Tea at Four O’Clock by Janet McNeill

First published in 1956, Tea at Four O’Clock is a brilliant but desperately sad story of familial obligations, ulterior motives and long-held guilt, all set within the middle-class Protestant community of Belfast in the 1950s. It is the first of Janet McNeill’s novels that I have read, but on the strength of this I will definitely be seeking out more of her work – particularly her final novel, The Small Widow, which is still in print.

Tea at Four O’Clock centres on Laura, the youngest daughter and middle child of the Percival family. We first meet Laura – now a rather timid spinster in her forties – on the afternoon of the funeral of her elder sister, Mildred, a woman whose presence still looms large over the Percival residence, Marathon, in spite of her recent death.

Mildred had made her last exit through the gates of Marathon. There would be nothing heard of her again—no voice, no footstep, nor the insistent invalid bell. People would speak of her, of course, as they spoke of her father and mother; letters might still come addressed to her name; the house was full of her clothes and all the evidence of the fifty years she had lived there. Miss Parks, Laura knew, would be a tower of strength. Her distressed gentlewomen’s guild would gladly take over what lay in Mildred’s wardrobe and chest of drawers. Laura must arm herself against meeting a distressed gentlewoman coming along the street disguised as Mildred. But Mildred herself had gone. (p. 8)

Over the course of many years, any sense of joy or liberty had been systematically sucked out of Laura’s life, first by her puritanical father – long since deceased – and latterly by the tyrannical Mildred whose exacting standards governed the daily routine at Marathon. (The book’s title refers to Mildred’s insistence that afternoon tea should be served by Laura at precisely four o’clock – no sooner, and certainly no later.) Having nursed Mildred through the long illness that led to her death, Laura is now somewhat shell-shocked at the prospect of what the future might hold for her. She has known virtually no other life, the demands of Marathon and Mildred having dominated her day-to-day existence for so many years.

Laura’s current situation is further complicated by the presence of three seemingly well-meaning individuals, each one armed with their own particular motives for wanting to get close to her as the new owner of Marathon and sole beneficiary of Mildred’s will.

First, there is the pushy Miss Parks, Mildred’s old schoolteacher and recently rediscovered ‘friend’. For some years, Miss Parks had enjoyed the prestige of keeping house for her bachelor brother, a local clergyman, only to be dislodged from this position on her brother’s marriage to a usurper. In search of a new cause to champion, Miss Parks was only too willing to push herself forward at the time of Mildred’s illness. By doing so, she saw an opportunity to further her own position, worming her way back into Mildred’s affections and the Percival family home to boot. While her stay at Marathon was initially intended to be a temporary measure, to help support Mildred in the final weeks of her illness, Miss Parks is showing no signs of leaving now that her charge has passed away. If anything, this formidable woman is striving even harder to make herself indispensable to the household, taking charge of day-to-day matters whenever the opportunity arises. It will suit her proposes very well if Laura remains fragile and in need of careful management and direction, for who would be better placed to provide such a service than Miss Parks herself?

Yesterday, after the funeral cortège had left the house Miss Parks had her first taste of power. It was at her reminder that the blinds had not immediately been drawn up, it was her refusal to drink tea at an hour when Mildred never drank it that had made Laura refuse tea also. And again, this morning, she had watched with satisfaction as Laura made her escape into the garden, and then put on Mildred’s apron, filled Mildred’s watering-can, and taken over the duty of watering the plants. She did not wish to return to her own small bed-sitting-room in Ashley Avenue. It seemed possible, probable even, that she would not have to do so. (p. 68)

Then there is George, Laura and Mildred’s younger brother, banished from the family home by his father some twenty years earlier, who reappears at Marathon on the afternoon of Mildred’s funeral. Following his dismissal from the Percivals’ linen business for being reckless with his father’s money, George managed to carve out a modest life for himself with his working-class, socially conscious wife, Amy, and their teenage daughter, Kathie. They live in a cramped, rundown house on the other side of the city where money is very tight. George still resents the fact that he has been excluded from the Percival family home for several years, first by his unforgiving father, and then by the domineering Mildred who made him feel small and inadequate when he called on her for some money at the time of Amy’s pregnancy. Now he has designs on Marathon itself. By getting close to Laura again, George hopes to be able to move back to the Percival residence, this time with Amy and Kathie in tow. However, to achieve this, he must get the better of the calculating Miss Parks in the battle for Laura’s trust and affection.

Even the Percival family’s longstanding lawyer and close confidant, Mr McAlister, seems to have his eye on Laura. At first, it would appear that he is out to protect his charge, primarily from the detrimental influences of the bossy Miss Parks and the equally unscrupulous George; but it soon becomes clear that McAlister has a motive of his own, a more personal reason for trying to distance Laura from these predatory influences.

To have any hope of moving forward, Laura finds that she must delve back into her past. Over the course of this short novel, she is forced to come to terms with a period of her life she has long since buried: a series of circumstances that had led to her stay at Marathon at a time when the possibility of freedom was so tantalisingly within her reach. Slowly but surely, McNeill reveals through a series of flashbacks the tragedy of Laura’s past, the incidents and circumstances that have blighted her life, making her the anxious, downtrodden woman she is today. There was a time when Laura was happy, the two years she spent at art college where she fell in love with Tom, a fellow student and friend of George’s. In this scene, Laura is watching Tom as he sketches the landscape during a day trip to the lakeside.

Laura did not take out her sketching book. She lay on one elbow, contented in the sufficiency of the moment, in the luxury of knowing that just by turning her head she could see Tom beside her, feeling the sun warm on her skin, hearing the waves., Here was richness. She hoarded every moment as it went by, each chaffinch’s flourish, each small lazy wave. It would have to last her a long time. (p. 111)

Laura’s memories of Tom are reignited when his son, also an artist, comes to the city to show his paintings, an exhibition which Laura attends.

