Tag Archives: British crime fiction

The Innocent Party: Celia Dale (1973)

“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.

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Something Like a Love Affair: Julian Symons (1992)

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.

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Seven Lean Years: Celia Fremlin (1961)

“Hate is stronger than you know.”

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.

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The Echoing Stones: Celia Fremlin (1993)

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.

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A Dark Corner: Celia Dale (1971)

Why don’t we keep him, dear?”

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.

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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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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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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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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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Filed under Dale Celia, Fiction