Mrs Caliban by Rachel Ingalls

In August 2021, Faber and Faber introduced a new publishing list called Faber Editions, dedicated to showcasing radical literary voices from around the world. The first book in the series is Rachel Ingalls’ beguiling 1982 novella, Mrs Caliban (my thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a reading copy). It’s an utterly captivating book – a subversive feminist fable that neatly combines the everyday and the extraordinary to thrilling effect. I loved it and would thoroughly recommend it to other readers looking for something imaginative and distinctive.     

Central to the novella is Mrs Dorothy Caliban, a middle-aged woman whose marriage is stagnating. Having lost her young son, Scotty, due to complications with routine surgery, Dorothy is still grieving – trying to cope with the impact of bereavement as best she can. Moreover, she has also recently experienced a miscarriage – another painful loss for her to come to terms with, largely on her own.

Now and again, Dorothy thinks she hears voices on the radio – people talking to her directly, offering personal messages of reassurance and support. They might be a sign of trauma, but this is never made entirely clear. Sadly, Dorothy’s husband, Fred, is of little or no help in this regard, the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby having pushed the couple apart.

That was the point where things began to change with Fred. The first blow had stunned them both, but the second had turned them away from each other. Each subtly blamed the other while feeling resentment, fury and guilt at the idea that a similar unjust censure was radiating from the opposite side. (p. 7)

To make matters worse, Dorothy suspects Fred of having an affair with another woman. There have been other dalliances in the past, so this wouldn’t be his first indiscretion, and his frequent absences from the house are a clear sign of trouble.  

One day, while going about her chores at home, Dorothy hears an unusual announcement on the radio. A giant lizard-like creature, capable of living underwater and on dry land, has escaped from the nearby Institute of Oceanographic Research. Having killed two of his keepers, ‘Aquarius the Monsterman’, is considered highly dangerous, and the public are warned that he should not be approached. At first, Dorothy thinks this might be one of her strange messages from the ether, but then she quickly realises that it’s a genuine alert.

Later that night, just as Dorothy is rushing around the house, preparing dinner for Fred and one of his work colleagues, who should manoeuvre his way into her kitchen but the ‘Monsterman’ himself…

She came back into the kitchen fast, to make sure that she caught the toasting cheese in time. And she was halfway across the checked linoleum floor of her nice safe kitchen when the screen door opened and a gigantic six-foot-seven-inch frog-like creature shouldered its way into the house and stood stock-still in front of her, crouching slightly, and staring straight at her face. (p. 20)

After some initial nervousness, Dorothy reaches out to the creature, treating him with care and tenderness. As a consequence, ‘Larry’ – as the amphibian is generally known – is gentle and inquisitive in return, quickly establishing a bond with his new friend and protector. It soon becomes clear to Dorothy that Larry has suffered greatly while being held at the Institute. He has been tortured and sexually abused – experimented on by the scientists who were fascinated by his uniqueness. So, in truth, his attacks on the keepers were a form of self-defence.

To protect Larry from the police, Dorothy hides him in the guest room, which Fred rarely enters. Over the course of the following few weeks, a touching, affectionate relationship develops between the pair as they learn about one another’s worlds. In essence, both Dorothy and Larry are seeking an escape, a release from trauma or torture – Dorothy from the loss of Scotty and the unborn baby, and Larry from being captured and abused. Moreover, both are constrained by the limits imposed on them by society. Consequently, they find solace in one another on an emotional level, a sense of connectedness that feels meaningful and real. There is also a strong sexual dimension to their union, an aspect which offers Dorothy a sense of liberation and fulfilment, freeing her from the isolation of her lonely, loveless marriage.

By day, Larry watches TV, listens to music and helps Dorothy with the housework, an activity he clearly enjoys. I especially like how Ingalls plays with our expectations of masculinity, presenting Larry as a sensitive ‘new man’ – someone who is attentive and helps around the house, unlike most men in the early ‘80s. At night the pair venture out, driving somewhere quiet where Larry can swim or walk among the flowers, carefully hidden from strangers to maintain his cover.

They dried themselves off, drove around for a while, and walked through some of their favourite gardens in bare feet. Dorothy was less nervous than the first time they had gone out, but still felt a sense of possible danger and an edginess, which she was beginning to enjoy. She skipped and danced after Larry, as with his long legs he went loping down the length of the flowerbeds. She giggled with nerves. (p. 63)

One of many things Ingalls does so well here is to inject the narrative with a degree of ambiguity. Larry might be a figment of Dorothy’s imagination, a kind of vision or fantasy on which to project her warmth and affection – and while this is never made explicitly clear, something is said in the final two or three pages that might give the reader a jolt. As Dorothy’s friend Estelle – a divorcee with two suitors on the go – reminds her, a woman’s grief can be misunderstood and mislabelled, possibly leading to wrongful incarceration.

Remember what happened to you. They almost had you in the loony bin. Once you’re helpless, one of those bastards steps forward with a hypodermic and the curtain comes down on your life. You stay there and they give you massive doses of sedatives every day because you’re easier to take care of that way. And then your brain is pretty much slugged into submission. No more chance to find your way out of your troubles, ever. (pp. 100–101)

As this intriguing novella reaches its denouement, the threat to Larry’s safety steps up a notch, forcing the pair to take additional risks in an attempt to evade the authorities.

I loved this tender, slyly subversive story, which Ingalls underscores with a wry seam of humour. A magical, otherworldly read with a sinister, unsettling edge. Very highly recommended indeed, especially for readers who enjoy a degree of ambiguity.

A Quartet in Autumn by Barbara Pym

First published in 1977, at the height of Pym’s well-documented renaissance, A Quartet in Autumn is a quietly poignant novel of loneliness, ageing and the passing of time – how sometimes we can feel left behind as the world changes around us. Now that I’ve read it twice, I think it might be my favourite Pym – or at least one of her best and most memorable novels.

Central to the narrative are four colleagues – Letty, Marcia, Edwin and Norman – who work together in a London office, performing clerical duties of some sort (the exact name of the business or institution is never made clear). All four are in their sixties and fairly close to retirement. Letty and Marcia will leave first, the retirement age for women being lower than for men, with Edwin and Norman to follow in the fullness of time.

Letty – the most self-aware member of the group – is particularly conscious of how odd or antiquated they must seem to other people, especially the younger, more energetic office employees. While they don’t see or socialise with one another outside of work, each co-worker has their own individual habits and routines to fall back on. Letty enjoys reading and shopping, always making an effort with her clothes to maintain a neat appearance, even though she is a spinster. Edwin – a widower – has various church activities to keep him occupied, helping Father G. with his parish near Clapham Common. Norman – unmarried and living in a bedsit – seems fixated on getting angry with various things: the youth of today, people who drop litter, semi-nudity in public places, and cars, especially badly parked ones.

Finally, Marcia – the most troubled of the quartet – spends much of her time buying tinned food which she never seems to eat; collecting empty milk bottles, which she stores in the garden shed, ready for some unspecified emergency; and avoiding Janice Brabner, a rather persistent volunteer from Social Services. Marcia, who is still under the care of the local hospital following a mastectomy, resents Janice’s interference in her life and wishes she could be left alone. But instead, Janice persists in trying to encourage Marcia to get out more, preferably dropping in at the local Centre, much to the latter’s annoyance. Also of concern to Janice is her charge’s diet, which she considers lacking in fresh food, especially given Marcia’s reliance on tinned goods, cups of tea and biscuits. It’s an ongoing source of tension that builds steadily during the book.

As the novel unfolds, we learn a little more about these four individuals through various glimpses of their lives, especially away from work. With her middle-class upbringing and training in secretarial duties, Letty had expected to marry in her youth; but instead, she was left behind, trailing in the wake of her best friend, Marjorie, who proved more popular with men. Now Letty lives in a bedsit, owned by an elderly lady, who may also be on the cusp of retirement herself. Nevertheless, while Letty regrets not having married, she still believes that her life has value to it, albeit in a somewhat different, less complicated way than her peers.

