Joe Crolliz, who is now going under the name John Croydon, suffers from amnesia. He answers a job advert for a paid companion, to assist the blind Madame Rose, an ex-ballerina. When he arrives at her home, he recognises her house; the rooms, the furniture, he even recognises his old room. But why was he there? And why had he left? His memories begin to come back, bit by bit. Yet he soon realises that he doesn’t much like what he’s remembering, especially when it comes to his wife, who has disappeared. Aside from paying boarders, also staying there is Colina, Madame Rose’s daughter and Clyde Richard, a lawyer from Rose’s in laws and it seems he has a secret agenda of his own. Although, he is not the only one… The Rue Morgue Press edition carries this tagline: Joe Crolliz wanted his memory back. He just didn’t expect to remember a murder.
This is the Littles’ 18th mystery novel, (out of 21), and also my 10th read by them. Tom Schantz writes in the introduction to the Rue Morgue Press edition that, ‘at times, their books seem to be an odd collaboration between P. G. Wodehouse and Cornell Woolrich. Woolrich is very much in evidence in The Blackout but there’s precious little Wodehouse.’ This is something I would very much agree with as this book is significantly darker than any other book I have read by them. Danger and threats to life feel far more real in this narrative. There is no sense of security that it will all turn out to be a game and that everyone will fare okay. Alcoholism, madness, blackmail and murder all rub shoulders in this tale and in such a way that I would say it is very un-cosy. Yet that is not the only deviation this story takes from the Littles’ norm…
Firstly, there is the protagonist, Joe. Regular readers of their work will know that a male lead is an odd occurrence for the Littles, who by and large stuck to female ones. There is also the omniscient narrator in this tale which moves around the different characters, seeing things a from their point of view. Yet I am not entirely convinced that a switch to a male lead was a good idea. Joe is not a protagonist you can back, he increasingly becomes more of an anti-hero figure, (which Littles’ protagonists never are as a rule). He is not a trustworthy character and his memories did little to rectify this. This leads to what could be considered a “shocking” ending, (though the Littles let it out of the bag too soon, by letting us inside Joe’s head too much). However, I don’t know how successful this ending is. The reader is encouraged to switch allegiance, as it were, to Colina and Clyde, but this switch occurs too late in the narrative and prior to this the pair are kept at too much of a distance.
Yet of course some things never change. The Littles do love a good boarding house or private home with paying guests. As a setting it allows them to collect a group of disparate individuals and today’s read is no different. It also goes without saying that this body of people are far from amicable with one another. I would say there is a glorious display of rudeness in this tale, with every character knowing how to rub each other up the wrong way. There is nothing polite about this house party! We can’t forget the odd goings on as well, as no Littles’ story would be complete without something peculiar happening and in this particular instance it is the matter of locked doors, an ominous tower room, (cue expected literary allusion), and a chair which gives Joe the creeps. Romance invariably makes it way into a Littles’ tale, though such courtships tend to avoid being saccharine sweet and I often enjoy them as a result, finding them quite refreshing. Unfortunately, that is not the case here as Colina acts so disinterestedly towards Clyde that when their romance finally emerges no one around them believes them, and to be honest, neither can this reader.
Various authors have tackled the amnesia plot device, from Agatha Christie in Sleeping Murder and Ordeal by Innocence to Patrick Quentin with Puzzle for Fiends. Moreover, the Littles themselves used it more than once, as in the Black Express there is a woman who cannot remember who she is, though we are unsure how far we can believe this memory loss. In Blackout, the opening paragraphs suggest that Joe’s lack of memory is derived from having experienced something terrible:
‘It wasn’t that he’d had amnesia, not actually, it was just that he’d had a shock. All that stuff was right there in the back of his head, but he didn’t want to bring it forward. There was something frightening – too terrifying to be remembered.’
The way he begins to piece everything back together is credible enough, though this doesn’t lead to the usual action-focused a plot we normally get from the Littles. Bright readers at home may be wondering why the inhabitants of Madame Rose’s home do not recognise Joe. Ultimately this is answered reasonably satisfactorily, though some suspension of belief is required. But what is less forgivable is the ending as one character’s actions are incredibly unfathomable and do not make a whole lot of sense. You close the book understanding what they did literally but left wondering why they did what they did; their actions having no rhyme or reason. The Criminal Record in The Saturday Review in 1951 wrote that ‘loss-of-memory angle puts reader out of stride at starting gun, and one never quite catches up’ and they summed the title up as ‘confusing.’ For me, I felt this confusion congregates at the tail end of the story. I didn’t have any issue with Joe’s amnesia, just more the behaviour of those around him.
Overall, I would have to say this is not the Littles’ at their best, with the text lacking some of their usual positive traits and quirks.