Tag Archives: British crime fiction

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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Salt Lane: William Shaw

William Shaw’s Salt Lane is the first in the Alexandra Cupidi series, but the name and the locale, Dungeness, Kent,  rang a bell. Cupidi appeared in The Birdwatcher, and since Shaw knows better than to waste a good character (the Breen and Tozer series), it’s not too surprising that divorced, single parent Cupidi is back.

In Salt Lane, Sergeant Cupidi begins to investigate the murder of a middle-aged woman fished out from a marsh. Even the coroner is stumped when it comes to cause of death, but as the days pass, the case becomes more complex. When Cupidi finally learns the woman’s identity, she makes the drive to London to break the news to her son, Julian. But this is when things become even murkier; Julian was adopted at age 2. His mother, absent for decades, was a heroin addict, and she turned up on his doorstep right around the time the murder victim was fished from the marsh. So who is the imposter? The worn out heroin addict who apologized to Julian and then disappeared or the dead woman fished from the marsh?

Salt Lane

As Cupidi investigates, a second body is found. This is the particularly heinous murder of an illegal alien. Why was he herded into a manure slurry tank ? Are the two murders connected?

In The Birdwatcher, Cupidi ‘lost’ her first partner. For this book, she’s teamed with a younger woman, Constable Jill Ferriter. While Cupidi does not have the most winning personality, Ferriter still has the enthusiasm and naivete of youth, and the two women make a good team–although it takes a while for Jill to crack Cupidi’s defenses. 

In Salt Lane, a tightly written atmospheric police procedural, Cupidi finds that she must dig back into the alternative culture of the 80s. At the same time, she also faces the impenetrable world of illegal employment. It’s a gray world which exists just under the surface, and illegals, who are “never anywhere for very long,” don’t want to talk to the police.

The novel is marred by two coincidences, but in spite of that, this is a highly readable novel, which is driven by the murder investigations. I really liked the location, and the author capitalizes on the area when it comes to atmosphere, idiosyncrasy of locals and method of murder.

Cupidi found the owner of the breaker’s yard in the lot behind the office. He was wearing swimming trunks and dark glasses. A man in his fifties, greying hair swept back across his head, sitting on a plastic chair next to a swimming pool with a can of lager in his hand.

The pool was surrounded by old tyres and rusting gas cylinders.

“Hard day at the office?”

His leathery tan suggested he was out here most days during the summer. He fancied himself; worked out a bit. His stomach was flat for man his age, his arms muscular.

“Work, work, work,” he answered, smiling. “What about a dip?”

Cupidi makes for an interesting series character and I enjoyed the inclusion of her mother as that made some of the puzzle pieces fit. As always with a series character, we get the case (or cases) at hand plus personal life. On the personal side, Cupidi has a problematic relationship with her teenage daughter, and work demands always take precedence. Cupidi transferred to this rural area after she ended an affair with a married officer in a different department. Cupidi watches Ferriter’s interest in another Constable and knows how these things can take a sour turn.

Seriously, these characters need to take their friggin’ cell phones with them for goodness sake. Plus Cupidi is going to have a short career if she keeps putting herself (and her partner) into these risky situations. I’m not a member of the police but even I can see that the risks Cupidi takes are over-the-top. And while I’m at it, Julian’s wife, Lulu is portrayed as somewhat of a nasty cow because she’s suspicious and unfriendly when a woman claiming to be Julian’s mother shows up out of the blue. My sympathies are with Julian’s wife. I wouldn’t want a smelly heroin addict moving in my home and hovering around my toddler. Call me heartless but just because someone gave birth to you doesn’t give them automatic rights–especially if they abandoned you and decided, decades later, to pop in and see how you’re doing. 

While I guessed the perp, the novel kept my interest right up to the end, and if you read the review, it’s easy to see I felt involved with the characters here. 

Now: just a couple of non-review thoughts I’m going to add here. Personal lives are personal lives, and while I understand work-place behaviour/ethics and potential sexual harassment suits, it seems a bit intrusive for ‘the Practice Support Team’ to question Cupidi as to whether or not she’s having an affair with a married officer in a different department. Since dickhead lover boy is in a different department, I’d file that under Cupidi’s PRIVATE life, but that’s me. Then at one point DI McAdam (Cupidi’s boss) stands to “lose his job, his pension, his reputation, everything,” under an IPCC investigation. That seems harsh when we are talking about a split second judgement call under pressure. 

review copy

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Fell Murder: E. C. R. Lorac (1944)

“Hate is a bad master.”

E. C. R. Lorac’s Fell Murder takes place during WWII in the Lake District. Lorac (Edith Caroline Rivett) deftly juxtaposes the beauty, tranquility and durability of the landscape against the foibles of human passions and the dark days of WWII.

The Garth family live at Garthmere Hall, a rambling building part “medieval in origin, but succeeding generations had altered it again and again. It was in part great house, in part farm house.” The house is ruled by patriarch “grim” Robert Garth but the farm is worked and managed by his middle-aged daughter Marion. The eldest son, Richard, married a woman against his father’s wishes, so he was cast out from the family home 25 years earlier.  The woman, Mary Ashwaite, subsequently died in Canada. No one has heard about Richard since. Also living at Garthmere Hall is Charles Garth, the second son who escaped from Malaya  and returned home penniless. There’s also Malcolm Garth, a sickly young man from Robert Garth’s second marriage, and Elizabeth Meldon, a distant relative of the Garths. She’s in the Land Army.