Yet, she sometimes wondered, might not the experience of ‘not having’ be regarded as something with its own validity? (p. 21)

At one point in the past, Marcia had entertained vague thoughts of Norman as someone she might become attached to, but now she seems more interested in Mr Strong, the surgeon who performed her mastectomy. Naturally, Mr Strong is blissfully unaware of this, but it doesn’t stop Marcia from looking forward to her appointments with him.

Alongside its central themes of loneliness and ageing, the novel also illustrates how difficult it can be to adjust to change, especially when we are older and set in our ways. Edwin, for instance, laments the changes that have taken place in a nearby teashop, one of his regular lunchtime haunts.

He had had a light lunch, snack really, in the teashop whose decor had changed distressingly, though the food was the same. Edwin and the other regular patrons felt themselves out of place among so much trendy orange and olive green and imitation stripped pine. There were hanging lights and shades patterned with butterflies and over it all soft ‘muzak’, difficult to hear but insidious. (p. 20)

Change is also the cause of some distress to Letty, who finds life uncomfortable with her new landlord, a Nigerian man named Mr Olatunde. With their enthusiastic hymn-singing and penchant for spicy food, the Olatunde family prove too much for Letty to cope with, given her preference for peace and quiet. Once again, Letty reflects on her position as an unassuming spinster, left on the shelf having missed out on marriage – something that chimes with Pym’s portrayals of other self-effacing heroines, such as Mildred from Excellent Women and Belinda from Some Tame Gazelle.

It must surely be because she had not married. No man had taken her away and immured her in some comfortable suburb where hymn-singing was confined to Sundays and nobody was fired with enthusiasm. Why had this not happened? Because she had thought that love was a necessary ingredient for marriage? Now, having looked around her for forty years, she was not so sure. (p. 56)

There are elements of Pym herself in the character of Letty – and possibly a dash in Marcia too with her slide into neglectfulness.  Perhaps Pym is showing us how things might have worked out for her too, had she not been rescued from obscurity by Philip Larkin and Lord David Cecil?

This feeling of obsolescence is also present in other aspects of the novel – for example, how quickly we can be made to feel forgotten or superfluous to requirements when we retire or times move on. Letty feels it when she visits Edwin and Norman at the office, noticing how things have changed since her retirement.

‘I see you’ve spread yourselves out a bit,’ she said, noticing that the men now seemed to occupy all the space but had once accommodated the four of them. Again she experienced the feeling of nothingness, when it was borne in on her so forcibly that she and Marcia had been phased out in this way, as if they had never existed. (p. 110)

While Quartet is a somewhat melancholy novel – certainly compared to Pym’s earlier work – there are some lovely moments of gentle humour to balance the darkness. In this scene, Letty is visiting her friend Marjorie – now engaged to David Lydell, a middle-aged vicar who seems to have caught the eye of more than one lady in Marjorie’s village.

‘This is one of Father Lydell’s favourite dishes,’ said Beth, bringing a covered casserole to the table.  ‘Poulet niçoise – I hope you like it.’

‘Oh, yes,’ Letty murmured, remembering the times she had eaten poulet niçoise at Marjorie’s house. Had David Lydell gone all round the village sampling the cooking of the unattached women before deciding which one to settle with? Certainly the dish they were eating this evening was well up to standard. (p. 130)

As is often the case with Pym, it’s the small things that prove to be the most revealing, hinting at trouble brewing or secrets yet to be revealed. As the novel draws to a close, the group come together in a time of crisis, reaching out to one another in ways they have not managed to do before. For two of the quartet at least, there are decisions about their futures to be made, showing us that life still holds choices and new possibilities in the autumn of our years. This is a beautiful, perceptive, bittersweet novel, reminiscent of Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont (and possibly Memento Mori) in subject matter and style.

Gilgi, One of Us by Irmgard Keun (tr. Geoff Wilkes)

I loved this novella, a striking portrayal of a determined young woman set in Weimar-era Cologne. First published in 1931, and subsequently banned by the Nazi authorities, Gilgi (One of Us), was Irmgard Keun’s debut novel, announcing its author as a powerful new voice in German literature.

The novella revolves around Gisela Kron, affectionally known as ‘Gilgi’, a twenty-one-year-old secretary living and working in Cologne. Gilgi is smart, resourceful and efficient. She works hard during the day, barely stopping to catch her breath; then at night she studies languages to improve her prospects, diligently applying herself to each task at hand. Despite living at home with her rather conservative adoptive parents, Gilgi rents a place elsewhere, a room of her own where she can study, be herself and work on her translations.

Idleness is anathema to Gilgi. She has little time for those who appear bored or lifeless. For Gilgi, progression is everything – she wants to work, to get on, to be ‘self-supporting and independent’. Hopefully she’ll save enough money to have her own apartment in a few years’ time, maybe even start her own business if everything goes well. Whatever it takes, Gilgi has the tenacity to succeed – even where men are concerned, or so she thinks…

Gilgi is an experienced girl. She knows men, and what they variously want and don’t want, and how this is betrayed by the tone of their voices, their expressions, and their movements. If a man and a boss like Herr Reuter speaks in an uncertain voice, he’s in love, and if he’s in love, he wants something. Sooner or later. If he doesn’t get what he wants, he’s surprised, offended, and angry. (p. 10)

One day, just when she’s least expecting it, into her life comes Martin, a charismatic free spirit in his early forties. In many ways, Martin seems the complete opposite to Gilgi; he is something of a vagabond, an idler who lacks ambition, viewing work as a means to an end, a way of funding his travels in a rather haphazard way. And yet, despite her fierce sense of independence, Gilgi is attracted to him, hoping that he might stay, preferably for a while.

…she’s not some sentimental goose, she doesn’t need anyone, she gets by on her own. She knows what she wants to do, and knows that she can do what she wants to do. And the whole time she’s telling Martin this, she grips his hand as though she was afraid that he could suddenly stand up and disappear, never to be seen again. He mustn’t do that, he must stay with her, for a long time yet… (p. 65)

Before long, Gilgi moves in with Martin, joining him in the beautiful flat he is looking after for an absent friend. Nevertheless, the pair have little time to spend with one another, especially with Gilgi’s translation work in the evenings. Money is a complication for the couple, too. While Gilgi can afford to pay her way, Martin’s sources of income are more meagre. He has a modest allowance from some capital invested in his brother’s business – just about enough to get by on his own, but nothing more.

In essence, the novella explores Gilgi as an individual and the competing demands on her future direction. Before Martin appeared, Gilgi always knew what she wanted from life with 100% certainty. Now, however, these beliefs are being tested, to the point where Gilgi begins to question her aims, actions and ultimate limits.

Gilgi loves Martin with a depth and intensity she has never experienced before; and as the narrative progresses, she finds herself torn between two seemingly irreconcilable passions: her desire for independence and a successful career vs her love for Martin and the emotional fulfilment this delivers. Ultimately, it is the attempted reconciliation of these opposing forces that drives Keun’s novella forward.

Everything’s fine, you thought, when you moved in with Martin. Nothing’s fine. Maybe you want too much. You want to keep your whole life from before, with its joy in getting ahead, its well-oiled approach to work, with its strict allocation of time, its brilliantly functioning system. And you want another life on top of that, a life with Martin, a soft contourless, heedless life. You don’t want to give up the first life, and you can’t give up the second one. (p. 85)

Right from the start, I found Gilgi an utterly captivating protagonist, a strong feminist presence with a thoroughly engaging ‘voice’. Keun does a terrific job in capturing her protagonist’s conflicted emotions, which are often in a state of flux. Like any young woman in the early stages of adulthood, Gilgi discovers how complex love can be – a state that makes one feel very protected one day and completely exposed the next. 

