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A LOST AND FOUND MANUSCRIPT
Around 1935 C.S. Forester (1899-1966), who had written and published two excellent crime noir novels, 'Payment Deferred' and 'Plain Murder', began work on the Hornblower sea stories on which his future success and eternal reputation would largely rest. He also wrote a third crime story, but for personal reasons felt it would not fit in alongside, and might possibly detract from, the Hornblower saga. Its publication was therefore delayed indefinitely and the manuscript was eventually lost. About a dozen years ago, a member of the C.S. Forester Society was lucky enough to find and acquire the manuscript in an auction in London, and at long last what was lost is now found - and therefore published.
Having adored the previous two stories, as soon as I read online that publication was on its way, I could hardly wait to read it. It fully lived up to my expectations.
Marjorie Grainger, in her early thirties, is married to Ted, who has a senior job in a gas showroom close to their London home, and they have two small children. One evening she comes home to a strong smell of gas, and is horrified to find her younger unmarried sister Dot, who had been babysitting, with her head in the oven. Ted has been out and come back about the same time. He helps her to remove the body, but tragically it is too late to save her. At the inquest a verdict of suicide is recorded, as is the fact that - previously unknown to her mother and sister - she was three months pregnant. Whoever she was having an affair with has kept it pretty secret, and she herself never left any clues, let alone any indication that something was happening.
Enter Marjorie's mother, referred to throughout as Mrs Clair, a tough old bird. On the outside she looks just like any other quiet little grey-haired lady, but inside she is as sharp as a tack and twice as deadly. Widowed during the Great War with two little girls to bring up, she has become used to looking after herself. She does not go to pieces, but she realises that Dot did not kill herself. An apparently innocent chance remark from four-year-old grandson Derrick confirms her darkest suspicions. Mrs Clair coolly and calmly decides how to wreak her revenge in the neatest way possible. Poor pathetic Majorie deserves better, she thinks. Her firstborn is 'a beautiful caged bird, whom soon she was going to set free.'
Part of the plan is that George Ely, a junior clerk in Ted's showroom, is looking for lodgings. Several years younger than his boss, George is good-looking and almost everything the boorish, repellent, even bullying Ted is not. The spark has been gradually going out of Mr and Mrs Grainger's marriage, Ted is spending more time at the pub with his mates, and is aggressive when he comes home, demanding that his food is always on the table, and becoming 'troublesome' when it comes to insisting that she does her wifely duties in the bedroom last thing at night - even, with a gross lack of sensitivity, when they go to bed just after Dot is found dead. George comes to the house as a paying guest, and then he also joins Marjorie, her mother and the kids on holiday at their annual guest house venue instead of Ted, who cannot go because the auditors are due at his place of work to inspect the books.
Marjorie is not privy to her mother's scheme, just in case she spoils things. Of course, there is always the possibility that one mistake or false move might wreck them anyway - but I couldn't possibly comment.
It's a bit of a recipe for trouble, as Mrs Clair knows. That's the whole idea. And that's as much as I'm prepared to give away here about the story.
GOOD, BAD OR BRILLIANT?
I'll take the third option. Once I had got into the story, I was absolutely hooked. It's a fairly short novel, by the way, not much over 200 pages long, and I read it easily in a day. Forester has this compelling facility of getting into his characters and conveying what it must have been like in a lower-middle-class family between the wars. He reveals the tawdry spirit of a wife who is putting up with an unpleasant husband mainly for the benefit of their children, while keeping an eye on nosy neighbours who will be all too aware of any chinks in the armour. At the same time he paints a vivid picture of what it was like to live in a semi-detached the London suburbs, where the trains run every ten minutes during the day and part of the night, and the whole house shakes. Not until 1.15 a.m. does the last one go, and at last the family - if still awake - can enjoy 'the tense quiet of a suburban night.'
Although it is very tame by today's standards, the intimacies (oh all right, then, sexual relations) are written about with some frankness, bearing in mind there were strict limits on what could or could not be printed in mainstream literature in the 1930s. In the first few pages there is a reference to Ted patting Marjorie on the shoulder, 'and then lower down her back, where she sat down.' 'Bum' was surely not a word for mainstream literature seventy years ago. I wonder if this may have been one of the reasons for Forester choosing not to publish at the time, feeling he would rather withhold the book than tone it down.
Marjorie is the reluctant hero of the book. A downtrodden wife at the beginning, she finds herself pitched into a situation which, by the end, forces her to seek her own salvation - she has to sink or swim. The relationship between mother and daughter is also portrayed with considerable insight and poignancy.
Also, as with the previous two novels, there is an interesting twist at the very end. At first I thought it was rather too abrupt, but after re-reading the final page a couple of times and thinking about it, it all made sense.
[Revised version of a review I originally posted on ciao]