Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
Lynn Brock was an Irish writer and his real name was Alexander Patrick McAllister. He wrote 12 novels between 1924 and 1940. A number of his works featured Colonel Gore, the first of which is The Deductions of Colonel Gore (1924), which Harper Collins will be reprinting next year. However, today’s read is a standalone mystery. Brock was liked by some pretty big names in crime fiction and criticism: Dorothy L Sayers, T. S. Eliot and S. S. Van Dine. His Gore novels were popular during his life time, being translated and reprinted. It was therefore quite intriguing to read in the introduction and perhaps quite bold of them to mention, that today’s read did not fit this mould, neither being published in the USA, (a first for Brock), and it did not run into a second edition. In some ways I think this might have been because Brock was writing ahead of his time. Yes he was writing within a similar inverted mystery style as Francis Iles and Freeman Wills Crofts, but the introduction makes the salient point that, ‘reading Nightmare not as another psychological crime novel with a missing twist at the end but rather as a tragedy of the human condition itself allows interpretation of the work as what may be the first philosophical crime novel. For this reason, it may be considered a milestone in crime fiction.’ In some ways I think Brock goes even darker than Iles and without ironic or satiric flourishes. Suffice to say this is not a comic crime novel, dark or light.
The story revolves around a home which has been converted into four flats. In the second floor flat resides Simon and Elsa Whalley, the former a writer with massive writer’s block and a backstory which is hard not to sympathise with in some ways (i.e. suffering from pernicious anaemia) and in some ways is more irksome (i.e. poor money and time management). But what really gets your sympathy for this couple are the family in the flat above them. The Prossip family have come down in the world and quite frankly are just too noisy to be contained in such a small building. Some of their noisiness is force of habit and body weight, but it soon becomes apparent that the rest of their noise pollution is deliberate and malicious. Imagine: Everyday for 5-8 hours (with small breaks), having to listen to the same tune on the gramophone in the flat above, placed purposefully in a place where the sound will travel down. In 17 days one character thinks the same record has been played 1400 times! Add into the mix a lack of legal redress and a less than kind landlord and you end up with something probably banned by the Genova convention. Whalley has enough personal problems (mental, emotional and physical – including a severe case of OCD when it comes to cleaning), that it is unsurprising that this form of torture begins to make him crack. At this point in the book you think things cannot possibly get any worse for Simon Whalley, yet they just keep getting worse and worse and worse. Finally a rock bottom is reached and of course with nothing left to lose the worm turns…
Normally I hate grim mystery novels. Unrelenting bleakness is no firm favourite of mine. Yet this novel has proved an exception to the rule. The world at a societal and individual level batters the characters. Nevertheless I found myself hooked. I had to see what became of the flats’ inhabitants. I can see why the introduction called this a philosophical crime novel and it is added that the novel embodies the gloomy worldview propounded in Schopenhauer’s The World as Will and Representation (1818), (everyone’s favourite bedtime reading), as this is a story where individual wills clash and struggle against each other. In this book people are unkind for the sake or even pleasure of it. Selfishness begins as individual acts but as the story unfolds it grows to a community size. Those who notice it do not of course realise their own significant contributions to the problem. Kind acts are planned but are either not followed through or regretted. Unkindness to others really is the origin of the mayhem and violence which ensues. The novel’s end hugely embodies all of this and the darkness which envelopes the characters and readers rivals the ending of Before the Fact (1932) by Francis Iles, in my opinion. In some ways Iles seems tame compared to the depths that Brock reaches. Simon is not an egoist like Dr Bickleigh in Malice Aforethought (1931), confident of his plans, but is a man who is pushed right to the edge and I liked how with this plot, that whilst you think you know what will happen, you’re invariably wrong. It keeps you on your toes.
There are some parallels between Simon and his creator, as both he and Brock were Irish playwrights, though thankfully Brock was more successful. Readers who are also writers will find an extra appeal in the passages of this book which look at Simon’s interaction with the writing process and the difficulties he faces creatively after writing his first play in a mass of enthusiasm. It is said that Brock’s playwright background effected how he wrote his mysteries and that he was more aligned with G. B. Shaw than Agatha Christie. This I can kind of see, as this is certainly no body in the library detective novel and really plumbs the depths of human suffering. It is interesting to see how Brock plays with your sympathies, as there are times when your sympathy wavers towards Simon, which surprised me, as normally I am quite good at remaining rooting for someone. I guess Brock is able to show us that not everyone is quite how they seem and that even those who seem particularly unpleasant have their own crosses to bear. Not that this at all excuses the Prossips’ behaviour – Brock never goes that far.
So yes this is an unusual read and it certainly adds another nail into assumption that interwar fiction was always cosy. I hope they will be reprinting other mysteries by Brock as I am quite intrigued by the titles of his last two novels: The Riddle of the Roost (1939) and The Stoat (1940).
Ever ahead of the curve, Martin Edwards reviewed this book back in 2012, which you can read here.