Interestingly, Keun seems to move seamlessly between first-, second-, and third-person narration throughout the book – a technique that sounds as if it might be quite confusing, but in reality feels anything but. It works beautifully on the page, giving the story a sense of vibrancy and fluidity to match Gilgi’s personality. The writing is wonderful – full of sharp observations about characters and life. I especially loved this description of Gilgi’s birth mother, whom Gilgi meets for the first time towards the end of the tale.

As coolly and uninhibitedly as the casting director of a revue, Gilgi examines the petite, elegant lady who is standing before her. Doesn’t impress me. How to classify her type? Title character in a mediocre magazine serial. Quite good figure – style a little undecided – half coolly fashionable American girl, half older lady who’s kept slim by dancing with gigolos. A touch too expensively dressed – the usual tasteful but slightly impersonal uniform of the traveler in first class. (p. 162)

In many respects, Gilgi (One of Us) is a very progressive book. Not only is it written in a modernist style, but it also touches on several forward-thinking themes, including adoption, opportunities for women in the workplace, financial independence from men, sex outside of marriage, unwanted pregnancy, and the impact of debt on a person’s mental health. In summary then, Keun has created an evocative, thought-provoking narrative featuring a strong female character, very much a precursor to some of her later work.

Coincidentally, Max has just listed Keun’s 1937 novella, After Midnight in his 2021 reading highlights, so it’s great to see this writer getting some much-deserved attention!

Gilgi, One of Us is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

On Rereading: Something in Disguise by Elizabeth Jane Howard

A couple of months ago, the Backlisted team covered Elizabeth Jane Howard’s 1969 novel Something in Disguise for their Halloween episode of the podcast. It’s a book I had read before, with somewhat mixed feelings; however, Andrew and Laura’s impassioned case for it being a rather sly, perceptive novel about the horrors of domestic life prompted me to revisit it with a fresh pair of eyes. Naturally, they were right! (How could they not be?) On my second reading, I found it much more chilling from the start, partly because I already knew just how painfully the story would play out for some of the key characters involved…

So in this post, I’m jotting down a few things that particularly struck me on this second reading – largely for my own benefit, but some of you might find it interesting too.

As the Backlisted discussion touches on, the novel’s title has multiple meanings. Not only are certain individuals in the story concealing things from those closest to them, but the novel itself is also ‘something in disguise’. In essence, this is a domestic horror story masquerading under the cover of a family drama/whirlwind romance, complete with a breezy ‘women’s fiction’ style jacket to misdirect the reader; and while I’d picked up some of this domestic horror (particularly Alice’s miserable marriage to the insensitive, overbearing Leslie) on my first reading, I’d missed some of the early warning signs about Herbert’s true intensions. More on these red flags a little later in the post.

In my previous write-up of the novel, I’d noted the following points about the family’s matriarch, May, whose first husband had been killed many years earlier in the Second World War. “May is now married to Colonel Herbert Browne-Lacey, a pompous, penny-pinching bore who spends most of his spare time in London, dining at his club and visiting a ‘lady friend’ for sexual favours. Meanwhile, May must amuse herself at home, a rather staid old house in Surrey which she finds both cold and unwelcoming.”

May and Herbert’s Surrey house is almost a character in its own right, such is EJH’s talent for describing settings, furnishings and rooms. Herbert appears to have pushed May into buying it with the proceeds of an inheritance, somewhat against her better judgement. It’s a terrifying place – cold, dark and oppressive, the type of dwelling that wouldn’t feel out of place in a Shirley Jackson short story.

The floors of the wide, dark passages were polished oak, which, as Herbert had pointed out, obviated the need for carpets. The staircase was also oak – no carpet there, either, which made it slippery and a nightmare to negotiate with heavy trays. The hall, with its huge, heavily-leaded window – too large to curtain – was somehow always freezing, even in summer, and dark, too, because here the oak had crept up the walls to a height of about nine feet, making any ordinary furniture and look ridiculous. There was also a tremendous stone fireplace in which one could have roasted an ox; and, as Oliver had pointed out, nothing less would have done either to warm the place or to defeat the joyless odour of furniture polish. ‘It really is a monstrous house,’ she thought… (p. 83)

As the novel progresses, May begins to feel increasingly unwell, but no specific illness can be identified, with the doctors ultimately putting her condition down to age or the stress of Alice’s wedding. (At the beginning of the novel, Herbert’s daughter, Alice, marries Leslie – the first man to pay her any attention – chiefly as a means of getting away from her hideous father.) Moreover, the Colonel’s self-centred, duplicitous manner becomes increasingly apparent, leaving May to take the full strain of his selfishness, with no-one else in their Surrey home to offer support.

It’s hard to talk about how the May-Herbert storyline ends without getting into spoiler territory, but it definitely takes a very sinister turn. On my previous reading, I hadn’t fully grasped Herbert’s intentions until the closing scenes; however, this time I noticed just how many clues about his true colours are dropped in along the way. Instances such as the following when May’s daughter, Elizabeth, and her older lover, John, turn up unexpectedly at the Surrey house.

…they had arrived without warning at the innocuous hour of tea time, but this had so enraged the colonel that May had thought he was going to have a stroke. They had ‘broken in’ on him when he was in the greenhouse mixing something up for the lawn; no common courtesy left – he’d looked up from measuring something because he thought he’d heard a sound behind him, and there was this giant stranger without so much as a by-your-leave standing over him – enough to give any honest feller a heart attack. He’d lost his temper: not for long, but enough to make everyone feel intensely embarrassed… (p. 247)

And here, where Elizabeth wonders if men are largely responsible for the terrible things that happen to women. Perhaps John is responsible for his ex-wife’s drink problem and his daughter’s petulant behaviour? Maybe even Herbert – or Daddo as Elizabeth thinks of him – has a villainous streak? Sometimes it’s hard to tell…

And Daddo! She [Elizabeth] thought, with exactly the same hectic alarm; supposing he was wicked and just masquerading as stupid and dull! There was absolutely no reason, she went on, wildly, why on earth stupid people shouldn’t be wicked: it was far more likely, when you came to consider it. It was supposed to be far easier to be wicked than to be good…(p. 128)

This re-read also reinforced how trapped Alice must have felt in her marriage to Leslie – another self-absorbed bore with no regard for his wife’s feelings. In my previous post, I’d quoted an excruciating passage from Leslie and Alice’s wedding night (which you can read via the link). However, during this reading I highlighted a section from later in the novel when Alice is pregnant, desperately battling a combination of loneliness, isolation and nausea, to which Leslie seems oblivious.

By the time Leslie returned she was just beginning to feel sick again, but gave the appearance of having been at wifely occupations all day. He would make himself a drink, switch on the television and tell her about his day in a raised voice over it, while she struggled with nausea and supper.… When, eventually, they went to bed, Leslie left her alone which was the single best thing about being pregnant, she decided. He would kiss her forehead, pat her hand, sometimes – maddeningly – stroke her belly, but he seemed to regard sex as unnecessary. (p. 199)

Also worthy of a mention before I finish is Alice’s marvellous cat, Claude, who steals the whole show – quite literally in this scene – as he tucks into a pair of salmon trout that Herbert has held back from the catering for Alice and Leslie’s wedding.

He [Claude] had known for ages how to open the larder door, but had not advertised the fact, largely because there was hardly ever anything there worth eating; but he was extremely fond of fish. He inserted a huge capable paw round the lower edge of the door and heaved for several minutes: when the gap was wide enough he levered it open with his shoulder and part of his head. The fish lay on a silver platter on the marble shelf, skinned and garnished. He knocked pieces of lemon and cucumber contemptuously aside, settled himself into his best eating position and began to feast. He tried both fish – equally delicious – and when he could eat no more, he jumped heavily off the shelf with a prawn in his mouth which he took to the scullery for further examination. (pp. 21–22)

Claude really is quite the character – the sort of pet that does as he pleases, as many cats are inclined to do!