Tea at Four O’Clock is a powerful, character-driven novel where the focus is on the psychology and underlying motives of different individuals tied together by familial or social bonds, however tenuous they might be. In this respect, it shares something with the work of other women writers of the mid-late 20th century, particularly Anita Brookner, Elizabeth Taylor and Elizabeth Bowen. The mood is intense, claustrophobic and ominous – deliberately so, I think. The weight of guilt is ever present in the story from Mr Percival’s regret over the death of his wife when she gave birth to George, the son and potential heir he so desperately desired, to Laura’s guilt over past events, the nature of which is unravelled over the course of the narrative. Without wishing to say too much about the ending, there is a secret at the heart of the novel, one which reveals the true extent of Mildred’s hold over Laura for the past twenty years. It is the reason I described the book as desperately sad in the opening paragraph of this post.

McNeill also finds time to make reference to the changing nature of Northern Ireland in the fifties: the proliferation of new housing estates encroaching on the grounds surrounding the Percival mansion; the slim pickings available at home for ordinary men like George; the swathes of people emigrating to America, the land of hope and opportunity.

At the end of the day though, this is Laura’s story. I’ll finish with a final quote, one that seems to typify her state of mind.

The gates of her prison were open, but she lacked the courage to go through them to whatever new country was waiting for her on the other side. (p. 176)

My sincere thanks to Mary at Goodreads who recommended this book to me.

Tea at Four O’Clock is published by Virago; personal copy.

The Sound of the Mountain by Yasunari Kawabata (tr. Edward G. Seidensticker)

The Japanese writer Yasunari Kawabata is perhaps best known for Snow Country, the story of a doomed love affair between a wealthy city-based man and an innocent young geisha who lives in a remote area by the mountains. It is a work of great poetic beauty and subtlety – and yet there is something strange and elusive about this novella, a quality that makes it hard to pin down. The same could be said of The Sound of the Mountain, written in the early fifties and translated into English in 1970. Once again, I find myself being drawn into a world that feels so different from my own, delicately conveyed like the brushstrokes of a watercolour painting.

The novel focuses on Ogata Shingo, a sixty-two-year old man who lives with his wife, Yasuko, in the city of Kamakura, just south of Tokyo. After thirty years, any feelings of love or passion have long since disappeared from the couple’s marriage, leaving Shingo preoccupied with a number of things – mostly concerns about his family, the inexorable march of time and his failing memory. There is a sense that life is gradually slipping away from Shingo; the world around him is changing and not necessarily for the better. In this scene, he has just been struggling to do up his tie.

Why should he suddenly this morning have forgotten a process he had repeated every morning through the forty years of his office career? His hands should have moved automatically. He should have been able to tie his tie without even thinking.

It seemed to Shingo that he faced a collapse, a loss of self. (p. 195)

Shingo is at an age where several of his contemporaries are succumbing to various illnesses, some of which end in death –  a strong sense of loss pervades throughout the novel. Moreover, there are times, especially at night, when Shingo is visited by the sound of the mountain, a distant rumble that seems to suggest that his own passing might not be too far away.

It was like wind, far away, but with a depth like a rumbling of the earth. Thinking that it might be in himself, a ringing in the ears, Shingo shook his head.

The sound stopped, and he was suddenly afraid. A chill passed over him, as if he had been notified that death was approaching. He wanted to question himself, calmly and deliberately, to ask whether it had been the sound of the wind, the sound of the sea, or a sound in his ears. But he had heard no such sound, he was sure. He had heard the mountain. (p. 4)

Also living with Shingo and Yasuko are their wayward, unsympathetic son, Shuichi and his long-suffering wife, Kikuko, a beautiful, sensitive young woman who represents the main source of brightness in Shingo’s life. In short, she reminds Shingo of Yasuko’s sister, the long-lost love of his youth who died before he decided to get married.

Kikuko was for him a window looking out of a gloomy house. His blood kin were not as he would wish them to be, and if they were not able to live as they themselves wished to live, then the impact of the blood relation became leaden and oppressive. His daughter-in-law brought relief. (p. 25)

Even though he has only been married to Kikuko few years, Shuichi already has a mistress, Kinu, whom he visits after work, frequently leaving Shingo to travel home alone from the Tokyo office where the two men are based. Like Shingo himself, Kikuko also feels rather lonely and isolated in her life. In the absence her husband, she enjoys Shingo’s company, helping him to unwind on his return from the city. That said, there is nothing overtly sexual about Shingo’s relationship with Kikuko; for the most part, it seems more a case of mutual respect coupled with a deep sense of empathy. In other words, their attraction is predominantly spiritual rather than physical. Nevertheless, there are occasions when Shingo’s fondness for his daughter-in-law starts to raise questions in his mind.

There was an undercurrent running through his life the abnormality that made Shingo, drawn to Yasuko’s sister, marry Yasuko, a year his senior, upon the sister’s death; was it exacerbated by Kikuko? (p. 78)

Yasuko, for her part, is more forthright than Shingo, and she urges her husband to tackle Shuichi head-on over his affair and subsequent neglect of Kikuko. Furthermore, Yasuko believes her husband to be soft, particularly in his favouritism for Shuichi over their other child, Fusako. Shingo, however, has a tendency to procrastinate over familial relationships, preferring instead to avoid any unnecessary conflict. That’s not to say that he doesn’t feel guilty about his lack of intervention here – in fact, he feels it very deeply – but in spite of this, he allows the situation to fester.

This same sense of procrastination also characterises Shingo’s relationship with his rather disagreeable daughter, Fusako, who has recently come back to the Ogata family home following the breakdown of her own marriage. Moreover, Fusako has two young children in tow: a petulant toddler who clearly takes after her mother, and a more placid baby who spends most of her time asleep. Once again, guilt-ridden passivity is the order of the day as Shingo opts to let matters run their natural course.

He knew that as her father he should step forward to give Fusako advice; but she was thirty and married, and matters are not simple for fathers in such cases. It would not be easy to accommodate a woman with two children. A decision was postponed from day to day, as if the principals were all waiting for nature to take its course. (p. 25)

Kawabata paints a very nuanced portrait of Shingo here, a man troubled by the tensions and difficulties in the relationships that surround him, especially those in the modern world of post-war Japan. One feels great sympathy for this individual in spite of the inherent flaws and shortcomings in his character – after all, we are all human with our own particular weaknesses and failings. Central to the novel is the question of how much responsibility a parent should take for the happiness of his or her children, particularly where their marriages are concerned. As the consequences of complications in Shuichi’s and Fusako’s respective marriages unfold, Shingo finds himself haunted by a sense of guilt. While he tries to do the right thing, especially for Kikuko and Shuichi, a number of unanswered questions continue to prey on his mind.

