Friday, December 31, 2010

Forgotten Book Friday: The Hours Before Dawn

It's been some time since Miss Lemon has offered something for 'Forgotten Book Friday.' With the New Year 2011 right round the corner, perhaps it's time she got back into the habit. And what better book to suggest for the occasion than Celia Fremlin's gothic suspense chiller, The Hours Before Dawn (1958).

Exhausted with the care of her infant son, Michael, whom she can't get to settle through the night, and two young girls, Louise Henderson feels like her life is unraveling. Her husband feels neglected, her neighbours complain, and she can't keep up with the endless household tasks.

When the Hendersons decide to take in a lodger, Vera Brandon, Louise in her sleepless stupor wonders if she isn't imagining things: like Vera creeping into Michael's room when she said that she would be going out; Vera's seducing of her husband; a nagging feeling that she's somehow met Vera Brandon somewhere before.....

Anyone who has read Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper will be sure to sympathize with Louise's mounting terror. Is she really going mad, or does Vera Brandon intentionally mean her harm?

Though the subject matter does not readily suggest it, Ms. Fremlin is a keen observer of human nature, and her prose is evidence of her extraordinarily sharp wit. Her most brilliant portrayals are those of the children, especially Harriet, who sets tea out in the hallway (where it is inevitably trod upon) for her Teddy yet argues with the inexorable logic of a Socrates.

It is a wonder and a shame to Miss Lemon that Celia Fremlin is today largely forgotten. One could do worse than to resolve to remember her in the New Year.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

The Dead of Jericho

Miss Lemon finds many things to like about Chief Inspector Morse, first made famous in the Oxford mystery novel series by Colin Dexter and further lionized by iTV. Although Morse and his sidekick, D.S. Lewis, obviously descend from the Holmes and Watson and Poirot and Hastings tradition, there is much that's modern and original about the pair's depiction.

Morse lives in Oxford, rather than London. He drives a Lancia.  He has an indefatigable appetite for English ale and cigarettes and can't get enough of Wagner. Like Miss Lemon, he has an obsession with working crossword puzzles. His hair is thinning and his waist is thickening. He's a bachelor, but not necessarily a confirmed one. In short, Morse is irresistibly human.

Except ... that we don't know his Christian name. (For the incurably curious, it is eventually revealed in Death Is Now My Neighbour 1996.)

Unlike many detectives who have preceded him, however, Morse isn't afraid to admit when he is wrong. Whether it's his failure to pick up the next round or the alacrity with which he'd like to pin the solution to a crime on the plot of a Greek tragedy, Morse is not infallible and never afraid to say so. Even if the tone of his admission is surly.

In The Dead of Jericho (1981), Morse finds a fleeting spark of romance with a woman who several weeks later is found hanged. Was it suicide? Or murder?

As Morse and Lewis investigate, they turn up a past that could have been written by Sophocles: a child given up for adoption; a father killed in a road accident; a rumoured love affair between a woman and a much younger man.

Just how close Dexter's plot hews to Aristotelian ethics, she shall leave for her readers to discover. She's sure you'll enjoy Morse's antics along the way.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Safely to the Grave

Miss Lemon doubts she has ever met a character in mystery so unrelentingly pernicious as Mick Harvey.

He's a villain to outdo all of Margaret Yorke's villains. And she, the mistress of the psychological thriller, knows how to paint startling portraits of evil.
When we first meet Mick, he is not only rough with his wife, Beverley, and a thundering bully to his neighbours, but he also quickly reveals himself to be mean, cocksure, prone to drink and quick to blame others for all of his own shortcomings. His hair is permed, he wears a weak mustache and the beginnings of a beer belly.

Just the sorts of things one hopes to find in an anti-hero, aren't they?

But there is nothing redeeming or heroic about Mick Harvey. After cleaning out Beverley's purse and spending the evening at the Cricketers, Mick tries to run two women off the road who are returning from a night at the ballet. When Marion Quilter and Laura Burdock decide to report the incident of dangerous driving to the police, they set off a chain of events that seems as much the product of ill fate as random chance.

Miss Lemon isn't revealing too much when she says that Mick proves more than once that he's not afraid to kill anyone who stands in his way: not even a dog.   

This is in many ways an upsetting novel. And yet ... as much, my stalwart readers, as you will want to put down Safely to the Grave (1986), Miss Lemon tells you that you will not be able to do so.