So, a fascinating reread for many different reasons, some of which I’ve noted above. I still feel that John is a little bit too good to be true. His whisking Elizabeth away to a life of luxury in the South of France seems like a fantasy – too idealistic or fantastic to buy into completely. But maybe that’s a deliberate decision on Howard’s part; I’m curious to hear any views.

Something in Disguise is published by Picador; personal copy.

Two of the Best Vintage Crime Classics – Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac and Due to a Death by Mary Kelly

I have two crackers for you today – not necessarily Christmas crackers, but well suited to the season nonetheless.

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac (1952)

This delightful mystery, written by Edith Caroline Rivett – who also published books under the pen-name of E. C. R. Lorac – has to be one of the most enjoyable entrants in the British Library’s Crime Classics series so far. Set in the snowy Austrian resort of Lech am Arlberg and a foggy central London in the middle of winter, Crossed Skis weaves together two connected narratives to very compelling effect.

The novel opens with a party of sixteen holidaymakers – eight men and eight women – journeying from London’s Victoria Station to the Austrian Alps for a combination of skiing, mountain-walking and dancing. There’s a lovely ‘jolly-hockey-sticks’ boarding-school-style atmosphere within the group as the travellers bunk up alongside one another in their couchettes on the train. While some members of the group are known to one another, various last-minute dropouts and replacements have led to others being less familiar – typically friends of friends or fellow members of social clubs. Most of the party are relatively young, and everyone seems to be glad of the chance to swap the doom and gloom of Britain, with its food rations and damp weather, for some much-anticipated merriment in the Australian mountains. The extended journey, by train and sea, serves as a good ice-breaker, offering the participants the opportunity to get to know one another as the banter flows back and forth.

On their arrival in Lech am Arlberg, the holidaymakers settle into their rooms. The available accommodation is tight, leading to some scattering of the party amongst various chalets and hotels; however, all are within easy reach of one another. The skiing soon gets underway, with the crisp, wintry landscape providing the perfect backdrop to the group’s activities. All seems to be progressing well until some money goes missing from the suitcase of one of the travellers – the Irishman Robert O’Hara, one of the lesser-known members of the group. Inevitably suspicion falls on various other members of the party, particularly the last-minute replacements, including O’Hara himself – a doubt that only strengthens when a second theft is discovered.

Meanwhile, back in foggy London, the burnt body of an unidentified man is found in the remains of a boarding house gutted by fire. The circumstances surrounding the fire are distinctly suspicious, and when the police find what appears to be the imprint of a ski stick in the mud outside the house, a possible connection to skiing is mooted. As the case unfolds, some clever detecting and fingerprint analysis by Chief Inspector Rivers leads the police to the skiing party in Lech am Arlberg, where the two narrative threads ultimately combine.

This is a lovely enjoyable mystery with just the right amount of intrigue and atmosphere. As ever with this author, the settings are beautifully evoked, with the crisp brightness of the Austrian ski slopes contrasting nicely with the gloomy darkness of a British winter. Julian Rivers makes for an engaging detective, while Kate, an observant member of the skiing party, makes an amiable amateur sleuth. With its winter holiday setting – the skiing party depart on New Year’s Day – Crossed Skis is an ideal January read. Very highly recommended for fans of vintage mysteries.

Due to a Death by Mary Kelly (1962)

From the bright and frothy to the dark and brooding…I think this might be the bleakest book I’ve encountered in the BLCC series. Absolutely brilliant, but as dark as a desolate wasteland on a cold winter’s day.

The novel’s setting is Gunfleet, a fictional town inspired by Greenhithe in the marshlands area of Kent. It’s the perfect backdrop for Kelly’s story, a slow-burning tale of hidden affairs, family tensions and existential despair. Noir lovers will likely enjoy this one – it really is that bleak.

After a Hitchcockian opening, mysterious enough to grip the reader from the start, the story is told as a flashback, narrated by the central character, Agnes, who sometimes works as a teacher. Agnes, we soon learn, is a troubled, frustrated soul. Stuck in a marriage with Tom, a man she doesn’t love, she has always held a deep affection for her step-brother-in-law, Ian, who lives nearby. However, Ian’s parsimonious wife, Helen, openly dislikes Agnes, disapproving of the latter’s impulsive behaviour and ‘fast’ dresses, much to Agnes’s annoyance. Also friendly with the two couples are Tubby, a pathologist, and his easy-going wife, Carole. Personality-wise, they are much more relaxed than Helen, certainly as far as Agnes is concerned.

The other central character of note is Hedley, who has come to Gunfleet to retire early (he’s mid-forties) and learn Russian. At first, Hedley lodges in the local pub, but then moves into Tom and Agnes’s caravan as a more convenient arrangement – one that also suits Tom, who seems worried about money. As the summer unfolds, Agnes becomes increasingly close to Hedley while he teaches her how to drive – a doomed romance that seems made for the silver screen.

The novel’s mysteries revolve around the discovery of a body, an incident that happens near the beginning of the narrative. However, the book is more of a drama or psychological character study than a police procedural – readers looking for the latter may well need to try elsewhere. The dead body is Livia, a young Italian woman who worked at the local garage and was known to all three couples. While Agnes and Carole liked Livia, Helen disapproved of her, judging the young woman to be loose and of dubious morals.

As Agnes tries to make sense of the summer’s events, we learn more about how these three couples are bound together and the connection to Livia’s death. The central characters – Agnes, Tom and Hedley – are particularly finely drawn, each with their own personal hopes, troubles and disappointments that reveal themselves over time. Moreover, Kelly infuses the novel with a strong sense of despair, a tone she accentuates in her descriptions of Gunfleet, a place that time seems to have forgotten, as if it were trapped in an airlock of loneliness and pain.

At the end of the lay-by the thickets behind the barbed wire thinned to a curtain of creeper, then stopped, where the chalk was clawed to within yards of the trunk road. A hundred feet below was the roof of the cement works; one of the cement works, for there were many. The rain had pasted its dust to khaki mud, which in patches was dried by the sun. Beyond the works lay the marsh, and in the middle distance the river, a flat aluminium sheet: the brightest sky could never make it blue. (p. 13)

Alongside the desolate sense of place, Kelly also paints a realistic picture of life for many women in rural communities in the early 1960s, where fulfilling jobs are few and far between. Museum wives who work are frowned upon, so Agnes must content herself with marking school work at home rather than teaching in a classroom. Other social issues are also integral to the story, including extra-marital affairs, unwanted pregnancies, illegal abortions, stigmas surrounding orphans, broken homes and mental illness.

This is a beautifully written, intelligent drama featuring realistic, complex characters with secrets to conceal. In terms of style, the book reminded me of some of Margaret Millar’s fiction – maybe Patricia Highsmith’s too. Either way, this is an excellent book, shot through with a sense of bleakness that feels well suited to winter. (My thanks to the publisher for kindly providing a review copy.)

My favourite books from a year of reading, 2021 – part two, older books

This year, I’m spreading my highlights from a year of reading across two posts. The first piece focused on my favourite ‘recently published’ titles, while this second one puts the spotlight on the best ‘older’ books from my 2021 reading, most of which were written in the 20th century.

These are the backlisted books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but as before, you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

The Ghost Stories of Edith Wharton

Subtle, sophisticated and richly imagined, this unsettling collection of Wharton’s Ghost Stories is a veritable treat. Characterised by the tensions between restraint and passion, respectability and impropriety, Wharton’s narratives are rooted in reality, with the ghostly chills mostly stemming from psychological factors. The fear of the unknown, the power of the imagination and the judicious use of supernatural imagery to unnerve the soul are all in evidence here. As one would expect with Wharton, the writing is first class and the characters brilliantly drawn, with sufficient depth and subtlety to appear fully convincing. A wonderfully chilling collection of tales, tapping into the dark side of American history and human relationships.

