There is something deeply unnerving about a crime novel featuring an ordinary domestic setting – the type of story where sinister activities take place behind the veil of net curtains in the privacy of the protagonist’s home. The English writer and book reviewer Celia Dale was clearly a master of this genre, especially if her 1966 novel A Helping Hand is anything to go by. It’s an icily compelling tale of greed and deception, stealthily executed amidst carefully orchestrated conversations and endless cups of tea. An absolute shoo-in for my end-of-year highlights, I devoured this brilliant, terrifying novel in my eagerness to reach the end.
Central to the novel are former nurse Maisie Evans and her husband Josh, a middle-aged couple living quiet lives in the heart of suburbia. As the story gets underway, we find the Evanses on holiday in Italy, ostensibly as a bit of a break following the death of Auntie Flo, whom the couple had been looking after in their home before the old lady’s death. With Maisie’s background in nursing, the couple like to offer ‘a helping hand’ here and there, acting as caretakers to people in need, especially those with no relatives or other support.
During their break, Maisie and Josh attach themselves to another pair of British holidaymakers – the elderly widow Cynthia Fingal and her rather selfish niece, Lena. Right from the very start, Dale hints at the Evanses’ true motivations for befriending these fellow Brits, with Maisie targeting Lena while Josh works his magic on Mrs F. With her beloved husband, Stanley, long deceased, Mrs Fingal has missed the little attentions of a male companion – a role that Josh is only too willing to pick up. So, while Maisie accompanies Lena on various shopping trips around town, Josh begins to charm Mrs Fingal, flattering her with the attentiveness and conversation she is eager to lap up.
As Maisie soon discovers, Lena feels she has been saddled with taking care of her aunt – a burden she so clearly resents as it prevents her from living a more exciting life. In truth, Lena is selfish, irritable and impatient – qualities that Maisie soon turns to her own advantage by listening to Lena’s woes. Moreover, Mrs Fingal is equally unhappy with Lena, viewing her as common, self-centred, and hard – a perception she duly shares with Josh.
‘…I can’t talk like this to Lena. She shuts me up. She can’t see outside herself, you see. And she’s common. There’s never any conversation, she hasn’t the patience to listen to anyone but herself.’ (p. 55)
One of the things Dale does so well here is to let the reader in on what the Evanses are up to, slowly but surely as the narrative unfolds. For instance, we see them sizing up Mrs Fingal’s situation, working out how much the old lady might be worth and establishing whether there are any other living relatives besides Lena. It really is quite calculated and cold…
By the end of the holiday, a plan is in place for Mrs Fingal to go and live with the Evanses – an arrangement that seems to suit everyone concerned. After all, with Maisie’s training in nursing, the Evanses are perfectly placed to accommodate Mrs F in their spare room – the one previously occupied by ‘Auntie’ Flo. Lena, for her part, is delighted to have an opportunity to offload her aunt onto someone else, leaving her free to focus on her work and entertaining men, while Mrs F can look forward to mild flirtations with Josh and some much-need company to stave off her loneliness. It’s the perfect solution all round, or so it appears on the surface…
At first, all is sweetness and light at the Evanses following Mrs Fingal’s arrival; but slowly and stealthily, the tone beings to change. In essence, Maisie treats the old lady like a child, confining her to bed for long periods and scolding her for the little accidents and spillages that occur.
[Mrs Fingal:] ‘Not go out? Oh, but I must go out.’
[Maisie:] ‘What d’you have to go out for? Oh, look what you’ve done, spilled egg on my nice clean tray cloth!’
‘Oh, surely not? I mean…’
‘And on the sheet too. You are a mucky pup and no mistake. We’ll have to give you a bib.’ (p. 96)
Gradually we release the horror of what’s unfolding here. By prescribing extensive periods of bed rest for Mrs Fingal, Maisie is deliberately pursuing a plan to weaken the old lady’s muscles, whittling away her independence in the process. Moreover, Maisie does everything in her power to carefully discourage any contact between Lena and Mrs Fingal, citing the desire for stability as a cover for her actions. After all, the Evanses don’t want Lena getting a whiff of what’s actually happening back at the house in case she disturbs things. Better to leave Auntie Cynthia alone to avoid upsetting her routine…
[Lena:] ‘We haven’t talked much about Auntie.’
[Maisie:] ‘There’s not much to say. You get on with your life and leave the worrying to me – when there is any.’
‘D’you think I ought to come over?’
‘Frankly, dear, I don’t. It would only unsettle her. She’s settled into our little home so well that I think it’s really only kind to leave her to her own little ways and routines. You know what old folk are, they get used to things being just as they like them, just as they’re used to. She’s as happy as a sandboy with me and Josh knowing just what she likes, and anything coming in new from the outside might only upset her again.’ (p. 118)
While Maisie proceeds to wear down Mrs Fingal by restricting her movements, Josh can be equally sinister in his own chilling way, neglecting his charge for other, more interesting activities. As such, Mrs Fingal is left feeling lonely and confused, declining mentally and physically under the Evanses’ ‘care’.
[Mrs F:] ‘Is it night-time?’
[Josh:] ‘No, it’s not long gone five. I’ll bring you your tea in a minute.’
I thought I’d had my tea. When you didn’t come, I thought it must be night but then I heard voices and I thought it was strangers…’
‘You think a lot, don’t you…’ (pp. 148–149)
Just as the Evanses’ plan is ticking along nicely, another player comes into the mix in the shape of Graziella – a sweet-natured Italian waitress from their holiday – in need of a place to stay. While Maisie is somewhat reluctant to have an outsider in the house, potentially disrupting their treatment of Mrs F, Josh is more willing, particularly given the girl’s attractiveness. (In truth, Josh has a hideously lecherous side to his personality, an unsavoury edge that Dale gradually reveals through the book.)
As Graziella bonds with Mrs Fingal, encouraging the old lady to build up her strength by walking again, she senses that something is decidedly off. While the Evanses may be in charge of Mrs Fingal’s wellbeing, they don’t seem to care for her, not in the way Italian families would…
‘It’s just a feeling. They take care of her, there’s no one else, poor thing. But I don’t know why they do it. They seem kind, they take care of her – but they don’t care for her.’ (p. 214)
A Helping Hand is a remarkably compelling slice of suburban horror, ideal for fans of Patricia Highsmith and Shirley Jackson – it really is that good. What Dale does so well here is to subtly reveal to the reader the true malice behind the Evanses’ actions. A little hint dropped here, a calculated word or two there – it’s all very cleverly done. As the narrative unfolds, the reader can clearly see how the tone of Maisie’s behaviour towards Mrs Fingal changes over time, from gentle chivvying and chiding to downright bullying and neglect. And yet, everything is so carefully orchestrated to seem caring in front of others – this is where the skill really comes in.
In summary, then, an icy, utterly terrifying domestic noir that will chill you to the bone. All the more haunting for its grounding in apparent normality – the flat, characterless feel of the suburban setting is brilliantly evoked.
A Helping Hand is published by Daunt Books. My thanks to the publishers and the Independent Alliance for kindly providing a review copy.