How many times would Kikuko, now in her early twenties, have to forgive Shuichi before she had lived with him to the ages of Shingo and Yasuko? Would there be no limit to her forgiving?

A marriage was like a dangerous marsh, sucking in endlessly the misdeeds of the partners. Kinu’s love for Shuichi. Shingo’s love for Kikuko – would they disappear without trace in the swamp that was Shuichi’s and Kikuko’s marriage? (p. 96)

All in all, this is a beautiful, delicate novel laced with a sense of longing for the past, a time when human relations and emotions seemed more straightforward, certainly as far as Shingo is concerned. In several respects, I was reminded of The Gate by Natsume Söseki, a story of urban angst in early 20th-century Japan which I wrote about last year.  At first sight, The Sound of the Mountain might seem a relatively uneventful story of an ordinary Japanese family trying to get by from one day to the next. Nevertheless, in reality, there is a lot going on here; we just have to tune in to the author’s rhythm to see it.

The book also contains some lovely writing on the natural world. A majestic display of sunflowers in neighbouring gardens; a flock of buntings taking flight; the sight of fresh buds on a Gingko tree – all of these things represent moments of beauty and simplicity in Shingo’s life.

For more reviews of Japanese literature, see Dolce Bellezza’s event which is running to the end of the year.

The Sound of the Mountain is published by Penguin Books; personal copy.

Some Tame Gazelle by Barbara Pym

Barbara Pym began writing Some Tame Gazelle back in 1934 when she was just twenty-one, an impressive feat considering that the novel’s main protagonists – Belinda Bede and her sister Harriet – are both in their fifties. The characters are loosely based on Barbara herself and her elder sister, Hilary. In essence, she imagines what their lives might be like in another thirty years, both sisters unmarried and living together in a house in a quiet little village in the countryside. In this early novel, Pym begins to map out her territory, creating a world populated by unassuming gentlewomen, impressionable young curates, slightly fusty academics, and one or two more spiky characters – often women. This is a world where the most pressing concerns are what to serve the Archdeacon and other notable guests at supper and what to wear to the forthcoming church fete. Naturally, everything is beautifully observed in typical Pym fashion; she has a wonderful eye for social comedy, tempered with touches of poignancy here and there, qualities which give the reader much to enjoy.

The novel’s set-up is fairly straightforward yet rather delightful. Belinda and Harriet Bede are both spinsters in their fifties, living together in a quintessentially English village at some point in the 1930s or ‘40s. Their lives revolve around the day-to-day business of the community, most notably those activities connected with the church.

Belinda has been in love with the Archdeacon Hoccleve for the past thirty years, a man she first met and dated in college where they enjoyed a mutual appreciation of the English poets; but now that the Archdeacon is married to the formidable and efficient Agatha, Belinda must remain content with worshiping him from a safe distance, fantasising over whether he still retains some affection for her after all these years. On the other hand, Belinda’s sister Harriet is more preoccupied with the sequence of curates – all young, pale and undernourished – who pass through the parish on a regular basis. She lavishes her attention on them, inviting them for supper and afternoon tea whenever the opportunity arises – this in spite of the fact that she has received several proposals of marriage from the charming Count Bianco, a somewhat melancholy Italian gentleman who remains faithfully devoted to her in spite of a string of gentle refusals over the years.

In short, both sisters take comfort from having someone to cherish – which brings us to the novel’s title, a quote from a verse by the English poet Thomas Haynes Bayly.

Some tame gazelle, or some gentle dove:

Something to love, oh, something to love! (p. 11)

On the surface, very little appears to happen plot-wise in the first third of this novel, but as ever with Barbara Pym, the devil is in the detail. The characterisation is spot-on, often deeper and more subtle than it appears at first sight.

Belinda is the main focus here, and in some ways, she is almost a forerunner to Mildred, the central protagonist in Pym’s follow-on novel Excellent Women. Belinda is a hugely sympathetic but slightly meek woman who often puts the needs of others before her own desires. Guided by the social conventions of the day, she is forever conscious of doing and saying the ‘right’ thing, especially when in the company of others. Nevertheless, deep down, Belinda longs for a slightly more fulfilling life, one where she could share a few more moments with the Archdeacon, if only Agatha were not in the way. I love this next quote, one that conveys so much about Belinda as a character – and Pym as a writer, concerned as she is with the little details that reveal so much about the trials and tribulations of day-to-day life.

When we grow older we lack the fine courage of youth, and even an ordinary task like making a pullover for somebody we love or used to love seems too dangerous to be undertaken. Then Agatha might get to hear of it; that was something else to be considered. Her long, thin fingers might pick at it critically and detect a mistake in the ribbing at the Vee neck; there was often some difficultly there. Agatha was not much of a knitter herself, but she would have an unfailing eye for Belinda’s little mistakes. And then the pullover might be too small, or the neck opening too tight, so that he wouldn’t be able to get his heard through it. Belinda went hot and cold, imagining her humiliation. She would have to practice on Harriet, whose head was fully as big as the Archdeacon’s. And yet, in a way, it would be better if Harriet didn’t know about it, she might so easily blurt out something…Obviously the enterprise was too fraught with dangers to be attempted… (pp. 78-79)

By contrast, Harriet is much more flamboyant and outgoing than her sister, her personality coming through loud and clear in this next quote on her choice of outfit – Mr Donne, the new curate, has just arrived at the Bede’s for dinner.

Fortunately at this moment, for the conversational going was heavy, a firm step was heard on the stairs and Harriet came into the room, radiant in flowered voile. Tropical flowers rioted over her plump body. The background was the green of the jungle, the blossoms were crimson and mauve, of an unknown species. Harriet was still attractive in fat a Teutonic way. She did not wear her pince-nez when curates came to supper. (p. 6)

The Archdeacon too is another delight, a rather pompous man prone to quoting lines from obscure poems and works of literature in his sermons, much to the bemusement of most of his parishioners. A bit of a martyr at heart, the Archdeacon is forever complaining about the amount of work he has to do in his job, despite the assistance of his curate and the little coterie of diligent church helpers. Heaven knows what Belinda actually sees in him, but there must be something there – perhaps it’s a sense of comfort and familiarity, akin to the attachment to a favourite pair of slippers?

