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.