After nearly four months I have at last returned to the work of Dolores Hitchens, with another twofer, which has been reprinted by Stark House Press. Today I am reviewing the first tale and later this week I will be looking at the second, The Bank with the Bamboo Door (1965). Curtis Evans writes the introduction for this 2-books- in-1 treat, and considers how Hitchens’ own experiences, especially those as a child, may have impacted her later creative endeavours. Having read four mysteries by her so far I have come to expect deft handling and skill when it comes to depicting dysfunctional relationships, troubled minds, and isolated characters and today’s read does not disappoint in that respect. Curtis comments on the change in focus after WW2 within the mystery genre and how ‘crafting psychologically probing and socially relevant tales of murder and mayhem in which realistic settings and credible characterisation were deemed essential features.’ This is a change Hitchens’ appears to have transitioned into well.
‘It begins with a name whispered to a teacher in the schoolyard… “Marion….Marion.” Someone is lurking in the bushes, but they run off before Miss Moynton can confront them. There is indeed a Marion in her class, so she tells the principal about the event. She even goes the parent’s house to ask if someone was supposed to pick up Marion from school. But Marion’s mother has other concerns, and doesn’t take the question seriously. However, another nearby family, the Trents, have a daughter named Marilyn, and they have every reason to fear this schoolyard stalker. They have been living in fear of a man who blames the husband for his wife’s death, and keeps threatening them on the phone. When the new substitute teacher, Marion Kennick, is kidnapped with one her students, it looks like the stalker has finally decided to strike.’
Naturally this is not a traditional mystery, with the narrative operating more comfortably within the suspense vein. Hitchens in many ways is a literary descendent of Ethel Lina White, who also mostly worked in the suspense style, yet that does not mean there is a lack of puzzlement. Hitchens demonstrates this point in the opening chapters of this book, as it appears there are three possible characters the mysterious stalker may be interested in, who either have the same name or a similar one. The confusion and dread of these moments is added to by the use of fog.
Hitchens allows us to get close and familiar to the principal characters, seeing their private struggles, yet she does so with purpose. The reader is handed a number of possible narrative threads, making us wonder if this character’s secret or this family’s problem will be at the centre of the kidnapping we know will take place. What will be the event which lights the loaded powder keg? In Hitchens’ stories you are always wondering from what direction terror and violence will strike. By this stage in her writing career, Hitchens is confident in handling the tension levels of her mysteries, with moments of crescendo being alternated with tension receding in other quarters. There is something quite tidal about her work.
Whilst there is an overt “baddie” in the tale, that does not mean the remaining characters are whitewashed, each have their failings and weaknesses and it is interesting to see how they feed into the overall plot. We have a respectable substitute teacher who goes to bars to pick up strangers out of loneliness, due to her husband being an alcoholic and a negligent mother who is toying with the idea of marrying a man who insists her daughter go to boarding school. Yet within these transgressions, despair never derails the plot and instead as the story unfolds there is a thread of compassion running through it, which I did not expect given my last read by Hitchens: Beat Back the Tide (1954). Yet in this tale characters often experience good things that they might not deserve and the most unlikely of people can be heroes.
Shifting focus to Marilyn Trent’s family, who are being persecuted by a man who blames her father for his wife’s death, Hitchens again provides a nuanced picture of them. Moreover, it is interesting that Hitchens has set it up so the family cannot easily get effective police help: there stalker is untraceable, and they have only encountered him over the phone. In addition, the stalker himself begins to suggest that Bruce Trent is no innocent victim – but should such a revenge filled man be believed?
As I was reading this book I was reminded of Charlotte Armstrong’s Mischief (1950) as both narratives are suspense stories whose outcomes hinge upon decisions. Each one made is significant, whether it is made by a child or an adult, as each decision either leads them closer or further away from danger. Yet these characters do not possess as much information as the reader and so their decisions are based on much more distorted and limited facts and fears. This adds to the growing tension in the piece and the finale is suitably nail biting.
So all in all I would say this is a good read, which I felt acts a bit like a modern day or an updated version of a fairy tale, (Brothers Grimm edition).
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)
See also: Dead Yesterday has also reviewed this title here.
P. S. During this book, more than once, parents talk to their children about a film they watched at school concerning stranger danger, and I was interested to find out when that safety idea cropped up and started being incorporated into school education. I am not sure when the first safety film along those lines was made, but good old Google suggests that the in 1960s the UK and the USA became more concerned about children in this way, so it seems like Hitchens’ story was tapping into the cultural zeitgeist of the period.