Susie Steiner’s Missing Presumed is the first Manon Bradshaw novel (1 of 3) and since the author died this year at age 51 from brain cancer, there will be no more.
The crime under investigation is the disappearance of Emily Hind, a 24-year-old post graduate student from a privileged background, who vanished from her home. Emily lived with her good-looking boyfriend, Will, and he returned to their home to find her gone, some blood on the floor and two used wineglasses. Since Emily is missing, we get various views of what sort of person she was, and the views offer a range of opinions about Emily. There’s Helena, aka the limpet, Emily’s friend, a slightly sleazy older male fellow student who has a sour view of Emily’s privileged social posturing, and Emily’s ‘perfect’ and perfectly boring boyfriend, Will Carter. As time passes with no news of Emily, details about Emily’s private life float to the surface. Emily is the daughter of Sir Ian Hind (Dr to the stars royals) and his wife, Miriam. Her father resents the media coverage of Emily’s relationships and uses his connections to try to control the narrative about his daughter’s life.
As always with police procedurals we see the lives of the detectives handling the case. DS Manon Bradshaw is working the case along with several other officers. There’s Davy, always upbeat who has an unpleasant girlfriend and also a strong interest in foster kids. DI Harriet Harper, in charge of the case, must juggle the intricacies of the investigation against keeping her superiors happy.
Police Procedurals are my least favourite type of crime novel but I thoroughly enjoyed this. Police work is presented as a hard, unglamorous slog with not enough sleep for those on the case and not enough time to have much of a private life. The main player here is Manon, who at age 39, throws herself into internet dating with depressingly similar results. She has a best friend who is married with kids and Manon feels that life has passed her by. While Manon is devoted to her career, she “remained a DS because if you were smart, you realised things didn’t get better when you climbed the ranks.” Most of the officers we see have failed at relationships (even the ones who are supposedly happily married) and so they plough into the one thing they are fairly good at: police work.
In Prisoner’s Base, author Celia Fremlin creates another hellish domestic environment which involves three generations. Grandmother Margaret owns a large home on land, and her married daughter, Claudia lives there too along with Margaret’s mostly absent son-in-law, and Claudia’s daughter, teenager, Helen. Claudia, known for her interest in strays (humans, not animals) brings a series of damaged people to stay in Margaret’s house. It is easy to describe Claudia’s interest in these strays as charitable, or even misguided, but Claudia’s fascination with damaged people is far more complicated. She loves to psycho-analyze, but there’s more to it than that; housing these strays inflates Margaret’s massive ego, sense of self-importance and righteousness. Margaret loves the vision of herself being generous, high-minded, and tolerant. But also these acts of charity, which appear to claim the moral high ground, seemed designed to feed hostility between Claudia and her mother, Margaret. There are frequent “Claudia-isms” “typical manoeuvre [s] to belittle and undermine” her mother whenever a point of dispute erupts. One Claudia-ism is to impute her mother’s opinions to the narrowmindedness of her generation. Another is to imply that any difference of opinion between mother and daughter is a sign of Margaret’s mental decline.
Claudia’s latest stray is the neurotic Mavis, who has been living with them for the past 5 months. Mavis, a little mouse of a woman who wanders around in her dressing gown has, according to Claudia, an “inferiority complex,” but with her self-effacing ways, she manages to ruin Margaret’s day by continually invading her privacy. Oh the delicate people of this world who must be handled like bone china.. . in case they break.
If she’d stolen ten shillings out of your handbag every day at one o’clock you could have had her put in prison, reflected Margaret sourly, and yet you had to stand by, helpless, while she stole one by one, far more than ten shillings worth of happy hours of solitude.
Claudia thinks Margaret should be grateful to have Mavis for company. So why doesn’t Margaret just tell Claudia that this is her house, that she won’t tolerate any more unwanted guests? The answer is that Claudia claims Margaret is small-minded and selfish and then again Claudia seems to be so good with these damaged souls which causes Margaret self-doubt. Margaret makes the error of questioning the validity of her own feelings and so she can never tell Claudia where to shove it. Claudia’s impositions are just part of an elaborate psychological game between Claudia and Margaret–Claudia with the moral superiority and Margaret painted, by her daughter, as selfish and dotty.
Claudia had always been an adept at putting you in the wrong before you had so much as opened your mouth; Margaret had been waiting for her to grow out of this unlovable talent ever since she was thirteen; but she never had. Indeed, she was getting better at it, and now, at nearly forty, she could switch off the family arguments before they began at all; like turning off the water at the main in some depressing outhouse to which she alone had access.
