Anyone familiar with Forester as a writer may be wondering a little about the publication date of this piece. Yet indeed it was only published for the first time in 2011, despite being written in 1935. Various reasons meant this story never got published and was even lost for a time, but a keen eye at an auction sale changed all of this. Forester is better known for his Hornblower novels, but in fact he did write a number of crime novels, such as Payment Deferred (1926) and Plain Murder (1930), all of which look at how crime does not necessarily pay, even if detection is unlikely. Criminals are invariably the source of their own undoing. Nevertheless I wouldn’t place Forester in the same camp as Francis Iles or Richard Hull. There is a much greater sense of verisimilitude and modernity to Forester’s dark portrayal of domestic strife, aligning itself in many respects with modern TV dramas.
The story begins with Marjorie returning home after a night out to see her friend, to find her sister Dot, dead, her head stuck in the proverbial and literal oven. She had been babysitting as usual for Marjorie, as her husband was also out. The inquest brings out a difficult piece of news and by page 30 the reader, Marjorie and Marjorie’s mother, know what must have happened that fateful night. There are a few physical clues and hints, but it is all confirmed by the muddled words of Marjorie’s four year old. From those early pages narrating Marjorie and her husband’s reactions to Dot’s death, we know that Marjorie’s marriage is far from ideal, functioning solely due to the subjugation of one by the other and Forester does not pull his punches so readily as we might expect for a vintage mystery writer. Although Marjorie is the protagonist of pathos, like in a Greek tragedy it is Granny, the older woman, who seeks vengeance for her dead daughter, coolly reeling in those closest to her to achieve her aims…
Tragedy is a fitting term for this novel, in particular a tragedy of revenge. In some ways this works as a partial inverted mystery. We know an awful lot about what is has gone on, but Forester keeps us very much in the dark as to how the grandmother will enact her murderous intentions. In fact she much more often works behind the scenes. Yet of course we don’t quite know how things will turn out. Normally we are used to elderly ladies in mystery fiction being the victims or the zany sleuths. Yet the jarring we find between appearances and personality in someone like Miss Marple, also works for the elderly woman who has murder on her mind: ‘she was just a little elderly widow […] her unwrinkled face and her pink and white complexion gave no sign of the volcano of deadly hatred that seemed to her to be tearing her heart in two.’
As I was reading this book it definitely felt like a forerunner to the later works by Celia Fremlin. Forester also captures well the overwhelming nature of young motherhood and the fractious nature of married life. It was interesting to have a male writer exploring the issues of an abusive/dysfunctional marriage from a female character’s point of view and to his credit I think he does it rather well. This work has been described as ‘a tense psychological drama,’ as whilst Grannie is working on her plans, we also have Marjorie struggling to reach a decision as to what to do based on what she knows. Immediate flight with children is not an option and the middle of the book is almost study in how to live with a murderer. The opening chapters are especially strong in how they record the different reactions to Dot’s death and there is a lot of tension accomplished in what the characters do not say. Forester’s use of second hand reporting events through newspapers and other characters is equally used to great effect. I think my only niggle comes to the final section of the book, as the ending is convincing from a realism point of view, but I guess I am sucker for the works of Hull and Iles and I do prefer a bit more bite to my denouements. However I don’t think that such deter anyone trying this work and in some ways I think it would make a great gateway for fans of modern crime fiction into these older tales.