Pym is also very astute when it comes to observing the small slights in life, those casual little put-downs that can have an impact on a person’s feelings, especially someone as sensitive as Belinda. In this scene, Belinda is wo-manning the vegetable stall at the church garden party. With only newspapers at her disposal, she has chosen The Times as the most suitable wrapping for Lady Clara’s marrows, a decision which is soon overturned when Agatha Hoccleve appears on the scene.

‘What’s this?’ asked Agatha sharply, pointing to the Times-shrouded parcel which Belinda had put into a corner.

‘Oh, that’s Lady Clara’s marrows,’ Belinda explained.

‘Wrapped in newspaper?’ Agatha’s tone was expressive. ‘I’m afraid that won’t do at all.’ She produced some blue tissue paper from a secret hiding place and began to undo Belinda’s parcel.

‘Oh, dear. I’m so sorry, I didn’t know there was any other paper,’ said Belinda in confusion. ‘I saw them lying there and I thought perhaps they ought to be wrapped up and put aside in case anybody sold them by mistake.’

‘I don’t think anybody would be so stupid as to do that,’ said Agatha evenly. ‘They were the two finest marrows on the stall, I chose them myself.’

‘Oh well…’ Belinda gave a weak little laugh. All this fuss about two marrows. But it might go deeper than that, although it did not do to think so. (pp. 29-30)

Belinda dislikes Agatha but feels rather guilty and ashamed of herself for doing so. After all, everyone has their individual flaws and shortcomings, even Belinda herself.

Then, just as we think that nothing of any consequence will happen in this sleepy community, a sequence of events come together to unsettle the lives of the Bede sisters. Firstly, Agatha goes away on her own for as few weeks to enjoy the waters at a European spa, leaving the way clear for Belinda to see a little more of the Archdeacon on his own should she so wish. Then Nicholas Parnell, a University Librarian and old friend of Belinda’s, arrives in the village with his assistant, the dashing Mr Mold – a bit of a ladies’ man by all accounts – a development that puts Harriet in a bit of a spin. And finally, a Bishop from Africa, who turns out to be a former curate of the parish, comes to visit the Archdeacon, a trip that results in surprising developments for more than one lady in the village.

By the end of this charming, beautifully observed novel, a number of marriage proposals will have been issued, but how many (if any at all) will have been accepted? After all, as one of the Bede sisters reflects on her personal situation, ‘who would change a comfortable life of spinsterhood in a country parish, which always had its pale urate to be cherished, for the unknown trials of matrimony?’ Who indeed.

Some Tame Gazelle is published by Virago Books; personal copy.

Death in the Tunnel by Miles Burton

Like many other readers, I often find myself drawn to stories that take place on trains. There is something very appealing about this type of setting for a novel. Perhaps it’s the relatively intimate, self-contained nature of train compartments, an environment conducive to chance encounters and secret assignations. Maybe it’s the mix of people we brush up against during the journey, a disparate group of individuals, each with their own characteristics and idiosyncrasies. Or could it be the sense of continuous momentum involved, a feeling of journeying into the unknown whatever this may bring? In reality, I suspect it’s a combination of several factors – whatever it is, I find these stories hard to resist, especially if there’s a crime involved. All of which brings me to Miles Burton’s 1936 novel, Death in the Tunnel, a Golden Age mystery featuring a highly suspicious incident that takes place during a train journey.

As the novel opens, the 5 pm train from London’s Cannon Street is travelling to Stourford via its usual route. A little while after the train enters the Blackdown Tunnel, the train driver suddenly applies the breaks, causing the guard to commence a check of all the compartments to see if there has been an emergency on board. Shortly afterwards, the train begins to gather speed again, arousing the guard’s curiosity even further. As it turns out, the driver had seen a red light swinging in the middle of the tunnel, only for the light to change to green as the train slowed down and approached the source – a most peculiar occurrence, especially given the absence of any scheduled works on the line. Then, just as the train is pulling into Stourford, the guard discovers a passenger who seems to be in a bad way. On closer inspection at the station, it would appear that the man in question is in fact dead.

The station-master entered the compartment. “Hallo, it’s Sir Wilfred Saxonby from Helverden!” he exclaimed. “He went up by the 9.50 this morning, and his car is in the yard now to meet him. Whatever can be matter with him, I wonder?” As he spoke, the station-master unbuttoned the passenger’s overcoat, and opened it out. He started back in horror. On the breast of the dark grey suit beneath it was a patch of wet blood. (p. 11)

At first sight, Sir Wilfred’s death appears to be a cut-and-dried case of suicide. On his arrival at the platform at Cannon Street station, Sir Wilfred had paid the guard a pound to be seated alone in a locked first-class compartment where he wouldn’t be disturbed during the trip home. A small pistol engraved with his initials was found close to the body in a position that would fit with the presumption of suicide. Furthermore, it transpires that Sir Wilfred’s son and daughter were out of the country at the time of his death – both had gone abroad at their father’s suggestion, possibly to spare their feelings over the nature of his death. Nevertheless, clear cut or not, it is always best to be thorough in these matters, and Inspector Arnold of Scotland Yard is soon called in to take charge of enquiries.

Inspector Arnold doesn’t waste any time in getting down to business on the case, interviewing associates of Sir Wilfred’s and examining all the available evidence in a structured, methodical manner. In this endeavour, he is ably assisted by his close friend, the amateur detective, Desmond Merrion. As the pair begin to delve more deeply into the circumstances surrounding Sir Wilfred’s death, a number of puzzling details start to emerge, some of which suggest the possibility of murder as opposed to suicide. For instance, why was there no train ticket amongst Sir Wilfred’s belongings when the train compartment was searched? Who was the man seen leaving one of the first-class compartments just before the train entered the tunnel and where did he go? And perhaps most perplexing of all, who was operating the red and green lights seen by the driver as he travelled through the tunnel? On pondering the latter, Merrion begins to develop a hypothesis, one that raises several questions that prove rather tricky to answer.

“…However, let’s admit the bare possibility of there having been a man in the tunnel, who deliberately slowed down the train so that he would be able to board it.