Problems in Margaret’s household erupt in two ways: First, Margaret discovers that Claudia is trying to sell the field (owned by Margaret) and is having it appraised:
“Now, don’t panic, Mother. Just relax. Why is it that women of your generation always have to be so tense? Naturally, the field has to be valued; and to be valued it has to be looked at. Doesn’t it? Surely that’s common sense? They have to send a man along. To look at it.” Claudia was emphasising the simplest of the one-syllable words as if she was hoping that these, at least, might come within the range of her mother’s intelligence.
Margaret is battling Claudia’s bullying attempts to sell when Claudia takes in a new stray. This one, Maurice, is an ex-con–possibly even a murderer, and Claudia is determined to bag this trophy after he pops up at the local poetry group. She brings him home to dear old mum. Even Mavis, who is Claudia’s sycophant, is disturbed by Maurice’s presence in the house. Convinced that Maurice is going to sneak into her room, it’s more than her nerves can handle. Claudia, ever a armchair voyeur, loves to hear about Maurice’s criminal exploits, but he’d rather she type up his 100s and 100s of dreary poems. The household becomes a simmering stewpot of resentments, fears and suppressed rage. So of course, something violent is going to occur. Prisoner’s Base is my favourite Fremlin novel so far. The dynamic between Claudia and Margaret is brilliantly drawn. For this reader, the relationship between mother and daughter was bitter and all-too real. On the surface, they coexist and are cordial, yet under the familial membrane are festering skirmishes. Fremlin creates a very a credible hell of everyday domestic nastiness, dominance and unhealthy relationships.
“The magazines just showed how everyone wished it could be.”
Celia Dale’s brilliant novel, The Innocent Party, explores the life of Linda Dalton, the only child of travelling salesman, Den, and his wife, Vera. With Vera “against outsiders,” and disliking her neighbours, Linda doesn’t have close friends. At school she “ran on the edge of the herd.” The Daltons live in a messy high rise London flat, and Linda waits for the days when her father returns home from his trips. Vera, however, clearly dreads the return of her husband. When Den is gone, which is about half the time, Vera’s mother, the widowed, pragmatic Nanna visits a lot, but when Den comes home, everything changes. It’s as though the flat shrinks:
There had to be more food, more solid, and so more crockery and pans, more time cooking it. His voice was louder, he sang as he shaved and squirted deodorant into his hairy armpits, slapped after-shave on his chin and examined himself for jowls and blackheads. He bought the evening papers to see the results and left them stuffed into the corners of the settee, He smacked Mum’s behind, tweaked her tits, took her out to the pictures, the pub, the Club on Saturday evenings, bought her black underwear, lay in Sundays, thrashed and snored and groaned through the wall into Linda’s sleep, drank three cups of tea in the morning and left a smell in the toilet.
Den always makes a fuss of Linda his “Buttercup,” and she’s in “rapture” when he arrives home. While she worships her father, Linda has a problematic relationship with her mother. Without understanding the deeper ramifications and causes of the chasm between her parents, Linda learns to work the marital discord to her advantage. Yet at the same time, Linda is an unwitting pawn in sexual politics.
Linda watched Mum growing more irritable, smoking more, her face peaked. Dad, who started the week his usual cheerful self, soon grew sour too, coming home from work and giving Mum a hug but being pushed off, answered crossly; so he would turn to Linda, cuddle her to him, let her sit on his lap although they knew Mum didn’t like it, say “Here’s someone who’s glad to see me anyway,” call her his girl, his Lindylou, Cindy-lindy, tickle her and tease her, holding her wrists while she tried to tickle him back as she wriggled and giggled on his hard lap, helpless and hot and doting, till Mum at last would say sharply “That’s enough of that” and take her arm and pull her off quite roughly and he would let her go, just staying there in the chair all spread out and laughing and look up at Mum in a way that made Linda sense their romping had been used for something else.
While the novel is written in the third person, we see things mainly from Linda’s point of view. It’s a limited view as, when the novel opens, Linda is 11, but she’s all too aware that a world of violence exists outside of her front door. But what if the violence is in their home too?
