Duet of Death (1949) by Hilda Lawrence

This is my second encounter with Hilda Lawrence, though today’s read is a collection of two novellas by her: Composition for Four Hands and The House.

Composition for Four Hands

Lawrence, like Celia Fremlin, knows how to setup her stories in the most respectable, but also most chilling of places. The protagonist of this is Nora, who is a paralysed invalid and who is cared for by her husband as well as various servants and a nurse called Miss Sills. Whilst her physical needs are more than cared for, you can tell she is lacking genuine understanding from those around her, as they often talk about her when in front of her forgetting she can still hear. Direct conversation with her aside from being one sided is also rather patronising, frequently being called ‘baby’. With such a setup there are a number of immediate questions, primarily of which is, how did Nora end up this way? Whilst this question is slowly and creepily answered, other questions take centre stage: Why is she so frightened? Why does she think her life is in danger? And of course how is she going to save herself if she cannot move or speak? Who around her can she really trust? Past events mix with the present, as the novella reaches a nail biting climax.

I really enjoyed this story, as I think Lawrence achieved her setting and setup very well. In weaker hands it could have ended up rather trite, but Lawrence captures claustrophobic/trapped nature of being paralysed and she puts real effort into showing what Nora’s concerns and wishes are and how they often contrasted with what those around her need. The ending is a little rushed, but other than that this story is a first rate chilling story.

The House

In contrast to Lawrence’s first novella, I found this second one to be a poorer fare. It is written in the first person and is narrated by Isobel Ford, who has recently lost her father in unfortunate and mysterious circumstances. All of which lead Isobel to brood over her childhood, (where she was sent to boarding in school in Canada), and more recent times when she has come to stay with her parents. The antics of the family dog are also keeping the household in a state of tension and anxiety – but is there something behind them? After a lot of slow meandering prose the final section of the story has Isobel and some allies figuring out the truth. The truth once it is discovered is interesting and intriguing, yet I think what lets the story down is the how it works up to its crescendo. A slow pace definitely killed the impact this tale could have. I also found it quite hard to engage with the central character.

Yet despite this being a case of 1 out of 2, I would say that the book is worth getting for the first story alone. Just don’t read it late at night…

Rating: 4/5

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Glove

See also:

Blood Upon the Snow (1944)

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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3 Responses to Duet of Death (1949) by Hilda Lawrence

  1. Aidan says:

    Composition for Four Hands sounds fascinating and rather unsettling. Another book added to my bulging To Read list…

    Liked by 1 person

  2. neeru says:

    “Just don’t read it late at night…”

    Certain portions of TIME TO DIE were also pretty scary and so I stopped reading it in the night. This book is available at Open Library and I would be borrowing it soon. Will come back after reading it.

    Liked by 1 person

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