“Now we pass on to the next point. In order that he could effect his purpose, it would be necessary that Saxonby should be travelling in a compartment by himself, and that his assailant should know which compartment this was. How could he have obtained the knowledge on either of these points? He might, it is true, have guessed that, for some reason with which he was acquainted, Saxonby would want to secure a compartment to himself. But how can he have known that Saxonby had been successful? Or, if he gambled on the probability of this success, how did he know which compartment it was? He couldn’t have seen Saxonby through the window, for that would almost certainly be obscured by the fumes from the engine.” (pp. 50-51)

By the way, this theory of Merrion’s doesn’t turn out to be true, but it does get the ball rolling on the pattern of the book – particularly the continual emergence of mysterious details and the development of various hypotheses, all of which point towards the possible murder of Sir Wilfred. And besides, those individuals who knew Sir Wilfred well can think of no reason why he would have committed suicide – the man had no business or money worries to speak of, so why would he have killed himself? By contrast, Sir Wilfred’s rather stubborn manner and his occasional lack of mercy in passing judgements as a Magistrate meant that he might have made a number of enemies over the years. As such, murder would appear to be a distinct possibility.

Death in the Tunnel is a mystery where the focus is on ‘who’ and ‘how’ as opposed to ‘why’. Burton is not particularly interested in exploring the psychology behind the crime, the perpetrator’s reasons for his or her actions. What’s key here is solving the intricate puzzle of how the murder was committed and by whom. In this regard, Death in the Tunnel is a very effective little puzzler, packed full of clues and a sprinkling of red herrings along the way.

Inspector Arnold and Desmond Merrion work perfectly well together as a team, their skills complementing one another very effectively. While Arnold tries to focus on the evidence and known facts, Merrion uses his highly developed powers of imagination and lateral thinking to develop possible scenarios as to what might have happened on the day. The combination of these talents is the key to the pair’s success.

“…Now, don’t you admit that I’ve solved your problem for you?”

“Solved the problem!” Arnold exclaimed. “You’ve made out a very convincing theory, I’ll admit that. But you haven’t produced a particle of proof in support of it.”

“I know that,” replied Merrion quietly. “I warned you before I started that I had no proof. You’ve got to dig away and find that for yourself. And at least I’ve suggested a dozen likely directions in which to dig…” (p. 211)

The final solution to the puzzle is rather intricate if a little convoluted in the end. Nevertheless, this turned out to be a most enjoyable read, a gentle vintage mystery in keeping with the style of the British Library Crime Classics collection.

Guy has also reviewed this book – you can find his post here.

The Widow’s Children by Paula Fox

A couple of years ago I read Desperate Characters – a 1970 novel by the American writer Paula Fox – in which a cat bite sparks a crisis in the lives of a privileged middle-class couple, setting in motion a series of events which threatens to undermine their seemingly harmonious existence. There is a crisis of sorts too in The Widow’s Children, Fox’s later novel of family dysfunction, first published in 1976. This is an acutely observed story of longstanding slights and prejudices, of things left unsaid or buried beneath the social niceties of family gatherings, of trying to live up to the burden of expectations – both those we demand of ourselves and those imposed on us by others. It is an excellent book, one that deserves to be much better-known.

Fox’s novel could be likened to a play, a deliberately claustrophobic chamber piece that plays out in an extended sequence of scenes, each one denoted by a new chapter. The cast is small and finely sketched, allowing us to observe each character in some detail.

Central to the story is Laura Clapper (née Maldonada), a fifty-five-year old prima donna, now married to her second husband, a rather foolish, hard-drinking man by the name of Desmond. Laura is impulsive, outspoken and manipulative, a woman with virtually no self-awareness and very little understanding of her impact on those around her. As Peter Rice, her longstanding editor friend observes at one point, ‘she actually can’t judge her own behaviour […]; she explodes, then wonders at the flying glass’. For Desmond, life with Laura is exhausting, for it is he who has to pick up the pieces when she blows up.

Completing the core cast are Laura’s brother, Carlos, a faded music critic, openly gay and playing the field; Clara, her timid, self-effacing daughter from her first marriage; and Eugenio, Laura’s other brother, a rather distracted individual who appears in one of the later scenes. Also central to the story, although we never meet her in person, is Alma Maldonada, mother of Laura, Carlos and Eugenio, an elderly widow who resides in a nursing home.

As the novel opens, Clara, Carlos and Peter Rice are preparing to join Laura and Desmond for drinks in their hotel room to say goodbye to the couple before they embark on an extended holiday to Africa. Before the guests arrive, we learn that earlier in the afternoon Laura received a phone call from the care home informing her that Alma had just died; but instead of telling Desmond the news, she keeps the information firmly to herself, showing no signs of sorrow or distress in the process. If anything, the opposite could be said to be true – Laura seems to relish in the knowledge of this secret fact, something that she alone is privy to, possibly to reveal at a vital moment during the evening ahead.

Her mind had been empty of thought; she had known only that something implacable had taken hold of her. And she had felt a half-crazed pleasure and an impulse to shout that she knew and possessed this thing that no one else knew, this consequential fact, hard and real among the soft accumulations of meaningless events of which their planned trip to Africa was one other, to be experienced only through its arrangements, itinerary, packing, acquisition of medicines for intestinal upsets, books to read, clock, soap, passports, the husk of action surrounding the motionless center of their existence together. (p. 18)

And so this bizarre evening begins during which the members of the Maldonada clan dance around one another in a strained sequence of manoeuvres during which various tensions become apparent and old grievances are revealed. (As of yet, there has been no mention of Alma’s death.) As Clara puts it here, the interactions between individuals are characterised by a marked gulf between outward behaviours and inner feelings, all in the name of keeping the charade of ‘family’ going. But to what end one might ask, especially with someone like Laura orchestrating the show.