Underneath the plot runs a rancid river of sexuality: Den who is “only human,” constantly bullies his wife into sex, and Vera isn’t allowed to refuse. The only girl at school Linda talks to, Marilyn, openly talks about her abusive father who demands sex from his wife post beatings. Girls at school are “in the club,” “the boys wheeled and bellowed like young bulls.” Linda is 11 and doesn’t fully understand the violence that can accompany sex, but she witnesses it and absorbs it nonetheless. She plays with sexual power without being cognizant of the ramifications. Linda is, at first at least, the ‘innocent party,’ but as she grows up with awful knowledge about her parents, her relationship with her father is increasingly warped. Celia Dale weaves a powerful, dark tale, and cleverly allows the reader slivers of adult reality–the reality that Linda doesn’t understand. This is the best Celia Dale novel I’ve read so far.
After reading The Colour of Murder , I knew I had to read more Julian Symons. The Colour of Murder is an excellent crime novel: the story of a man who decides to murder his wife. She is, after all, in the way, damn it. While the basic premise is hardly new, in this author’s hands, the book is a delight. So now onto Something Like a Love Affair.
Middle-aged Judith Lassiter is married to architect, Victor. They have no children (more of that later) and live in a pretentious bungalow called Green Diamonds, which Victor designed. Victor runs his father’s company and expects to inherit it after his father’s death. In the meantime, Victor is very involved with local political business–especially town planning and new construction. Judith, who has suffered a nervous breakdown and is on pills to keep her calm, has endured family tragedy and the loss of a baby, but there are other shady doings in her past too. Perhaps this is why she sometimes “felt like two people.” There’s the Judith who is the perfect wife, preparing Victor’s breakfast of oven-warmed croissants daily, just the way he likes them, and the other Judith, “Judith alone,” obsessed with a murder-for-hire case, who observes the efficient preparations of this perfect little vanilla housewife. So there’s a process of disassociation afoot.
The Lassiters have been married for 15 years, but they have had separate bedrooms for 7. Their day-to-day relationship remains superficial. The marriage lacks sex and excitement, but it’s more than that; there’s obviously something wrong under the surface, and Judith has begun sending herself passionate love letters. She even puts the letters on the breakfast table right in front of Victor, but he never asks her about these letters. Sending oneself passionate love letters which arrive in front of one’s husband seems peculiar, or “crackers” as Judith puts it, but it’s really more than that. It’s a step towards acknowledging her desires and also a provocation. Judith writes these letter, posts them and receives them predicting, accurately, her husband’s response. It’s a test. What if she had a real affair?
Victor is a weird one. He never loses his temper and is quite jocular. He’s the sort of character who has this salesman persona, and uses it on everyone–Judith included. Since this persona is just a veneer of whatever is underneath, you can’t help but wonder just who or what the real Victor is.
The unsparing eye of Judith alone might have discerned a man a little under the proper size, no taller than herself, wonderfully neat, dapper, almost always cheerful, unable to pass a looking glass without regarding himself, forever passing a hand through his thick mouse-coloured hair, or touching the streak of his moustache as if to assure himself he was still there. That was the outer man. What would Judith say about the inner one? Nothing at all, for she would be unsure whether such a man existed. Then in a moment, as darkness cancels the picture on a television at the touch of a switch, those thoughts vanished, were replaced by the actuality of the man who sat opposite her across the breakfast table, the man whose life was linked to hers.
To outsiders, prosperous Victor and colourless Judith probably seem boring, and yet a couple of people notice that there is more to Judith than meets the eye. She seems very protected, cosseted, and naïve, but this isn’t the real Judith at all. The Judith who cleans and cooks, the Judith who is the perfect housewife is just off somehow. She’s never fully present. Debbie, the libidinous wife of one of Victor’s associates chums up with Judith and suggests that Judith should have a casual affair, and to help that process along, she enrolls Judith in a driving refresher course which comes with a hunky young driving instructor. Then there’s sexually aggressive policeman Jack Craxton who makes it clear he wants to tango with Judith. A secretive husband and an unhappy wife, add to this murder, and you get more than a touch of Blanche DuBois. If you can’t tell, I loved this one.
34-year-old Ellen Fortescue isn’t a quitter. She has been engaged for seven long years to Leonard, an accountant who says they can’t marry yet as he has to support his elderly step-mother, Laura. The long engagement has killed any romance, if there was any to begin with. Leonard is the type who loves to deliver patronising lectures, so he always assumes a position of superiority. Perhaps he was subtler 7 years ago, but now Leonard is insufferable. Even Ellen, who has a tendency to doubt herself and feel inadequate, begins to wonder if she wants to marry Leonard. Not that it’s a pressing question.