Lost Cat by Mary Gaitskill

A thoughtful, beautifully-written rumination on love, loss, grief and the nature of pain, especially where our feelings for others are concerned. While staying at a writing retreat in Italy, Gaitskill is cajoled into adopting a scrawny, feral kitten, whom she names Gattino. Not long after Mary and her husband move house, Gattino mysteriously disappears, thereby reawakening various emotions, previously suppressed feelings of guilt surrounding the death of Gaitskill’s father. In many ways, Lost Cat is an exploration of the complexities of human emotion, of how we try to offer love to another individual (or animal), whether they are accepting of it or not. While the Daunt Books edition came out in 2020, this powerful extended essay first appeared in the Granta literary journal in 2009.

The Sleeping Beauty by Elizabeth Taylor

This loose re-working of the age-old fairy tale is another of Taylor’s marvellous ensemble pieces, very much in line novels such as A View of the Harbour and The Soul of Kindness, where the focus moves from one individual to another as their lives intertwine. The novel is set in Seething, a small seaside town in the early 1950s, and as ever with this author, the characters are brilliantly observed. What I love about this her work are the insights she brings to her characters’ inner lives, their thoughts and interactions with others, and how their experiences and preoccupations reveal themselves over time. There is a combination of depth, complexity and veracity to these individuals that makes them feel human, complete with emotions and motivations that remain relevant some seventy years after publication. Possibly underrated in the Taylor oeuvre, but for me it’s a gem.

Black Narcissus by Rumer Godden

This is a glorious book – an evocative story of nuns, misguided actions and, perhaps most significantly of all, repressed female desire. A small group of Anglican nuns set out to establish a new convent, high up in the Himalayan mountains, a place steeped in beauty and mystery. As the weeks go by, the Sisters begin to fall under the setting’s spell, surrounded by the heady atmosphere of disruption and beauty. Consequently, each Sister becomes obsessed with a particular passion, causing them to neglect their spirituality in favour of more personal desires. Tensions – both sexual and otherwise – abound in this sensual novel, stepped in lush visual imagery. In creating Black Narcissus, Godden has given us a rich exploration of the tensions between competing desires, one that also touches on the follies of colonialism in subtle and memorable ways. Highly recommended, even for devoted fans of the Powell and Pressburger film, such as myself!

Mrs Eckdorf in O’Neill’s Hotel by William Trevor

Over the past couple of years, I’ve been working my way through some of William Trevor’s novels – mostly the early ones with their notes of dark comedy and undeniable tragedy. Mrs Eckdorf is very much of a piece with his others from the 1970s, and is something of a bridge between The Boarding-House and The Children of Dynmouth, both of which I loved. The novel’s catalyst is the titular Mrs Eckdorf – a most annoying and invasive woman who has fashioned a career as a photographer, exploiting the lives of unfortunate individuals around the world, their existences touched by devastation. Once again, William Trevor proves himself a master of the tragicomedy, crafting a story that marries humour and poignancy in broadly equal measure.

Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by Barbara Comyns

There is something distinctly English about the world that Barbara Comyns portrays in this novel, a surreal eccentricity that could only be found within the England of old. Set in 1911, three years before the advent of the First World War, Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead has all the hallmarks of a classic Comyns novel: enchanting, innocent children, caught up in a dysfunctional family; memorable, vivid imagery, typically with an off-kilter edge; and a simple, matter-of-fact delivery that belies the horrors within. Another strikingly creative work from one of Britain’s most singular writers – a darkly humorous novel of great brilliance and originality with an allegorical nod to the First World War.

Chatterton Square by E. H. Young

Probably the richest, most satisfying entry in the British Library’s Women Writers series so far, Chatterton Square is a novel of contrasts, an exploration of lives – women’s lives in particular – in the run-up to the Second World War. On the surface, Chatterton appears to be a straightforward story of two neighbouring families – one relatively happy and functional, the other much more constrained. However, the degree of depth and nuance that Young brings to her portraits of the main characters makes it a particularly compelling read – more so than my description suggests. Set in Upper Radstowe’s Chatterton Square – a place modelled on Bristol’s Clifton – the novel features one of the most pompous characters I’ve encountered this year: Herbert Blackett, a conceited, self-absorbed puritan who considers himself vastly superior to his more relaxed neighbours.

The Island by Ana María Matute (tr. Laura Lonsdale)

Set on the island of Mallorca, shortly after the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War, The Island is a darkly evocative coming-of-age narrative with a creeping sense of oppression. With her mother no longer alive and her father away in the war, Matia has been taken to the island to live with her grandmother (or ‘abuela’), Aunt Emilia and cousin Borja – not a situation she relishes. Matute excels in her depiction of Mallorca as an alluring yet malevolent setting, drawing on striking descriptions of natural world to reinforce the impression of danger. It’s a brutal and oppressive place, torn apart by familial tensions and longstanding political divisions. As this visceral novella draws to a close, Matia is left with few illusions about the adult world. The beloved fables and fairy tales of her childhood are revealed to be fallacies, contrasting starkly with the duplicity, betrayal and cruelty she sees being played out around her. A unsettling summer read.

The Fortnight in September by R. C. Sherriff

During a trip to Bognor in the early 1930s, R. C. Sherriff was inspired to create a story centred on a fictional family by imagining their lives and, most importantly, their annual September holiday at the seaside resort. While this premise seems simple on the surface, the novel’s apparent simplicity is a key part of its magical charm. Here we have a story of small pleasures and triumphs, quiet hopes and ambitions, secret worries and fears – the illuminating moments in day-to-day life. By focusing on the minutiae of the everyday, Sheriff has crafted something remarkable – a novel that feels humane, compassionate and deeply affecting, where the reader can fully invest in the characters’ inner lives. This is a gem of a book, as charming and unassuming as one could hope for, a throwback perhaps to simpler, more modest times.

Passing by Nella Larsen

Larsen’s 1928 novella Quicksand – which was inspired by Larsen’s own background and life – tells the story of a young mixed-race woman searching for her place in society, lacking a sense of identity in a highly segregated world. In Passing (1929), Larsen takes these themes a step further by exploring the emotional, moral and societal implications of the act of ‘passing’, whereby a light-skinned mixed-race woman passes as white in a society divided by race. Central to Passing is a fascinating yet complex relationship between two middle-class women, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry – both of whom are black but sufficiently light-skinned to pass as white, depending on their personal attitudes and circumstances. Passing is just as much an exploration of the complexities of female friendships as it is of race, touching on themes of desire, jealousy, loyalty, betrayal, victory and victimhood along the way. A superb book, fully deserving of its status as a classic of the Harlem Renaissance. I loved Rebecca Hall’s film adaptation too, currently steaming on Netflix.

Finally, a few books that almost made the cut – all very highly recommended indeed.

  • Meeting in Positano – Goliarda Sapienza’s gorgeous novel of female friendship, set in the glamorous world of 1950s Italy.  
  • The Visitor – Maeve Brennan’s piercing novella of resentment, bitterness and the loneliness of isolation.
  • Family Happiness – Laurie Colwin’s beautifully observed story of familial obligations and our need to be loved.   
  • Tea is So Intoxicating – Mary Essex’s delightfully amusing comedy on the pettiness of village life and the failure to recognise our own limitations.
  • The Feast – Margaret Kennedy’s joyous novel, set in post-war Cornwall. Part morality tale and part family saga/social comedy, it’s an escapist delight!

All that remains is for me to wish you a very Merry Christmas and all the best for the year ahead. Let’s hope it turns out to be significantly less stressful than the last two have been…

My books of the year 2021 – part one, recently published books

2021 has been another tumultuous year for many of us – maybe not as horrendous as 2020, but still very challenging. In terms of books, various changes in my working patterns enabled me to read some excellent titles this year, the best of which feature in my highlights. My total for the year is somewhere in the region of 100 books, which I’m very comfortable with. This isn’t a numbers game for me – I’m much more interested in quality than quantity when it comes to reading!

