This is my fourth read by Ferrars and it is another one from later in her writing career. It all starts with a fateful meeting at Jerome and Jeanie’s party. Richard Hedon, a bookseller and part book shop owner, is not keen to see his old university friend Jerome, having not spoken in many years, but another friend from that time, the widowed Anne Damerel, drags him along. Naturally he is a fish out of water, but things pick up when he begins talking to a woman called Hazel Clyro. Despite being cryptic about her own past, Richard has a good time, even when she freaks out on her own doorstep, believing that a passing car has been following her around.
Through mutual friends Hazel’s time in the public eye is revealed to us and Richard. Her husband, Paul was a molecular biologist and assistant to a scientist named Wolsingham. Yet he found his superior in his lab one night, having committed suicide to avoid facing the music. After all it had been discovered he was passing information to Russia. No suspicion is attached to Paul, yet he is never happy after that point and one later year, (two years ago), he vanishes one morning on his way to work. Is he dead? Was he killed? Has he defected?
These questions haunt Hazel, so much so that Richard has little chance of making any head way. An unfortunate cinema trip though seems to bring a potential clue to Paul’s fate and ever the chivalrous knight Richard promises to follow it up. But how much can we trust Hazel? Is she sane, mad, or spinning Richard a long series of lies? Naturally he gets more than he bargained for…
It is with a heavy heart that I reveal that I have encountered my first dud read by Ferrars. Having enjoyed two much later novels by her, I was less worried about a sudden decline in writing quality. 1972 however does not seem to have been a good year…
Despite being a short book two thirds of it is very slow going, pace wise, with minimal plot progression. A murder in the present day, after this point, does little to spark the narrative alight, nor does the relocation of the story to Madeira add much reader interest. It is all decidedly bland, being a highly generic thriller/amateur espionage mystery. The author’s decision to have the mystery originate from a cold case/missing person investigation may have something to do with this. There is not much of a mystery for the reader to fathom out, and Richard himself seems to walk into new information, rather than anticipate it. That is until the end. Having returned from Madeira and spent a night at home, the next morning, bright and early, he has it all sussed and sorted out. How? It’s not like he’s the sharpest or most socially savvy pencil in the box… I think Ferrars was just trying to find an expedient way of concluding the tale and unfortunately the various “twists” have very little reader impact. Despite their drama they feel dull and lifeless.
My previous reads from Ferrars have all been more typical whodunnits, written with a touch of gentle, yet charmingly effective, humour. Alas this humour is not present in today’s read. I also felt that the cast of characters were less appealing than usual, though I will say Richard was a mostly enjoyable protagonist. However, I wonder whether the main thrust of the story is less about solving a mystery and more about sorting out Richard’s inept love life.
So whilst I wouldn’t recommend this particular novel by Ferrars, I still think she is a writer worth trying. To date I have enjoyed Enough to Kill a Horse (1955), Frog in the Throat (1980) and Root of All Evil (1984).