Ellen knew that every passing year was making it more and more necessary that the wait should have been worth while.
When Seven Lean Years opens, Ellen is the landlady ‘managing’ the various flats in her father’s sprawling home. She left her job a year before and moved in with her father when his health faltered. In order to make ends meet, she began renting out some of the rooms, but this has had spotty success. One of the tenants is Ellen’s cousin Melissa, plus her husband and 2 children There’s also Mrs. Hammond, who on one hand is very tolerant and easy going, but lackadaisical when it comes to her share of the stair cleaning. A married couple, the Butlers are ideal, they are quiet, neat and keep to a strict schedule, but if the schedule (which includes sharing a kitchen is threatened, it’s Ellen’s job to sort it.
They were all of them good tenants; but good, reflected Ellen gloomily, in such dreadfully incompatible ways.
Ellen’s already disordered life becomes more complicated with the return of Leonard’s step-mother Laura. The nursing home in which she lives is closing, and so Leonard takes Laura to his home, temporarily.
The relationships between the characters in the novel are tangled: Ellen’s father, Dick, was married to Laura at one point but left her to marry Ellen’s mother. Laura married a widowed neighbour and inherited Leonard as a stepson. Now Ellen and Leonard are engaged… Yes it’s messy. Laura swore revenge on Dick when he divorced her, and Leonard is convinced that if given half the chance, Laura will keep her promise. Yet Laura seems quite batty, floating in and out of her childhood memories.
Ellen is a problematic character. She’s passive and dumped on by everyone–her father, the tenants, her ridiculous fiancé and even the local builder who supposedly repaired the still-leaky roof. This makes her a difficult character as she is continually acted upon, screwed over and lectured, so much so that I found the book a frustrating read. The psychological aspects of the Ellen/Leonard relationship were interesting, but Ellen is too much of a doormat, at least for this reader. Some people choose to be victims, and this goes a long way to explaining Ellen’s passiveness. Her sudden, final revelations seem hard to believe, given her actions and choices.
Celia Fremlin’s not entirely convincing crime novel, The Echoing Stones, is the tale of Arnold Walter, a man who, at age 61, decides to take early retirement after 40 years spent in a local government accounts department. There’s the sense that Arnold, who probably never did an unpredictable thing in his life, suddenly jumps the tracks. His BIG mistake: he doesn’t tell his wife, Mildred, about his decision. Arnold’s early retirement means a considerable cut in his pension, but he’s got it all worked out; he’s accepted a post as live-in caretaker and part-time tourist guide at the stately Tudor mansion, Emmerton Hall. There’s a “miniscule” salary, and the position calls for a married couple. Guess what, Mildred has to manage the Tea Room. She won’t mind a bit, will she? So Arnold has his future (and Mildred’s) all planned out. They will sell their home which will help with the reduced pension, and he can indulge his “lifelong interest in English history.” Mildred initially loses it when she hears about Arnold’s plan, but then after seeing Emmmerton Hall, he “won her round.” So they move to Emmerton Hall.
When the novel opens, Mildred, unsurprisingly, has left Arnold. Emmerton Hall may offer a promise of his dream life, but Mildred soon tires of being screamed at by unhappy visitors. She departs for her friend Val’s home. Val’s husband also lost his sanity in retirement:
“Men!” Val had summed it up, flinging herself backward against the sofa cushions, her fizz of blond-ish hair making a sort of quivering halo around her outraged face. “Men! Men when they retire! Retirement, it’s like a bomb, it’s a killer! You might as well be on a terrorist hit-list as have a husband coming up to sixty-five!”
“Well, sixty-one, actually in our case,” Mildred interposed, but Val, understandably, brushed this aside. “Well-sixty-sixty-five-Whatever. It’s death to the marriage when it happens, that’s for sure. You might as well take out divorce papers in advance when you see the date coming. Husbands go mad, stark staring raving mad. All of them! It’s their real natures coming out at last. If they don’t do one one crazy thing, they do another.”