This time, I’m spreading my books of the year across two posts – ‘recently published’ books in this first piece, with older titles to follow next week. As many of you will know, quite a lot of my reading comes from the 20th century. But this year, I’ve tried to read a few more recently published books – typically a mixture of contemporary fiction and some new memoirs/biographies. So, the division of my ‘books of the year’ posts will reflect something of this split. (I’m still reading more backlisted titles than new, but the contemporary books I chose to read this year were very good indeed. I’m also being quite liberal with my definition of ‘recently published’ as a few of my favourites came out in 2017-18.)

Anyway, enough of the preamble! Here are my favourite recently published books from a year of reading. These are the books I loved, the books that have stayed with me, the ones I’m most likely to recommend to other readers. I’ve summarised each one in this post (in order of reading), but you can find the full reviews by clicking on the appropriate links.

Mayflies by Andrew O’Hagan

Every now and again, a book comes along that catches me off-guard – surprising me with its emotional heft, such is the quality of the writing and depth of insight into human nature. Mayflies, the latest novel from Andrew O’Hagan, is one such book – it is at once both a celebration of the exuberance of youth and a love letter to male friendship, the kind of bond that seems set to endure for life. Central to the novel is the relationship between two men: Jimmy Collins, who narrates the story, and Tully Dawson, the larger-than-life individual who is Jimmy’s closest friend. The novel is neatly divided into two sections: the first in the summer of ’86, when the boys are in their late teens/early twenties; the second in 2017, which finds the pair in the throes of middle age. There are some significant moral and ethical considerations being explored here with a wonderful lightness of touch. An emotionally involving novel that manages to feel both exhilarating and heartbreaking.

Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead by Olga Tokarczuk (tr. Antonia Lloyd-Jones)

A very striking novel that is by turns an existential murder mystery, a meditation on life in an isolated, rural community, and, perhaps most importantly, an examination of our relationship with animals and their place in the hierarchy of society. That might make Plow sound heavy or somewhat ponderous; however, nothing could be further from the truth! This is a wonderfully accessible book, a metaphysical novel that explores some fascinating and important themes in a highly engaging way. Arresting, poetic, mournful, and blacky comic, Plow subverts the traditional expectations of the noir genre to create something genuinely thought-provoking and engaging. The eerie atmosphere and sense of isolation of the novel’s setting – a remote Polish village in winter – are beautifully evoked.

The Shadowy Third by Julia Parry

When Julia Parry comes into possession of a box of letters between her maternal grandfather, the author and academic, Humphry House, and the esteemed Anglo-Irish writer, Elizabeth Bowen, it sparks an investigation into the correspondence between the two writers. Their relationship, it transpires, was an intimate, clandestine one (Humphry was married to Madeline, Parry’s grandmother at the time), waxing and waning in intensity during the 1930s and ‘40s. What follows is a quest on Parry’s part to piece together the story of Humphry’s relationship with Bowen – much of which is related in this illuminating and engagingly written book. Partly a collection of excerpts from the letters, partly the story of Parry’s travels to places of significance to the lovers, The Shadowy Third is a fascinating read, especially for anyone interested in Bowen’s writing. (It was a very close call between this and Paula Byrne’s Pym biography, The Adventures of Miss Barbara Pym, but the Parry won through in the end.)

The Cost of Living by Deborah Levy

This luminous meditation on marriage, womanhood, writing and reinvention is the second part of Deborah Levy’s ‘living autobiography’ trilogy – a series which commenced in 2014 with Things I Don’t Want to Know. In essence, this fascinating memoir conveys Levy’s reflections on finding a new way to live following the breakdown of her marriage after twenty or so years, prompting her to embrace disruption as a means of reinvention. Levy has a wonderful ability to see the absurdity in day-to-day situations, frequently peppering her reflections with irony and self-deprecating humour.

This is an eloquent, poetic, beautifully structured meditation on so many things – not least, what should a woman be in contemporary society? How should she live?

A Sunday in Ville-d’Avray by Dominique Barbéris (tr. John Cullen)

This beautiful, evocative novella is set in Paris on a Sunday afternoon in September, just at the crossover point between summer and autumn. The narrator – an unnamed woman – drives from the city centre to the Parisian suburb of Ville-d’Avray to visit her married sister, Claire Marie. As the two sisters sit and chat in the garden, an intimate story emerges, something the two women have never spoken about before. Claire Marie reveals a secret relationship from her past, a sort of dalliance with a mysterious man whom she met at her husband’s office. What emerges is a story of unspoken desire, missed opportunities and avenues left unexplored. This haunting, dreamlike novella is intimate and hypnotic in style, as melancholy and atmospheric as a dusky autumn afternoon.

Whereabouts by Jhumpa Lahiri (tr. by the author)

This slim, beautifully constructed novella is an exploration of solitude, a meditation on aloneness and the sense of isolation that can sometimes accompany it. The book – which Lahiri originally wrote in Italian and then translated into English – is narrated by an unnamed woman in her mid-forties, who lives in a European city, also nameless but almost certainly somewhere in Italy. There’s a vulnerability to this single woman, a fragility that gradually emerges as she goes about her days, moving from place to place through a sequence of brief vignettes. As we follow this woman around the city, we learn more about her life – things are gradually revealed as she reflects on her solitary existence, sometimes considering what might have been, the paths left unexplored or chances that were never taken. This is an elegant, quietly reflective novella – Lahiri’s prose is precise, poetic and pared-back, a style that feels perfectly in tune with the narrator’s world.

The Past by Tessa Hadley

A subtle novel of family relationships and tensions, written with real skill and psychological insight into character, The Past revolves around four adult siblings – Harriet, Alice, Fran and Roland – who come together for a three-week holiday at the Crane family home in Kington, deep in the English countryside. The siblings have joint ownership of the house, and one of their objectives during the trip is to decide the property’s fate. The inner life of each individual is richly imagined, with Hadley moving seamlessly from one individual’s perspective to the next throughout the novel. Everything is beautifully described, from the characters’ preoccupations and concerns, to the house and the surrounding countryside. A nearby abandoned cottage and its mysterious secrets are particularly vividly realised, adding to the sense of unease that pulses through the narrative. My first by Hadley, but hopefully not my last.

Intimacies by Lucy Caldwell

A luminous collection of eleven stories about motherhood – mostly featuring young mothers with babies and/or toddlers, with a few focusing on pregnancy and mothers to be. Caldwell writes so insightfully about the fears young mothers experience when caring for small children. With a rare blend of honesty and compassion, she shows us those heart-stopping moments of anxiety that ambush her protagonists as they go about their days. Moreover, there is an intensity to the emotions that Caldwell captures in her stories, a depth of feeling that seems utterly authentic and true. By zooming in on her protagonists’ hopes, fears, preoccupations and desires, Caldwell has found the universal in the personal, offering stories that will resonate with many of us, irrespective of our personal circumstances.

Blitz Spirit by Becky Brown

In this illuminating book, Becky Brown presents various extracts from the diaries submitted as part of the British Mass-Observation project during the Second World War. (Founded in 1937, Mass-Observation was an anthropological study, documenting the everyday lives of ordinary British people from all walks of life.) The diary extracts presented here do much to debunk the nostalgic, rose-tinted view of the British public during the war, a nation all pulling together in one united effort. In reality, people experienced a wide variety of human emotions, from the novelty and excitement of facing something new, to the fear and anxiety fuelled by uncertainty and potential loss, to instances of selfishness and bickering, particularly as restrictions kicked in. Stoicism, resilience and acts of kindness are all on display here, alongside the less desirable aspects of human behaviour, much of which will resonate with our recent experiences of the pandemic.

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

A brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. Riley’s sixth novel is a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away. The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. This is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits – a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.  

And finally, a few honourable mentions for the books that almost made the list:

  • Second Sight – an eloquent collection of film writing by the writer and critic, Adam Mars-Jones;
  • Nomadland – Jessica Bruder’s eye-opening account of nomad life in America;
  • Open Water – Caleb Azumah Nelson’s poetic, multifaceted novella;
  • and The Years – Annie Ernaux’s impressive collective biography (tr. Alison L. Strayer), a book I admired hugely but didn’t love as much as others.