In no other company more than among these Spaniards was Clara so conscious of a discrepancy between surface talk and inner preoccupation. They sped from one posture to another, eliciting with amused cries each other’s biases, pretending to discover anew the odd notions each harbored, amusing themselves nearly to death! Until Laura, with a hard question, thrust a real sword through the paper props, and there would be for a second, a minute, the startled mortified silence of people caught out in a duplicity for which they could find no explanation. Then, with what indulgence, what tenderness, Laura rescued them, sometimes. (p. 41)

As the evening plays out, we learn more about the backstory of each character, their individual flaws and imperfections, their missed chances and lost opportunities. We discover that Clara was abandoned by Laura as a young baby, only to be brought up by the impoverished Alma in her makeshift home in Brooklyn, a fact that has coloured Clara’s relationship with her formidable mother ever since. I love this passage describing Clara’s arrival at the drinks gathering, a moment that conveys so much about her perceived inferiority to Laura, and in so few words.

“Hello,” said Laura, bringing up the greeting from the deepest reach of her voice, a plangent, thrilling annunciation to which, Clara knew, no response would measure up, felt with a sinking heart that her own “hello” would weigh less than dust on such a scale of tonal drama, and so only held out her hand. Her mother gripped her fingers strongly for an instant, then withdrew her hand to a cigarette. (p. 19)

Clara also experiences a sense of unease about the state of her relationship with Alma, reluctant as she is to visit her at the care home even though she feels obliged to do so. Perhaps as a consequence of the nature of her fractured family, Clara seeks affection elsewhere. There is a man in her life; but as he married with children, the chances of her achieving a fulfilling relationship with him seem cruelly out of reach.

Carlos too feels the sting of his sister’s gaze; his rather sad and empty life is revealed in this insightful reflection, one of many in the book.

…Carlos would fold his hands behind his head and lie there, tears running down his cheeks, thinking of his used-up life, of lovers dead or gone, of investments made unwisely, of his violent sister who might telephone him at any minute and, with her elaborate killer’s manners, in her beautiful deep voice, make some outrageous demand upon him, making clear she knew not only the open secrets of his life but the hidden ones, knew about his real shiftlessness, his increasing boredom with sexual pursuit, his unappeased sexual longing, his terror of age. (p. 39)

Perhaps most notably, we also hear more about Alma’s story, how she emigrated from Spain to Cuba at the age of sixteen to marry a much older man she had never met before; how she neglected the Maldonada children when they were young; and how, following the death of her husband, she fled from Cuba to the USA where the family struggled to rebuild their lives. As a consequence, there is a noticeable sense of displacement running through this novel, an undercurrent of shifting circumstances and identities, which adds to the fault lines that have emerged over time.

I’m not going to reveal if and how the news of Alma’s death comes out; that would spoil the story, I think. Nevertheless, when the party move to a nearby restaurant for dinner, it becomes clear that Laura may have been more affected by the day’s events than had appeared at first sight. Interestingly, in the second half of the novel, the focus shifts away from Laura towards the male characters in the story, particularly Peter Rice – the ‘half-scant life’ he has settled for is touchingly revealed.

All in all, The Widow’s Children is a very accomplished novel – razor sharp and precise in style, brittle and unflinching in its sensibilities. The writing is superb, packed full of insightful observations on the inner truths of our lives and the fronts we put up to conform to expected social conventions. There are frequent references to predatory birds and animals throughout the book – the core symbolism is an obvious one.

I’ll finish with a final quote that caught my eye, this one from the ‘Restaurant’ chapter of the book.

Clara grew aware, with an easing of her spirit, that there were other people not much more than an arm’s length away, small islands of people at their tables, among whom waiters eddied and shifted, bent and straightened up. Some of the diners looked domestic, some festive, and some were silent. How, she wondered, did this table appear to all those others? In the subdued ambiguity of the restaurant lighting, the sustained clamor of conversation and eating, would anyone glancing casually at the Clapper table have observed the ravages of the battles that had raged among them. And was the apparent placidity and self-satisfaction of all those other people only a contrived show? (p. 123)

The Widow’s Children is published by Flamingo; personal copy.

The High Window by Raymond Chandler

Something slightly different from me today, a little look at one of Raymond Chandler’s novels, The High Window (1942), his third featuring the legendary private eye, Philip Marlowe. As I’ve written about Chandler before – there are links to my previous posts here: Farewell, My Lovely and The Long Good-bye – I’ll try to keep this review fairly brief, certainly as far as the plot is concerned.

The novel opens in traditional hard-boiled fashion with Marlowe visiting a new client at her home, an elaborate but soulless mansion in Pasadena, Los Angeles County. The woman in question is Mrs Elizabeth Bright Murdock, a wealthy, cantankerous old widow whose main pleasures in life appear to involve the consumption of large quantities of port and the systematic bullying of her repressed secretary, a rather neurotic young lady by the name of Merle Davis.

Mrs Murdock is in need of ‘a nice clean private detective,’ someone to investigate the theft of a rare gold coin, the Brasher Doubloon, the pride of her late husband’s private collection, normally kept under lock and key in a secure room in the house. As far as Mrs Murdock is concerned, the coin has been taken by her wayward daughter-in-law, the former nightclub singer, Linda Murdock (nee Conquest), a woman she has never liked – both the coin and the girl disappeared at the same time, hence the suspicion surrounding her involvement in the case.

I love this first passage – it’s taken from a scene where Marlowe is sizing up Linda Conquest, just from a photograph given to him by Mrs Murdock. It’s textbook Chandler.

A wide cool go-to-hell mouth with very kissable lips. Nice nose, not too small, not too large. Good bone all over the face. The expression of the face lacked something. Once the something might have been called breeding, but these days I didn’t know what to call it. The face looked too wise and too guarded for its age. Too many passes had been made at it and it had grown a little too smart in dodging them. And behind this expression of wiseness there was the look of simplicity of the little girl who still believes in Santa Claus. (p. 18)

As the Doubloon’s disappearance is a private family matter, the police are not to be involved. Instead, Mrs Murdock wants the coin back in her possession, along with an uncontested divorce for her rather ineffectual son, Leslie, of whom she is very fond – this in spite of his foolish marriage to Linda. Marlowe, for his part, smells a rat from the start; and when he tries to probe Mrs Murdock for further information about Leslie, the shutters come down. Along with the police, Leslie must also be kept firmly out of the investigation…

“Young man, do you want this job or don’t you?”

“I want it if I’m told the facts and allowed to handle the case as I see fit. I don’t want it if you’re going to make a lot of rules and regulations for me to trip over.”

