Category Archives: McShane Mark

Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street by Mark McShane

Fresh from reading Australian author Mark McShane’s novel Séance on a Wet Afternoon, I tracked down a copy of Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. This novel sets three very different characters on a collision course that will change their lives, and it reminded me of the work of Muriel Spark for the decidedly nasty edge to its humour.

The novel begins with Tom Brady, a shabby former Londoner and a rather disreputable character who now lives in Sydney. Tom has a checkered past which includes a long-distant stint as a policeman, but it’s been downhill from there. His last job as a night watchman ended 5 months before when he was caught sleeping. Now unemployed, he hangs about in the shops and watches people as a way to pass his time. Tom was married once:

love came into the life of Tom Brady. Or at any rate, during a period of indigence wherein he was unable to make his fortnightly visit to a King’s Cross prostitute, he met a girl from Brisbane who was game for anything, even marriage. They married and lived rather drearily in small furnished flats. The children which might have held them together did not come. They drifted apart without rancour, she returning to Brisbane, living with another man and bearing three children, of the last of which she died. The whole marital episode concerned Tom less than a change in jobs.

While Tom dawdles on the streets of Sydney, he runs into Jack Partridge, an affluent man who owns a profitable motorcycle repair shop. In just one second, Tom recognises Jack as a man he saw at the scene of a brutal murder that took place in London 30 years before.

Jack Partridge, unlike Tom Brady, has aged very well. Perhaps this is partially due to clean living and a lifetime of established good habits. Perhaps it’s also due to his affluence. So while Tom and Jack would seem to be opposites in many ways, Jack also has a strange approach to matrimony. He married the boss’s daughter, Mildred–a woman he did not love–who was the practical choice at the time.

So after setting up this initial brief, wordless encounter of recognition, author Mark McShane introduces his third main character, the delightful Janet Tree, a WWII widow who owns and operates a boarding house on Dimple Hill right opposite Jack Partridge’s home. And it’s to Mrs. Tree’s house that Tom Brady moves to in order to spy on Jack Partridge….

In order to supplement her widow’s pension and the income from her boarders, Mrs Tree engages in something she calls “free shopping,” and she plans her days around shoplifting excursions and trips to a local fence to sell her “unwanted birthday presents.” Here she is scoping out the first take of the day:

Mrs Tree turned into a covered arcade of shops, a window-sided tunnel full of the clattering and echoing of the feet on its tile floor. A number of shops were fronted by tables that held special bargains, which is to say, soiled articles that refused to move unless glamourized by the bargain mystique.

By one of these table Janet Tree stopped. A little hors d’oeuvre? she mused.

At the front were evening purses priced at three dollars, the foremost a packing-bloated skin of white sequins, like a pig in tight drag. Janet looked through the store window. There were two salesgirls, neither watching, one was busy applying make-up, the other stared at herself insolently in a mirror.

Forty-two-year-old Mrs. Tree is a nervous, high-strung woman. Plagued with fears that her knickers will fall down in public, she pins them firmly “fore and aft with large safety pins.” This irrational paranoia is of course part of her sexual repression, so along with the details of her throughly secure underwear are insights into her life–a life that would appear to be the epitome of boring, sterile respectability: an immaculate home and a horror of bodily functions. But then there’s her secret life and just what is her relationship with her fence, Mr. Becker? Does the private afternoon tea behind closed shutters lead to anything else?

Perhaps by this point, you can see the connection to Muriel Spark. Mrs. Tree could have stepped out of one of Spark’s novels and found herself in Mark McShane’s Ill Met by a Fish Shop on George Street. Of course the boarding house connection helps. So the story is set in motion through a chance encounter on the streets of Sydney, and now the rest of the story plays out through its three main characters. Part of the story takes us back into Partridge’s past and his poisonous relationship with a rapacious, cruel femme fatale.

Apart from the denouement which I found a little unrealistic, I throughly enjoyed the book, loved the set-up and the three well-drawn main characters. Opportunistic former policeman Tom Brady and seemingly respectable widow Mrs Tree align against poor Partridge, and he’s arguably just as much a victim as he was 30 years before.

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McShane Mark

Séance on a Wet Afternoon by Mark McShane

“Myra was a sensitive, a medium, a para-normal. And a genuine one; she believed in what she did. She was a rarity among those of her profession, in that she didn’t have the usual curtained cabinet, or use trumpets, tambourines, guitars or any of the trappings synonymous with spiritualism; at her séances there were no table-movings, or raps or materializations; she didn’t even have a spirit control. But she understood why many sensitives, even highly gifted ones, employed all the fancywork; the public wanted a show, and even a medium has to live. But Myra couldn’t stoop to it, though she was sure that these manifestations sometimes had supranormal causation. She wanted no hint of charlatanism connected to her work. It was sacred to her.”

 Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a middle-aged British psychic named Myra Savage who longs to be famous in her field. She holds séances three times a week in her modest home, and while these séances grant a “bare living” for Myra and her pliable husband, Bill, money is not the motivating force behind her desire for fame. Rather, she longs to become “established as a sensitive of the first order.” Although Myra holds séances, she doesn’t believe that she communicates with the dead. Instead she relies on her powers of telepathy–several instances of this are revealed over the course of the book, and she also believes in the existence of discarnate spirits. Once Myra becomes famous and respected in her field, she fully expects to be embraced by the other “sensitives” and perhaps cross “the bourne of nature.” Finally, she wishes to develop a relationship with an older para-normal, “one almost ready for the journey beyond the veil,” so that she may then later have an “entity” to contact “on the other side.” Whether or not readers share, or partially share Myra’s beliefs is really beside the point because that’s not the issue here. Instead the novel concerns a woman who’s prepared to go to extraordinary lengths to get what she wants:  she’s about to commit a criminal act in order to achieve her goals.

When the story opens, Myra has concocted a plan that will make her famous, and for that plan, she pressures her asthmatic husband into becoming her accomplice. The plan is to kidnap a child of wealthy parents, issue a ransom note and for Myra to then make an appearance on the scene and announce the location of the child–through her psychic powers–to the worried parents, the press and to the police. According to Myra, this will catapult her to psychic success. And here’s the curious thing about Myra–while she refuses to “stoop” to cheap tricks in order to enhance her professional image, she’s perfectly ok, morally, with kidnapping a child and thus manufacturing an event that will supposedly reveal her psychic powers:

The fact that her reputation would rest on a fraud didn’t disturb her. It was cheating for an honourable end.

Myra’s intensity (bordering on fanaticism) combined with her twisted morality have made her a dangerous person. There are no limits to her burning desire for psychic fame, and on her own perhaps Myra would spin endless fantasies that die a natural death, but she browbeats her husband into becoming her accomplice and then she’s unleashed….

Séance on a Wet Afternoon is a fascinating, unique read. Myra ultimately settles on crime as the solution for her desire for fame–just as bank robbers are driven to make the one ‘big score.’ In this sense, Myra isn’t so different from all the other people who dwell on their fantasies and then decide to take action to make those fantasies into reality through a criminal act.

On another level, Séance on a Wet Afternoon is the story of a marriage, and as the story plays out, it’s clear that Bill and Myra, pathetic people individually, make a toxic combination. With a husband, who was less complacent, Myra would be de-fanged; Bill, who’s clearly afraid to refuse Myra’s demands, empowers her insane ambitions, and make no mistake, Myra is insane. As the chapters unfold, Myra’s history is gradually revealed along with the significant psychic events of her youth and her past employment as a conjurer’s assistant, a clairvoyant’s aid, and a mind-reader’s assistant. It’s the introduction of the six-year-old kidnapped child into Myra and Bill’s household that highlights the true pathological nature of their marriage and their twisted thinking, for to Myra, the child is merely a means to an end–an object who exists to fulfill her greatest ambition.

While Myra is supremely confident about her plan, Bill is increasingly nervous and troubled, and here’s his twisted moral justification for the kidnapping diluted down from Myra’s arguments:

He hadn’t been able to concentrate, on anything, since the conception of the Plan. There was always a little worry nagging at the back of his mind. It wasn’t the implementation itself; he’d done the first of the two major jobs scheduled, and was so pleased with the way he’d succeeded that the fear of doing the second had been reduced; the rest was up to his wife. It wasn’t the rights and the wrongs of the scheme now;  although he had never in his life knowingly done a wrong thing, he condoned the illegal act because Myra said it was a means to an end that would benefit mankind, and he believed what Myra said; she also said it was only technically illegal, since they had no intentions of keeping the money and the child would be returned safely; she conceded that it was in a way morally wrong to abduct a child, but it was only for three or four days, and there was no question of ill-treatment; it was almost like a little holiday. 

For film fans, Séance on a Wet Afternoon was made into an incredible film directed by Bryan Forbes and starring Richard Attenborough and Kim Stanley.

Review copy courtesy of the publisher, Mysterious Press, via Open Road Media. Read on the kindle.

14 Comments

Filed under Fiction, McShane Mark