So that’s it for my favourite recently published titles from a year of reading. Do let me know your thoughts below – and join me again next week when I’ll be sharing my favourite ‘older’ books with plenty of treats still to come!

These Names Make Clues by E. C. R. Lorac

The British author Edith Caroline Rivett – who wrote under the pseudonyms E. C. R. Lorac, Carol Carnac and Mary Le Bourne – is fast becoming one of my favourite writers of Golden Age mysteries. The British Library have reissued several of her novels in their Crime Classics series, and while These Names Make Clues (1937) isn’t quite as strong as some of the others I’ve read, there’s certainly a very intriguing puzzle for readers to enjoy.

The novel opens with an invitation to a treasure hunt party, which is to be hosted by the London-based publisher Graham Coombe and his sister, Susan. The Coombes have invited Chief Inspector Macdonald to attend the gathering, urging the detective to test his wits against the thriller writers and other assorted luminaries attending the event. At first, Macdonald is somewhat reluctant to accept, fearing that he might look a bit foolish if trumped by an amateur sleuth. Nevertheless, he ends up taking the bait, albeit on a whim.

The action swiftly moves to the party itself at Caroline House, a rather well-to-do property in London’s Marylebone, in the spring of 1936. Macdonald is one of ten or so guests at the gathering, each of whom is assigned a literary pseudonym to adopt for the night.

At first, the treasure hunt proceeds according to plan, with each guest working on their individual clues while also wondering about the other players’ identities. (To the best of the Coombes’ knowledge, the guests haven’t met before, so their true identities also remain something of a mystery – to one another at least.)

Just as the party is in full swing, the game is rudely interrupted by a blackout, seemingly due to a blown fuse. Candles are lit as a temporary measure, but when the guests reassemble to take stock of the situation, one member of the party is missing. Before long, the body of ‘Samuel Pepys’, aka the crime writer Andrew Gardien, is discovered by Macdonald at the back of the house. 

So Samuel Pepys was Andrew Gardien, author of a dozen detective stories. The “Master Mechanic” the reviewers called him, owing to his ingenuity in inventing methods of killing based on simple mechanical contraptions. “Heath Robinson murders,” another reviewer had styled them, involving bits of cord and wire and counterpoises, all nicely calculated to tidy themselves up when their work was done. Springs and levers and pulleys had been used with wonderful effect by the quick brain which had once animated that still body. (p. 44)

Heart failure appears to be the most likely cause of Gardien’s death, but naturally Macdonald is suspicious. There are scorch marks on the dead man’s hands, possibly indicating an electric shock of some sort, although quite how that might have happened is not immediately apparent. The sighting of a mysterious grey-haired man is another puzzling factor, with two of the guests claiming to have seen this man before the blackout happened. The identity of the grey-haired man is unknown. However, there is a suggestion that he bore a vague resemblance to Gardien’s literary agent, Mardon-Elliott, who was not on the official guest list for the party, as far as we can tell.

The picture is further complicated when Mardon-Elliott himself is found dead in his office the following morning. Once again, the circumstances are suspicious, with various clues pointing to Gardien as the potential perpetrator – a theoretical possibility, especially given the degree of uncertainty around the time of Elliott’s death. As Macdonald subsequently muses, the two crimes appear to be linked, with Gardien’s murder pointing to Elliott as the perpetrator, and Elliot’s to Gardien – a puzzling situation indeed, possibly designed to throw detectives off the scent.

“Yet here we have the murder of Elliott – signed Gardien – so to speak, and the murder of Gardien with an indication of Elliott. The probability is that the same person killed both and arranged indications that they killed one another, doing it in such a way as to suggest a thriller writer is the perpetrator – on account of the funny business involved – from which suggestion it seems reasonable to argue by contraries that a thriller writer had nothing to do with it.” (p. 136)

By now, Macdonald is well and truly in his element, interviewing the various attendees to figure out their movements on the night of the party. As ever, this likeable detective is a pleasure to shadow as he goes about his business, ruminating on various details that other investigators might miss.

Towards the end of the story, the action shifts from London to the Berkshire countryside with Macdonald’s friend, the enthusiastic journalist Peter Vernon also getting embroiled in the case.

While These Names… is a little short on the immersive sense of place Lorac employs so well in several of her other mysteries – a missed opportunity given her skills in capturing rural landscapes (as in Fell Murder) and wartime London settings (as in Checkmate to Murder) – it does feature some very interesting characters, not least the razor-sharp historian Valerie Woodstock.

The girl’s shrewd eyes met Macdonald’s full. Her appearance might indicate the society miss, interested only in clothes and a good time, but her expression showed a very different personality. Valerie Woodstock had recently leapt into fame for an erudite piece of historical research, and Macdonald knew that a first-class brain was hidden behind that frivolous exterior. (p. 51)

Readers would do well to pay close attention to the characters’ names in this intriguing mystery – a point that is easier said than done given the liberal use of pseudonyms running through the book. Nevertheless, fans of cryptic crosswords and anagrams will likely enjoy this one, especially given the relevance of the novel’s title, These Names Make Clues.

As ever, the novel comes with an excellent introduction from the writer and series consultant Martin Edwards, who explains a little more about Lorac/Rivett and her election to the Detection Club. It’s lovely to see this engaging novel back in print after a long period in the wilderness. My thanks to The British Library for kindly providing a review copy. (If it’s of interest, you can buy the book here via this link to Bookshop.org.)

My Phantoms by Gwendoline Riley

My Phantoms is Gwendoline Riley’s sixth novel, a brilliantly observed, lacerating portrayal of a dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship that really gets under the skin. This book has attracted a raft of praise recently, largely prompted by Andy Miller’s enthusiastic support for it on Twitter. It’s a deeply uncomfortable read, veering between the desperately sad and the excruciatingly funny; and yet, like a car crash unfolding before our eyes, it’s hard to look away.

The novel is narrated by Bridget, who is difficult to get a handle on, other than what she tells us about her parents, Helen (aka ‘Hen’) and Lee Grant. Lee, who features heavily in the early chapters of the book, is one of those awful men who delight in badgering anyone who happens to fall within their orbit, physically pinching or goading his daughters on a regular basis. Bridget and her sister Michelle employ various strategies to pre-empt and deal with his mockery – some of them successful, others less so. He is a truly dreadful character, but sadly all too recognisable. (I had an uncle in a broadly similar vein, a loudmouth who taunted me for going to university when I really ought to have been working to earn a proper wage.) 

He [Lee] could never hear enough about the inadequacy of people who weren’t him. And as with his boasting about his past, these things didn’t need to have actually happened for him to enjoy them. The fact that he enjoyed them somehow brought them into being, with each innocuous piece of news you shared with him somehow always ending up as a perfect illustration of some risible misstep. Between your mouth and his ear the facts got bent backwards. So he was neither a prospector nor a connoisseur of human shortcomings, really, but rather a sort of processing plant which turned all information into the same brand of thrilling treat: that someone had had a knock-back or that someone had looked a fool. (p. 21–22)

Hen is another complex, deeply flawed character, albeit in a completely different way to Lee. Now in her late sixties, twice-divorced and living alone in Manchester, Hen is constantly trying to join social clubs and groups without ever developing any real friendships or meaningful relationships with others. Any degree of emotional investment on Hen’s part is sadly lacking. Moreover, there is a sense of Hen doing these things without deriving any enjoyment or pleasure from them, going through the motions of a social life because it’s what people should do.