She laughed harshly. “This is a delicate family matter, Mr Marlowe. And it must be handled with delicacy.”

“If you hire me, you’ll get all the delicacy I have. If I don’t have enough delicacy, maybe you’d better not hire me. For instance, I take it you don’t want your daughter-in-law framed. I’m not delicate enough for that.”

She turned the colour of a cold boiled beet and opened her mouth to yell. Then she thought better of it, lifted her port glass and tucked away some more of her medicine.

“You’ll do,” she said dryly. (pp. 16-17)

Somewhat reluctantly, Marlowe takes the case – after all, there are bills to be paid and bottles of liquor to be purchased. So, he sets off to find Linda’s former flatmate from before her marriage, a nightclub entertainer named Lois Magic.

As is often the case in these stories, the opening premise is simply the first thread in a complex web of deep-rooted corruption, an entanglement of messy crimes and grubby misdemeanours. The underlying situation is much more involved and intricate than it appears at first sight. Turns out that Leslie Murdock is in hock to Alex Morny – the nightclub manager and husband of Lois Magic – to the tune of $12,000. And that’s merely the start of it; there are many more twists and developments to come.

Marlowe’s quest for the coin takes him into seedy offices and apartments, glamorous nightclubs and bars, a veritable myriad of sleazy locations in the city. Along the way, he discovers evidence of murder, infidelity, blackmail, counterfeiting and sexual harassment, some of which have been kept under wraps for several years. Perhaps unsurprisingly, there comes a time when Marlowe finds himself caught between the police and his client in the quest for some kind of moral justice. While never losing sight of the need to stay on the right side of the law to maintain his status as a private eye, he is also aware that there is the confidentiality of his client to protect. Either way, our protagonist is trapped between a rock and a hard place, grappling with a situation he can barely begin to understand.

Twelve hours to tie up a situation I didn’t even begin to understand. Either that or turn up a client and let the cops go to work on her and her whole family. Hire Marlowe and get your house full of law. Why worry? Why be doubtful and confused? Why be gnawed by suspicion? Consult cockeyed, careless, clubfooted, dissipated investigator, Philip Marlowe, Glenview 7537. See me and you meet the best cops in town. Why despair? Why be lonely? Call Marlowe and watch the wagon come. (p. 129)

Once again, I am struck by just how many of these hard-boiled stories coalesce around dysfunctional families, often headed up by a poisonous matriarch as is the case here. Mrs Murdock is a prime example, a cold, bitter, unscrupulous woman who will stop at nothing to protect her own position. She really is quite a character.

While The High Window isn’t quite up there with the best of Chandler’s novels (for me, that would be The Big Sleep or The Long Good-bye), it still makes for a terrific read. Once again, I find myself admiring this author more for his writing than his plotlines. It’s all about the exhilarating prose style, peppered as it is with sharp dialogue and quotable one-liners. Here’s one of my favourites from the book, a wonderful description of the Idle Valley Club, the joint where Linda and Lois used to work.

The lobby looked like a high-budget musical. A lot of light and glitter, a lot of scenery, a lot of clothes, a lot of sound, an all-star cast, and a plot with all the originality and drive of a split fingernail. (p. 135)

Then there’s the irresistible combination of atmosphere, mood and indisputable sense of place. No one writes about Los Angeles quite like Chandler, from the plush estates of Bel Air to the rundown areas like Bunker Hill. I’ll wrap things up with a final quote, one that captures something of the dark underbelly of the city.

Bunker Hill is old town, lost town, shabby town, crook town. Once, very long ago, it was the choice residential district of the city, and there are still standing a few of the jigsaw Gothic mansions with wide porches and walls covered with round-end shingles and full corner bay windows with spindle turrets. They are all rooming houses now, their parquetry floors are scratched and worn through the once glossy finish and the wide sweeping staircases are dark with time and with cheap varnish laid on over generations of dirt. In the tall rooms haggard landladies bicker with shifty tenants. On the wide cool front porches, reaching their cracked shoes into the sun, and staring at nothing, sit the old men with faces like lost battles. (pp. 70-71)

The High Window is published by Vintage Crime/Black Lizard; personal copy.

I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith

In this utterly charming, quintessentially English novel, we follow the highs and lows of six months in the life of seventeen-year-old Cassandra Mortmain, one of the most delightful narrators you are ever likely to encounter in literature. As an aspiring writer, Cassandra shares her story by way of a series of highly detailed journal entries through which she hopes to figure out and capture her feelings – the strange mix of emotions she finds herself experiencing during this pivotal time in her life. In essence, the novel is a coming-of-age story, complete with plenty of agonising over various romantic entanglements along the way. For some reason, I thought I might struggle to engage with this book and its ‘consciously naïve’ narrator, but nothing could have been further from the truth. This turned out be a great read for me – unashamedly cosy and indulgent with some moments of poignancy along the way to counterbalance the sweetness.

The novel is set in the midst of the Suffolk countryside in the mid-1930s. Cassandra lives with her rather eccentric family in a dilapidated castle which they have leased from their nearby neighbour, the elderly Mr Cotton. The household is notionally headed up by Cassandra’s rather frustrating father, Mortmain, a once-promising writer who hasn’t produced any new work in the past ten years, a point that only serves to exacerbate the family’s woeful financial situation. These days, the reclusive Mortmain spends most of his time camped out in the castle’s gatehouse reading detective novels and trying to solve crossword puzzles. Then there is Cassandra’s ethereal stepmother, Topaz, a former artists’ model with a penchant for nudity and communing with nature. (Cassandra adores Topaz in spite of all her idiosyncrasies.) Finally, completing the family unit, we have Cassandra’s pretty older sister, Rose, her younger brother, Thomas, and their odd-job boy, Stephen, son of the Mortmains’ former maid, back in the days when they could afford one. Stephen is covertly in love with Cassandra – a fact that she is fully conscious of but doesn’t quite know how to handle without hurting his feelings.

In spite of their residing in such formerly grand surroundings, the Mortmains have virtually no money to speak of. For years they have been living off the ever-dwindling royalties from Mortmain’s only book, the proceeds from Topaz’s modelling days (no longer in evidence), and little bits of money they have managed to borrow here and there. The rent on the castle has not be paid for quite some time. Moreover, all the family’s good furniture has been sold and replaced by the bare essentials, mostly cheap items acquired from local thrift shops.

