A wrong turn nearly closes the curtains on Kitty Quist’s life when she mistakenly drives down a remote and deserted road at night-time, within which a fierce and terrifying dog prowls, and who has no qualms in attacking cars. As this drama unfolds Kitty unfortunately manages to irrevocably damage her car whilst trying to exit the road, leaving her trapped in a broken car surrounded by a dog which is anything but friendly. Could things get worse? Yes, another dog enters the mix. Eventually the arrival of the dogs’ owner, Edmund Linders, enables Kitty to return home, though he is highly sceptical that his dogs were those responsible. Next morning she goes to have her car towed and finds the police on the scene, as it just so happens that near to where her car was left, a woman was found dead, evidently mauled by something of the canine variety. Even worse this is someone Kitty knows; an unpopular man magnet actress named Sunny Walling, who wallows in acting spitefully once she’s taken someone else’s man. And perhaps even more eerie is the fact that it was Sunny who gave Kitty the directions for the short cut she was supposed to taking. Why did Sunny send her that way? How did Sunny die? Are Linders’ dogs to blame or have they been framed? Kitty also has to figure out why her roommate is acting so suspiciously and she has to decide within her social circle who she can trust, as all of them seem to know far more than is good for them and they also seem to have their own self-preservation agendas. But will they come to regret their decisions?
I don’t think I would be out of kilter suggesting that this story gives something of a nod to Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1902), with Hitchens providing suitably atmospheric sentences in the starting scene:
‘The dog seemed to materialise instantly out of the night, a yellow phantom filling the middle of the road.’
‘He slashed past the window she was lowering and she caught his hoarse growl and the snap of his teeth not five inches from her face.’
Yet I think Hitchens provides a much more complex and intricate response to the question of whether the dogs are responsible for the violence and what level of human involvement there is. I can’t say much more about this particular area of the book as I would be wading into spoiler territory, but I can say that Hitchens doesn’t create a carbon copy of Doyle’s piece. She very much makes it her own.
In comparison to the female lead in yesterday’s Hitchens review, Kitty Quist, although also a working woman, has a different personality makeup to Monica Marshall. They both go through difficult and at times harrowing experiences, but I think on balance Kitty is less emotionally volatile. Her anger doesn’t lash out as easily, as her ability to self-censor is a bit more pronounced. There’s only one point where you might feel like she wanders into unladylike behaviour and that is when her calm and reasonable plans for dealing with the dog start to unravel and she gets to the moment where
‘She wanted to take out on the dog the fear and the dismay he caused. She could with the greatest of pleasure have split his skull. This was the moment when sheer rage overcame her, so that she did something quite foolish.’
Before you all start to ring for the RSPCA the foolish thing is to try and hit the dog on the head with her handbag, which doesn’t transpire and all she manages to do is lose her shoe. Afterwards though she recognises that this response was one of ‘foolish panic,’ and you don’t really see that level of uncontrolled behaviour in her again in the book. Both Kitty and Monica have showdowns with the “guilty party” at the end of their respective stories and again you will find quite different responses to danger and threat.
Romance does have its place in Hitchens’ novels, but it is definitely not of the same ilk as Patricia Wentworth’s Miss Silver novels. Heroines and heroes can be highly implicated and submerged in the crimes being investigated, (especially in Stairway to an Empty Room), and at times it seems more like romance is achieved in spite of the circumstances. For Kitty there are two main choices, yet the reader has no reassurance or hint as to who she may pick, or whether she will pick either of them at all, given their prickly and defensive natures. There’s no alluring Mr Darcy with an aloof manner, but more the potential for an unstable and threatening Heathcliff.
The narrative predominately stays with Kitty, though Doyle (nod to the writer perhaps?), the policeman in charge of the case is perfectly competent and this is not a case of the amateur sleuth rapidly racing ahead of the professional. The structure of the story has a more conventional detective novel feel to it, and I suspect readers may be able to identify the who of the case to an extent, though the how, why and extenuating circumstances are more elusive.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House)