I’m not sure what she [Hen] would have done with friends. Friends who, one imagines, might have wanted to ask her how she was now and then; who might even have expected her to return the interest. I suppose it had just lodged in her mind that one should have them; that it was ‘what people did’. (p. 59)

Having put herself out there, Hen feels that life owes her something in return, someone she can go to the cinema with, maybe even share a life with, like other people do. In theory, Hen’s second husband, Joe, ought to have been able to fulfil this role, but his coarse, boorish nature and lack of interest in going anywhere at all put the kibosh on that. After two years, their relationship ended acrimoniously, prompting Hen’s move to Manchester to distance herself from Joe’s circle.

As far as Bridget sees it, Hen is fixated with a feeling of exclusion from normal life, that she is not getting her just rewards for playing by the rules and putting the effort in when required. Despite throwing herself into Wine Circle, volunteering, various tours and excursions, Hen remains largely unfulfilled – something that Bridget finally tackles with Hen, suggesting therapy as a potential solution.

‘Are you listening, Mum?’ I said. ‘Can I tell you what I think? You need to think about what you want. And why what you get seems to leave you so empty. This comes up a lot with you, this note of disappointed expectation. I think you feel like a bargain has been broken when you say you do what you’re supposed to do. You understand that a deal was never struck, don’t you?’ (pp. 144-145) 

For much of the novel, Bridget keeps contact with Hen to a minimum, speaking to her occasionally on the phone, meeting up once or twice a year, ultimately culminating in a strained annual birthday meal that typically feels like a confrontation. Mother and daughter don’t engage in conversations as such. Instead, their exchanges rely on Bridget feeding Hen tried and trusted prompts, ‘combustible material’ that the latter is sure to respond to.

That scrabble for combustible material … My instinct was that it was the best thing to do; that it kept something else at bay. But I did not feel good about it; about the way, for instance, I used to ask this routinely overlooked and ignored woman about men. ‘Any potential new boyfriends?’ I’d say, brightly, every year, knowing that that would take care of half an hour or so as my mother talked up her latest crush and I reacted and speculated, and asked for details, and made a show of considering what they might indicate. (p. 82)

In return, Bridget tries to avoid revealing too much in the way of happiness or enjoyment in her own life, fearing that this will upset her mother or prompt the wrong kind of response. Occasionally though, the temptation to provoke cuts through the façade as Bridget wrestles with her demons.

As the novel unfolds, we learn more about the boundaries that Bridget has put in place to protect herself – things the reader begins to question in conjunction with Hen. Why, for example, has Hen never been ‘allowed’ to meet Bridget’s partner, John? (Bridget’s home is another example of something that appears to be off limits to Hen. She actually turns up unannounced at one point, and it’s an agonising scene to observe.) And why do we get the sense that Bridget might be withholding information from the reader, presenting us with a partial version of events in her ‘charade’ with Hen? These questions and more haunt the narrative as it moves towards its unflinching conclusion.

My Phantoms is a fascinating character study, one that captures the bitterness, pain and irritation of a toxic mother-daughter relationship with sharpness and precision. The dialogue is pitch-perfect, some of the best I’ve read this year, especially for illustrating character traits. While I’m not sure that I’ve fully understood Bridget as a person in her own right, the novel itself contains so many relatable scenes, especially for those of us with complex or troublesome families. It’s a truly uncomfortable read, for all the right reasons.   

My Phantoms is published by Granta. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.

This Sweet Sickness by Patricia Highsmith

Patricia Highsmith is one of my favourite writers. She has an uncanny ability to get into the mind of a delusional character, and she does this particularly well in her 1960 novel, This Sweet Sickness. This immersive story of obsession and desire centres on David Kelsey, a talented yet restless young chemist who lives in New York. The problem for David is that he’s embroiled in the ‘Situation’, a concept that Highsmith introduces in the enticing opening paragraphs…

It was jealousy that kept David from sleeping, drove him from a tousled bed out of the dark and silent boardinghouse to walk the streets.

He had so long lived with his jealousy, however, that the usual images and words, with their direct and obvious impact on the heart, no longer came to the surface of his mind. It was now just the Situation. The Situation was the way it was and had been for nearly two years. No use bothering with the details. The Situation was like a rock, say a five-pound rock, that he carried around in his chest day and night. (p. 1)

During the week, David lives in a room in Mrs McCartney’s crummy boarding house where he fends off unwanted enquires and attention from various other inhabitants – most notably Effie Brennan, a friendly young woman who appears to be smitten with him. His weekends, however, are spent elsewhere, at a house in the town of Ballard, which he has purchased under a different name – that of William Neumeister, an alias or alter ego David has invented for himself.

At his Ballard home, David fantasises about his future life with former girlfriend Annabelle Delany, the only woman he has ever truly loved. In his imagination, the couple drink martinis together, listen to classical music and plan their forthcoming holidays around the world, all in the surroundings of the house that David has furnished for his ‘partner’. Unfortunately for David, Annabelle is now married to Gerald Delaney, and the couple have a young child together. To David, however, these are trivial obstacles – so trivial in fact that he persists in believing that Annabelle will soon come to her senses and leave Gerald for him. Surely Annabelle will be powerless to resist such charm and devotion, qualities that David continues to express in his letters and phone calls to her? At least, that’s how David sees things. In reality, though, the reader will appreciate how foolish this seems…

His house had the tremendous virtue of never being lonely. He felt Annabelle’s presence in every room. He behaved as if he were with her, even when he meditatively ate his meals. It was not like the boardinghouse, where with all that humanity around him he felt as lonely as an atom in space. In the pretty house Annabelle was with him, holding his hand as they listened to Bach and Brahms and Bartók, making fun of him if he were absentminded. He walked and breathed in a kind of glory within the house. Sunlight was like heaven, and rainy weekends had their peculiar charm. (pp. 19–20)

At first, David’s work colleagues and fellow residents at the boarding house know nothing about the Ballard house and the existence of William Neumeister. Instead, they believe that David spends every weekend visiting his mother at a nursing home, far enough away to justify his absence for a couple of days. This is the yarn that David has spun them, despite his mother having been dead for a number of years. However, as the novel unfolds, two individuals in particular – David’s work colleague Wes Carmichael and fellow boarder Effie Brennan – become increasingly curious about their friend’s secretive behaviour and decide to check things out…

This is the type of novel where it’s best not to know too much about the main plot developments in advance, so I’m going to keep this review fairly brief. What I will say is that David’s dual life becomes increasingly messy as the novel progresses, with William Neumeister’s existence bleeding into David Kelsey’s in dangerous and unsettling ways…

He walked back through the slush to Mrs McCartney‘s, wondering how he would get through the evening, how he had gotten through the four or five hundred other evenings he had spent in his room. It was as if his wretched room itself had suffered an invasion. The Neumeister part of his life had entered the Kelsey Monday-to-Friday part, and like certain chemicals on mixing had set off an explosion. David was not used even to thinking about his weekend life during his working days and evenings. Now his weekend existence had, in fact, been destroyed. Slush-slush-slush went his shoes on the filthy sidewalks. (pp. 111–112)

What Highsmith does so well in this novel is to draw the reader into her protagonist’s mind. Even though the book is written in the third person, Highsmith’s depiction of David as an unhinged, delusional individual is utterly convincing, drawing the reader into the fantasy he has created for himself. By contrast, Annabelle is relatively lightly sketched, almost a cipher in some respects, to the point where I initially wondered if she might be a figment of David’s imagination. She isn’t, by the way – in fact she could be accused of encouraging David in his fantasies by not being firm enough with him from the start. Once again, there are some interesting psychological dynamics at play here that contribute to David’s delusions. Moreover, to complicate things further, there’s Effie Brennan, the persistent young woman who ends up following David while attempting to win his affections.

So, in summary, This Sweet Sickness is another very compelling novel from Patricia Highsmith, a psychological exploration of obsession, delusion and desire. Admittedly, the reader might have to suspend disbelief to accept a couple of key plots developments or devices; nevertheless, I found it a very addictive read, partly because the author builds a sense of dread so steadily and effectively.

This Sweet Sickness is published by Virago Press; personal copy. You can buy a copy of the book here via Bookshop.Org.