A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

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.

30 thoughts on “A Helping Hand by Celia Dale

    1. JacquiWine Post author

      I think it’s the apparent ‘normality’ of the setting that makes it so frightening -the fact that stories like this could be playing out behind the net curtains of seemingly ordinary and caring homes. I found it terrifying to think about…

      Reply
  1. inthemistandrain

    Great review, thank you and the icing on the cake, an old Penguin copy, unread by me, sitting on a shelf. I must have picked it up at some point in a charity shop. Sorted as they say!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Definitely one for you, Marina. I think you might find it particularly interesting as writer yourself. It’s brilliantly constructed to covey the slow, stealthy whittling away of Mrs Fingal’s existence…

      Reply
  2. kaggsysbookishramblings

    Wonderful review Jacqui, and the book sounds brilliant. Somehow I thought of Celia Fremlin, who also writes what you might call domestic noir. It’s all the more chilling for being in an everyday setting and being so convincing. I’ll look out for it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Funnily enough, Fremlin popped into my head as I was reading this, even though I’ve yet to try her myself. Nevertheless, everything I’ve heard about her work makes me think she’s in a similar vein – all the more so as you’ve backed this up! I really must try her soon…

      Reply
  3. mallikabooks15

    What a terrifying scenario, more so because this can so ‘easily’ happen to anyone. Wonderful review. I think you captured the feeling the book gives one perfectly, and got me to feel it too!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks! I’m glad to hear that you feel it comes across. As you say, the terror stems from the idea that this could so easily happen in real life. Every time the debate around assisted suicide comes up, we hear of the need for firm safeguards to be put in place to actively prevent something akin to this, where family members and ‘carers’ might apply subtle pressure to an elderly or infirm relative to sign away their life. It really is quite terrifying to imagine what drives people to do something like this, not to mention how helpless the target of their ‘bullying’ must feel…

      Reply
      1. mallikabooks15

        True it’s such a hard issue to address, since for one people do need to have that option but at the same time how does one ensure it isn’t misused by those carers or even family

        Reply
        1. JacquiWine Post author

          Yes, I agree. I’m broadly supportive of assisted suicide in appropriate circumstances, but the safeguards have to be in place to avoid misuse/coercive control. It’s such a challenging issue to get right…

          Reply
  4. Janakay | YouMightAsWellRead

    Fab review as always, Jaquiwine! I love domestic noir, so this is an automatic addition to my list. I was actually becoming tense as I read, wondering if poor old Mrs. Fingall was going to escape Josh’s and Maisie’s evil clutches. . . .
    Make mine a third vote for Celia Fremlin, as I, too, thought of her work (read several, but some time ago. Spider-Orchid was my favorite)

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Oh, great. I’m so glad you like the sound of it. If you love domestic noir — which you clearly do! — it’s a no-brainer. And thanks for adding your endorsement to the praise for Celia Fremlin. I have The Hours Before Dawn on my shelves, so that will probably be my first, but I’m making a note of Spider-Orchid for the future – what a fabulous title!

      Reply
  5. gertloveday

    Great review. As comment above I was becoming very tense just reading about Mrs Fingall’s plight. Guy is also a great fan of Celia Dale and has reviewed many of her books. Even though set in the domestic sphere they certainly confront the nastiest aspect of human nature.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Just writing about it was making me feel anxious, never mind the experience of reading the book itself! It’s a little like a form of sleep paralysis when your mind starts to wake from a dream but you can’t move your body because it’s still in sleep mode. That’s the closest I can get to describe how it must feel to be in Mrs Fingal’s situation, gradually realising that something is terribly wrong but being physically powerless to escape from it.

      Reply
  6. Julé Cunningham

    It’s fascinating how suburbia so quickly became a place in books and films where white picket fences (or lace curtains), could conceal horrors. It’s such a pleasure reading one of your reviews when you find a book you are so enthusiastic about!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. Shirley Jackson’s The Road Through the Wall is a great example of this, as is Patricia Highsmith’s Deep Water. And I couldn’t help thinking of David Lynch’s film Blue Velvet, too. A very different kind of horror to Dale’s story as the danger is much easier to see, but the settings share an air of respectability than makes them seem quite innocuous to passers-by…

      Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Brilliant! I was delighted to see it popping up in your weekend miscellany the other day as it’s such a great book. Something for you to look forward to in the future!

      Reply
  7. heavenali

    Brilliant review. Never heard of this author, the novel sounds right up my street. I am definitely going to have to get it. That gradual sense of dread/realisation at what’s happening sounds excellent.

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Thanks, Ali! Yep, you’re one of the first people I thought of as I was reading it. In fact, I wondered if you might have read it already, especially as Celia Fremlin’s name keep popping up as a potential soul sister to Dale. It’s absolutely up your alley, so to speak!

      Reply
  8. Pingback: A-Z Index of Book Reviews (listed by author) | JacquiWine's Journal

  9. madamebibilophile

    This sounds so insidious and creepy, I can imagine it really getting to me. There’s something even more terrifying about an ordinary domestic setting too. Lovely edition – I shall keep an eye out for it!

    Reply
    1. JacquiWine Post author

      Yes, exactly. The apparent ordinariness and respectability of the setting definitely adds to the horror. Plus there’s the fact that Maisie is a trained nurse. So by implication, one would expect her to be very caring and mindful of Mrs Fingal’s needs That’s what makes it so chilling, the insidious nature of what the Evanses are up to when set against that ‘caring’ backdrop…

      Reply

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