Our room is spacious and remarkably empty. With the exception of the four-poster, which is in very bad condition, all the good furniture has gradually been sold and replaced by minimum requirements bought in junk shops. Thus we have a wardrobe without a door and bamboo dressing-table which I take to be a rare piece. I keep my bedside candlestick on a battered tin trunk that cost one shilling; Rose has hers on a chest of drawers painted to imitate marble, but looking more like bacon. (p. 16)

There is little heating or food to speak of at the castle – on a good day, there might be an egg or two to accompany the usual tea of bread and margarine. As a consequence, the girls, Rose in particular, long for some kind of escape. There is a very amusing scene near the beginning of the book where Rose threatens, albeit somewhat petulantly, to go ‘on the streets’ to earn some money, only to be reminded by Cassandra that it would be impossible for anyone to do so in the depths of Suffolk; it’s simply not that sort of place! In reality, Rose believes her best chance of a brighter future would come from marrying a wealthy man, someone who could sweep her off her feet and take her away from the crumbling castle forever. The trouble is, the chances of meeting any eligible young men, irrespective of their looks and relative standing, are practically non-existent, especially given the castle’s isolated location and the Mortmains’ limited resources. Nevertheless, Rose is determined to find someone, even if it means marrying a man she does not love, just to pull herself out of a life of poverty.

Then, just when the Mortmains appear to be at their lowest ebb, into their lives sweep two dashing young Americans: Simon Cotton, the wealthy new owner of nearby Scoatney Hall, and his younger brother, Neil. (In effect, Simon is the Mortmains’ new landlord, old Mr Cotton having just passed away.) Naturally, all this happens in typical fairy-tale fashion as the Cottons arrive at the castle just in time to see the Mortmain family at their most eccentric: Topaz has already been spotted on the nearby mound communing with nature; young Cassandra is taking a bath in the kitchen surrounded by a makeshift screen of clothes horses; and to top it all off, Rose appears at the top of the stairs dressed in a freshly-dyed tea dress, just as her recently returned stepmother starts playing the lute. It all makes for the most bizarre scene, but luckily the Cottons find the whole thing rather fascinating.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Rose immediately sets her cap at Simon, seeing him as a potential future husband – this in spite of his beard which both girls find rather off-putting.

It is a pity that Simon is the heir, because Rose thinks the beard is disgusting; but perhaps we can get it off. Am I really admitting that my sister is determined to marry a man she has only seen once and doesn’t much like the look of? Is it half real and half pretence – and I have an idea that it is a game most girls play when they meet any eligible young men. They just…wonder. And if any family ever had need of wondering, it is ours. But only as regards Rose. I have asked myself if I am doing any personal wondering and in my deepest heart I am not. I would rather die than marry either of those quite nice men. (p. 66)

At first, the brothers consider Rose somewhat too forward and obvious, viewing her manner as more affected than alluring. Nevertheless, both Cassandra and Topaz are determined to aid Rose in her quest to get close to Simon. After one or two false starts, an invitation to dine at Scoatney is finally extended, an opportunity which Rose is determined to seize. In this scene, Cassandra is discussing Rose’s chances with Topaz.

I closed the kitchen door and said: ‘What did you think of her manner today?’

‘At least it was quieter, though she was still making eyes. But, anyway, it doesn’t matter now.’

I looked at her in astonishment and she went on:

‘Simon Cotton’s attracted – really attracted – couldn’t you see? Once that happens, a girl can be as silly as she likes – the man’ll probably think the silliness is fetching.’

‘Is Neil attracted, too?’

‘I doubt it,’ said Topaz. ‘I’ve an idea that Neil sees through her – I saw him give her a very shrewd look. Oh, how are we going to dress her, Cassandra? There’s a chance for her with Simon, really there is – I know the signs.’ (p. 122)

All too quickly Simon finds himself falling in love with Rose, and when he proposes marriage she naturally accepts. Cassandra, Topaz and Mortmain are all delighted at the news; Neil, however, is furious, a fact he reveals only to Cassandra, urging her to keep his outburst private. It would appear that Neil sees Rose as a gold-digger, someone who seems intent on marrying his brother for the money alone, irrespective of any genuine feelings of love.

As preparations for Rose’s wedding get underway – she is promptly whisked off to London by Simon’s erudite mother who insists on buying her a glamorous wardrobe and trousseau – Cassandra continues to chart the various developments in her journal. She is decidedly more grounded, more perceptive than her rather materialistic and foolish sister, a fact that becomes increasingly apparent as the narrative progresses.

Alongside Rose’s romance with Simon, Cassandra’s own feelings have also been thrown up in the air – not only by Stephen, who declares his love for her, but by Neil and Simon too. As far as Cassandra sees things, Neil is the more approachable of the Cotton brothers, more easy-going and open; and yet there is also something very attractive about Simon, especially once he dispenses with his beard. Much to her initial surprise, Cassandra also finds herself falling in love. Once again, the journal entries help Cassandra to make sense of her feelings. In effect, they provide an outlet for the experience of first love, marked as it so often is by that blend of exquisite pleasure and undeniable pain.

After that I talked easily enough, making him laugh quite a bit – I could see he was liking me again. But it wasn’t my present self talking at all; I was giving an imitation of myself as I used to be. I was very ‘consciously naïve’. Never, never was I that with him before; however I may have sounded, I always felt perfectly natural. But I knew, as I sat there amusing him while the band played ‘Lover’, that many things which had felt natural to me before I first heard it would never feel natural again. It wasn’t only the black dress that had made me grow up. (p. 323)

I don’t want to reveal too much more about the way in which the story finally plays out, save to say that there are one or two twists along the way (especially toward the end). Dodie Smith wrote the book while she was living in America, homesick as she was for her native England. As a consequence, the story is shot through with a touching sense of nostalgia, a reverence for the eccentricities of the nation she loved.

This is a captivating, slightly bittersweet novel, one that appears frothy on the surface but is actually deeper and more insightful than its initial levity suggests – I have barely scratched the surface of it here.

I Capture the Castle is published by Vintage Books; personal copy.