At first Mildred enjoys being at Val’s home as they can commiserate with each other about their husbands. (Val’s husband left her for a high maintenance, neurotic gold-digger.) But Mildred soon becomes worn out by Val’s one-track monologues against men, and then things become more complicated when Mildred meets a man at a local park. Is the man interested in Mildred or is he interested in Emmerton Hall? Meanwhile Arnold experiences conflicting feelings when his troubled daughter, Flora turns up and asks to stay. Flora grew from a loving child into an impossible teen, but now at 20 with “increasingly erratic” behaviour she’s worse than ever. She lives in a squat, and when she returns home to visit, it’s to get money then launch into “her litany of complaints and criticisms of her parents’ home: her mother’s cooking; the net curtains; the fitted carpet in the bathroom; the awful décor; the pretentious ornaments; the ghastly furniture; and above all, the awful boredom and monotony of her parents’lives.
Flora’s energy for dominance, criticism, argument and defiance has long since conquered her parents, so when she arrives at Emmerton Hall, she’s full of vitriol concerning the various rules–how stupid it is to lock the doors and windows. How stupid it is to not allow the visitors to swim in the lake, etc. etc. Then she offers to spend time with the former historian/curator, Sir Humphry Penrose, now demented, who still lives on the grounds with his pleasant tempered, daughter Joyce. Sir Penrose has been violent in the past, but he’s ok as long as he takes his meds. …
The Walters’ marriage rapidly fell apart when they moved to Emmerton Hall, and while that is understandable, the way that these two, weighed down by passivity and inertia, went their own merry ways seems a little unrealistic–especially since Mildred keeps visiting Emmerton Hall with her “fancy man.” Arnold is a weak, uninteresting character too brow beaten by Flora to be engaging; I always have difficulties with passive characters and while trouble is clearly barreling Arnold’s way, he does little to prevent it. Fremlin’s focus is crime within the family/domestic unit–how crime festers within 4 walls, but here the characters seem a bit like chess pieces moved to fit the plot. Finally, the crime is a little too contrived to make this anywhere near Fremlin’s best novel.
Celia Dale (1912-2011) and Celia Fremlin (1914-2009), both authors of British crime novels (and both named Celia!) excel at establishing the ordinary, the domestic, the mundane, and then weaving in terror. Celia Dale’s A Dark Corner is a perfect example of the author’s favourite themes: Imagine then , it’s a dark, London evening, pouring with rain when Mrs. Didcot, a woman whose poor health and limited mobility keep her at home, hears someone at the front door. It’s a young black man, Errol, soaked to the skin, bent over with a terrible cough. He says he’s “come about the room,” but there must be some sort of mistake. The Didcots, a quiet couple who keep to themselves, aren’t looking for a lodger, let alone advertising for one. But Mrs. Didcot, feeling sorry for Errol, allows him into the house, puts him in front of the fire to dry off and awaits her husband’s return. …
Arthur Didcot, a methodical man who is “as neat as a cat,” decides to let Errol stay, but though he makes the decision, he’s still very cautious about Errol. Arthur checks out Errol’s story, and even rifles through his meagre belongings. Satisfied, Arthur allows Errol to stay and given the attic to sleep in, and Errol is warned not to ‘wander’ about. The idea is that Errol will keep Mrs. Didcot company in the evenings when Mr. Didcot leaves, and while this happens, it soon becomes apparent, Mr. Didcot “cultivated” Errol on Sundays.
The Didcots seem fascinated by Errol “as though he were some rare but domesticated creature whose ways were marvellous.” These are the times of Enoch Powell, and Errol’s quiet demeanor challenges the Didcots’ racial attitudes. Errol’s race plays a twist in this tale, and it’s a devilish twist, breathtaking in its evil.
The Didcots, who address each other as ‘Dad’ and ‘Mum’ are a joyless couple. Their only child died in an accident many years before, and now Mr. Didcot dominates his wife house-bound wife, Nelly. While he ‘takes care of her,’ the degree of control and dominance are unhealthy. It’s easy to control and dominate the infirm, and this behaviour, which would be screamingly repellent towards the healthy, isn’t quite so obvious when dealing with those with limited mobility. But just what do the Didcots want from Errol? Companionship? Or something more? As Mr. Didcot tells Errol, “you add something, something bizarre.”
There’s a marvellous description of the Didcots’ neighbourhood. It’s over a page long and it evokes a creepiness in its details of houses, mostly neglected:
Some of them were coming up a little; they have pink front doors and a carriage lamp beside it, window boxes and the walls in front of the basement windows have been taken away. Some of them are going down and await development; pale corrugated iron masks their doors and lower windows, their paths are cracked, their gates gone, rubbish is scattered among the sour grass of their gardens, and even to the topmost floor someone has broken their windows.
“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.
“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 “imprudentlystood 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.
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.