As promised I am back with a review of the second title in the latest Stark House Press twofer reprint for this writer. The first book was Footsteps in the Night (1961) and you can read my review of it here.
‘Glazer hires Francesca Warne as governess to his young son without realising that she has a history with his cliff house. Her husband Adam had been shot to death on the beach below, back before Glazer bought it. Now she is asking Glazer to help her find out what really happened two years ago. So Glazer begins questioning the people involved: lovely, sensuous Mary Shelton, who married one of the men who used to own his house; the sadistic cop, Bryonson, who still thinks Francesca was involved; pugnacious Conway, the other former owner, who knows more than he is telling; and Tremaine, Adam’s only friend. Glazer quickly learns that Adam Warne was a self-hating drunk who had been despised by most of the town – but who hated him enough to have killed him?’
In Stairway to an Empty Room (1951), Hitchens provided a revamped and grittier heroine in jeopardy suspense tale and in today’s read I feel this tendency to rejuvenate older styles is present once more, this time with a cold case mystery. This is particularly evident in the central characters. Francesca Warne is no innocent Jane Eyre, though perhaps she bewitches Glazer in the same way Jane does Rochester. Her husband Adam was no angel, and the idea that she was somehow involved is creditably maintained throughout the plot, (I won’t say what happens with it in the end). There is the very real question of why does she want his death solved, if he was so awful to her? Francesca is no helpless heroine, she is portrayed more ambiguously, perhaps even as conniving. There are also a number of incidents in which her behaviour is hugely questionable when it puts various members of Glazer’s household in danger.
It should come as no surprise that Glazer’s growing feelings for Francesca are incredibly troubled, complex and in some areas quite dubious. Moreover, these feelings are explored in a very raw way. His meeting with her is no starry eyed one. Glazer is irked with Francesca, yet by the end of their initial encounter he finds her to have ‘possibilities’ and to be a ‘surprising woman’. It takes him some while to admit to himself that he has fallen for Francesca and a bit like a glaze, he applies an impervious layer upon her, of what he wants her to be like, instead of who she is:
‘He didn’t like it. He didn’t want anything complicated or obscure or containing any emotion of any sort. What he wanted of Mrs Warne, though he had not phrased it exactly to himself, was a robot-like efficiency and stamina, and an unrobotlike warmth toward his son. Just that. As he desired her, she would have been like a paper doll cut loose from the page in which she had lived, to be pasted briefly into Jamie’s life, removed when the need was over.’
He is pretty good at ignoring the danger signs and whilst his early reiterations that he does not like her, may give him a superficial Mr Darcy edge, a Mr Darcy he ain’t. Hitchens equally shows Glazer to be no saint and the narrative lacks a clear-cut dichotomy for our sympathies to follow. In some ways his behaviour as the book progresses begins to become increasingly primitive and perhaps he fits more of a Heathcliffe mould. He perceived his feelings for Francesca as a kind of ‘fever’ and at one point he thinks:
‘This black-haired woman was an obsession. She was something he wanted to conquer, to tear down, to humble. She made him feel like a tiger.’
The process of conducting the investigation has a knock-on effect of bringing out Glazer’s rougher, more violent roots and his glaze of superficial manners, becomes decidedly cracked. Unsurprisingly given how broken Glazer and Francesca are as people, their courtship, of sorts, is not rose filled and at one point almost explosively disintegrates. Suffice to say Hitchens offers no easy conclusions in this book.
It was interesting to see how Glazer’s initial conversations with local people acted as a catalyst for new eruptions of violence and I felt Hitchens cleverly concealed the answer to the mystery through these aspects of the plot. A violent outburst did not have one obvious simple interpretation. It could in fact imply a number of different conjectures. The local police force also provides a miasma of malevolence to the case, with them not being portrayed as a trustworthy organisation to turn to for help.
All in all another well-realised and crafted, gritty tale from Hitchens which defies easy categorisation. Nevertheless, I think the work of Hitchens has quite a modern flavour to it and it is a shame that she is not so well-known today, as her stories have real potential to connect with modern day readers.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)
See also: Dead Yesterday has also reviewed this title here.