Fell Murder

The novel opens with John Staple, the Garth bailiff striding across the Garthmere land and enjoying the view from the hills across the countryside which is “an unchanging certainty in an unstable and changing world” Staple is shocked when he meets the prodigal son Richard also hiking across the hills. Richard is on leave and has chosen to spend the week visiting the land he loves. The Garthmere land, incidentally, is entailed so Richard will inherit. Richard asks Staple to keep his visit secret. He has no intention of seeing his family, and will soon return to sea.

Staple’s conversation with Richard is overheard, and so Richard’s presence in the region is no longer secret. Shortly thereafter, old irascible Robert Garth has an accident with a loaded gun, but luckily no one is hurt. But after a fox hunt, Robert Garth is found murdered in a small shed on Garthmere land.

Local police superintendent Layng is called in to investigate, but he’s not a local (who still talk about the Battle of Flodden Field) and cannot penetrate this closed culture. He is brusque and doesn’t treat some of the landowners politely as their clothes don’t signal their status:

He had forgotten the fact that the farmers hereabouts thought nothing of ancient clothes, dung-laden boots and scarecrow hats. 

He’s impatient and sorely underestimates country ways.

Layng had a slightly pompous manner and a tendency to regard the shrewd farming folk as being slow of understanding because they habitually spoke slowly and thought for a long time before they gave vent to speech.

Layng gets nowhere with the case and so Scotland Yard’s Chief Inspector Macdonald arrives, commandeers a bicycle and starts investigating. ….

While I guessed the perp about halfway through, Fell Murder was an entertaining read. Here we are in WWII with petrol rationing, signposts removed (back in place finally), and black marketing of eggs. And now there’s murder, and an inheritance that isn’t exactly ‘fair.’  While these are dark times indeed, Lorac elegantly and descriptively displays a love of the land, and how Macdonald understands these Lake District folk, giving them respect. Lorac shows how a crime that seems impenetrable to one investigator can be solved by someone who takes a different, less hostile approach. Here’s Macdonald and Marion:

“Thanks you very much for being so patient,” replied Macdonald

“You remind me of my dentist a bit.” she answered unexpectedly. “He’s always very polite, but he pulls my tooth out just the same.”

The excellent introduction from Martin Edwards discusses the “sub-genre of crime fiction, the ‘return of the prodigal’ story.” That had not occurred to me before, so as always Martin Edwards continues to illuminates this well-loved genre.

Review copy

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The Things Men Do: James Hadley Chase.

“For the first time since I married her I was sharply aware that she was in the way.”

In James Hadley Chase’s dark noir novel, The Things Men Do, it’s post WWII London. Garage owner, Harry Collins is struggling to make ends meet. His business isn’t going well, and he’s buried in bills. The garage is in the wrong part of time and there’s few customers. If things don’t pick up soon, Harry will have to close shop and move on.

Out on a call late one night, Harry breaks his rule of stopping to pick up hitchhikers. But the attractive, sexy young woman, a damsel in distress standing next to a non functional car, doesn’t exactly fit the hitchhiker-type description. So Harry stops and picks up the woman. Gloria turns out to be, or so she claims, a successful lingerie designer. While all the alarm bells go off in our heads, Harry’s lust takes over.

The Things men do

Harry is a married man. He lives above the garage with his wife Ann, and she’s the sort of woman who doesn’t complain and who goes without new clothes in order to prop up her man. When Gloria enters the picture and begins telling Harry that there are plenty of ways to make money, Harry begins to keep secrets from his wife. Then Gloria invites Harry to a party at her flat so that he can discuss a business opportunity.

Harry steps deeper and deeper into deceit. He lies to his wife and his best army buddy Bill, but even beyond that, he lies to himself. It’s clear to the reader that Gloria is a part of a honey trap, and even after Harry meets Gloria’s clearly criminal friends, he finds excuses to go to her flat and talk to her ….

They looked as if they had just stepped out of a Humphrey Bogart gangster picture: the car, the clothes, they way they spilled out of the car leaving the doors hanging open, was nearest thing to Hollywood I’d seen off the movies.

The Things Men Do is a slow burn. I wasn’t that impressed with the novel until after the halfway point. It seemed fairly standard fare with the plot leading the reader down a very well worn path: the goodie two shoes wife who puts up with anything to keep her man happy, the dupe led by lust to his own doom etc. But something in the novel shifts flips when Harry takes action, and the book’s final tense scenes are dark and relentless as Harry rolls towards his fate. Harry makes references to his WWII experiences and his ability to kill. In his mind he’s gone “soft” in civvie street, but that marshmallow patina is shed as Harry seeks revenge.  Yes some people are bad, but then there are others who are evil. Greed, lust, violence tangle to deliver a powerful ending.

The French cover is the best in my opinion. 

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The Hours Before Dawn: Celia Fremlin (1958)

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

the hours before dawn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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