names resurrected from obscurity.

Review copy

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Filed under Caspary Vera, Fiction, Fremlin Celia, Highsmith Patricia, Hughes Dorothy B., Jackson Shirley, Millar Margaret, Neilsen Helen, Sanxay Holding Elizabeth