Having had her work extolled by blog readers such as Xavier and reading reviews of her work on the blog, deadyesterday, I have been irregularly sampling her work for a while. My first taste was with 80 dollars to Stamford (1975) and after that I watched a film adaptation of a radio play Fletcher devised, called Sorry Wrong Number (1948). Today is my latest experience of her work. Fletcher writes in the suspense mould but like other creative types of the era, she is a hard one to pigeonhole.
I was somewhat amused by the blurb to my edition of the book:
‘We are pledged to remain completely silent about the plot of this extraordinary novel. So brilliantly constructed is it that even the smallest preview would detract from its shattering, agonising suspense.’
Is it just me or did someone forget to write the blurb so at the last minute decided to go for this I-can’t-tell-you-anything approach? Thankfully I will be divulging a few more details about the story…
This is a retrospective tale, with a deceptively ambiguous opening page, which I think I will skip over. The plot of this book centres on Mrs Julie Gray Thorpe, an American woman who goes to Switzerland in 1951 to track down her mother in law. Their relationship is a difficult one, complicated by the fact that in 1943 Julie’s husband went missing in action. For years her mother in law, Cecilia, has been adamant that he is still alive. Yet now, having rushed off in relative secrecy to a remote hotel resort at Alpenstadt, she vehemently announces that he is dead. Julie, suffice to say, is not convinced and strongly feels that her mother in law’s trip is all connected to her missing husband. Of course, she has to play the game, trying to spot the manoeuvres Cecilia makes to put her off the scent. But has Julie got the wrong end of the stick? Does she really know what she is blundering into? In amongst this there is also the tempting presence of the handsome stranger, Parisian to boot!
In a nutshell I would say this is another strong read from Fletcher and I find I am enjoying her brand of suspense. In some ways I would say she creates a more edgy version of this type of writing. There is nothing cloying in the romance her tales include, as underlying them all, is a fear of danger and mistrust. The choice of third person narration in this adds to the ambiguity of the piece, meaning there is more for you to figure out and also more for you to distrust.
Fletcher’s post war European setting is an intricate one. She is keen to present a non-nostalgic and unromanticised depiction of France. For instance, at the start of the book, this is how Julie perceives the French train station and its disgruntled passengers:
‘Their gypsy clothes, their shrillness disturbed her. The war was barely six years over. Yet they were pouring over Europe, filling the planes and ships, the trains, like children on a picnic. Europe, what she had seen of it in the past couple of hours, seemed so tired, battered. It was trying gallantly to be an efficient amusement park, but she could see its scars and sense its winces.’
I feel like this opening scene provides a different sort of travelogue, of the American coming to Europe and the more bleak viewpoint is crystallised in comments such as this: ‘The Paris of the slums that would never be written up in the fashion magazines, which the haute-couture copy writers would rather not remember, because it was so ordinary, so universal in its poverty.’
Though in some respects I wonder whether this depiction of France is designed to be a stark contrast to the Swiss resort, which is chocolate box perfect on top, but decidedly darker and more lethal underneath. I think Fletcher captures this well in her initial description of the place:
‘elegant and refined, a mechanism of high precision… It was a fin-de-siècle toy, perched on a mountain peak, a citadel of luxury. Raw nature at Alpenstadt was held at arm’s length, like colour slides in a stereopticon… It was a place devoted to the artificial, to the pruned, the gilded and the overstuffed. A gorgeous place. Ghastly Alpenstadt.’
For me I think this setting is supposed to be highly deceptive. I also think you can see Fletcher’s screen writing talent in the nature of the setting, as well as in the book’s action. Something which I am prone to saying, but I do think this story could be made into a reasonably entertaining film. There are not too many key characters, there is a captivating locale, with appropriate places for dramatic night-time chases, and enough of a backstory to create interest, but not so much backstory that the adaptors would struggle to fit it in. As I am coming to expect with Fletcher she does not for easy endings and this particular one has a mixture of light and dark shades. I was quite fortunate in picking this up from a supermarket charity book sale table, but I don’t think it is too hard a book to find, which of course is something I suggest you do. (Cue large number of people pointing out how hard it is to get…)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): Includes letters or diary extracts
Calendar of Crime: March (2) Author’s Birth Month
P. S. I did also quite enjoy the unexpected moments of comedy, such as when Julie bursts into Cecilia’s room to find her ‘struggling into a foundation garment.’ Definitely an example I think Moira at Clothes in Books would approve of.