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Payment Deferred - C.S. Forester

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Paperback: 192 pages / Publisher: Penguin Classics / Published: 3 Nov 2011

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      15.02.2013 20:52
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      Tense, atmospheric psychological 1920s crime story, long regarded as among the best of its kind

      First published in 1926, 'Payment Deferred' was one of Forester's first books, and his first novel. Although it has frequently been reprinted by various publishers since then, it had surprisingly been out of print for some time until it was reissued by Penguin in 2011.

      THE STORY

      William Marble is a bank clerk in south London. He and his family have two young children, and his wife Annie is inclined to spend happily, thinking nothing of running up a few debts, not realising that they all mount up. Eventually he realises that he owes to several tradesmen who are all threatening action if not paid promptly, and if they do, he will almost certainly lose his job, at a time when unemployment is sharply on the rise. There seems no way out.

      As they say, there is always something around the corner. One rainy miserable evening when he is in the depths of despair, anxiously eyeing how much or how little whisky is left for him to drown his sorrows, and taking his frustrations out in a particularly unpleasant manner on his family, there is a knock on the door. His young nephew Jim Medland, whose mother had died only a few months previously (his father long since dead), has just arrived from Australia and thought he would look up the people who must be his sole remaining relatives in the world. They sit down to chat, Medland takes a cigarette case-cum-wallet from his pocket - and Marble sees that it is stuffed with banknotes. Almost at once he has an idea, and broaches the subject of finance rather clumsily. Increasingly uncomfortable, Medland longs to get up and leave, but Marble begs him to stay a little longer. The prospect of another glass of whisky in a cosy armchair is preferable to returning alone to his lodgings in the pouring rain at midnight. Eventually Marble orders his wife to leave them and go to bed so they can talk business.

      Once she is out of the way, they start talking about money and investments in earnest. From Marble's point of view it still proves a failure. Then he has an idea - and offers Medland another drink.

      Here ends the first chapter. To say much more about the story would spoil it. All I can tell you is that Marble has found a solution to his problem, but he has good reason for keeping it a secret from the family. Initially Annie assumes that Jim has lent or even given her husband some spare cash before going on his way, and she is thrilled that they no longer have to count every last penny. A little well-timed foreign currency speculation on her husband's part brings them further luck. But although they can now not only pay off the tradesmen but afford anything money can buy, it is the last good fortune they will ever have.

      For a combination of untold riches and his overwhelming need for secrecy transform him into a total monster. The result is increasing misery for Annie and the children. Almost by accident she stumbles on the terrible truth, much to his horror (as well as hers, naturally).

      The way Forester makes his characters come alive, and evokes the atmosphere of a suburban family and their home in the 1920s, is almost uncanny. Marble is an utterly contemptible, selfish, ruthless and unfaithful little man, his wife silly but blameless, their son John helpless and confused, upset at having to leave the school where he is settled and go to a posh one simply because father can afford something more grand, their daughter Winnie more feisty, defiant, prepared to give as good as she gets from her parents, and determined to get out as soon as she can. The utter futility of their lives and the hopelessness of their situation is portrayed in stark detail - and there is a remarkable twist to the story at the end.

      In fact, this may not be an ideal book to read if you are feeling depressed. It certainly won't improve your spirits. But as a psychological crime tale, it really is gripping.

      Somebody had a copy when I was at school, and word went round us all that it was a must-read. I found a well-worn secondhand 1955 Penguin edition which I must have re-read at least twice, and each time I am captivated by the remarkable detail as well as the gift the author had for getting inside his characters. By modern standards it is fairly short, mine being around 160 pages. And although it was written and set in the 1920s, it does not appear at all dated. Taylor, whom I quoted above, is not alone among crime fiction commentators in praising it highly, and in my view as well as his it is one of the best crime stories ever written. Recommended without reservation.

      This really is a kind of whodunnit-in-reverse, or rather we know whodunnit - but can't wait to read the story which follows on from the consequences of the wicked deed. It's significant that in my local branch of Waterstone's it is shelved in fiction rather than under crime - in other words, not regarded as an ordinary thriller.

      STAGE AND SCREEN

      The novel was dramatized for Broadway in 1931 and for the cinema the following year, both with Charles Laughton in the starring role. I have never seen the film in its entirety, but a little googling will provide you with three tantalisingly short clips online. It seems to adhere fairly closely to the story, so I'd be happy to see more. I'm not aware of it even having been dramatized for TV or DVD, but it would be an absolute gift to the right director.

      THE AUTHOR

      Cecil Scott Forester (1899-1966) is generally remembered as the author of swashbuckling adventure stories, particularly the Captain Hornblower saga. In his early days, before he hit his stride, he was also a historical biographer and, in this case, writer of murder stories. In the words of crime and historical novelist Andrew Taylor, he was 'the improbable pioneer of a very English form of noir crime fiction.'


      [This is a revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]

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