A lady’s slipper

© C A Lovegrove

The Silence of Herondale
by Joan Aiken.
Introduction by Lizza Aiken.
Orion Books, 2019 (1964)

… a silent village, a wandering fugitive whom no one seemed anxious to discuss, a missing pistol, a face at a window, a damp patch in a dead man’s room—but now? The deliberately half-cut rope could not be easily dismissed.

‘The Silence of Herondale’

Deborah Lindsay is a young Canadian teacher, orphaned and now jobless in 1960s London. Following a burglary at her lodgings she accepts a position tutoring Careen Gilmartin, a precocious 13-year-old who has achieved fame as a playwright. Unfortunately the teenager has disappeared from her hotel room and could be heading for a number of places.

The girl’s aunt, Marion Morne, and her rather vulpine associate Willy Rienz suggest Deborah heads for Yorkshire where Careen’s grandfather is dying, and against her better judgement Deborah is bounced into taking a sleeper train to Leeds before heading for Herondale. Unbeknown to Deborah (but as we readers know with hindsight) the UK winter of 1962-3 was the coldest for more than 200 years, with blizzards and snowdrifts blanketing the British Isles from Christmas to March—and Christmas is just around the corner as Deborah’s train steams north.

And so the scene is set for Joan Aiken’s modern Gothic thriller, with its echoes of Brontë classics, nods to children’s classics, and touches of autobiography meshing with crime and thriller genres.

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Cleansing the heart

Thomas De Quincey:
On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts
No 4 Penguin Little Black Classics 2015 (1827)

A note in this postcard-sized publication, issued to celebrate eighty years of Penguin paperbacks, tells us that the 26-year-old author was somewhat affected by the Ratcliffe Highway murders in London’s East End in late 1811. We know from The Maul and the Pear Tree how deeply traumatising for the public those violent killings were, and De Quincey apparently was to write more than once about them over some three decades.

In 1827 he wrote this witty satire for Blackwood’s Magazine—a piece which, incidentally, I fancy the Brontë siblings would have eagerly pored over—in the course of which X. Y. Z. (De Quincey’s pseudonym) quotes verbatim a lecture to the fictional Society of Connoisseurs in Murder. As the magazine editor noted, “We cannot suppose the lecturer to be in earnest, any more than Erasmus in his Praise of Folly, or Dean Swift in his proposal for eating children.” But we can also suspend our disbelief for a while to examine the outrageous claims of the anonymous lecturer, all written in a perfectly learned and civil style. Entitled the Williams’ Lecture on Murder (in honour of the supposed perpetrator of the Ratcliffe Highway atrocities) the text is full of Latin and Greek quotations which fortunately are here translated for us in square brackets.

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Regency murders

ratcliffe_poster

P D James and T A Critchley
The Maul and the Pear Tree:
the Ratcliffe Highway Murders, 1811

Faber & Faber 2010

I deliberately began reading The Maul and the Pear Tree exactly two hundred years to the day that the horrific killing spree known as the Ratcliffe Highway murders began, on December 7th 1811. Four innocent people, including a babe in arms, were butchered in London’s East End that first night, stretching the rudimentary resources of the parish, the local magistrates and the Thames police based in Wapping. It inaugurated a period of terror, suspicion and xenophobia in St George’s and the neighbouring parishes and, through the medium of the press, a few weeks of morbid fascination in the public at large. It also led to questions in Parliament on the adequacy of current policing by neighbourhood watchmen, with a scornful analysis by the playwright Sheridan on the floor of the House of Commons.

Panic really set in when, twelve days later, a second attack resulting in three more horrific murders took place, also around the witching hour of midnight.

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Two enthusiasms combined

Blaise Castle House
Blaise Castle House

P D James: Death Comes to Pemberley
Faber and Faber 2012 (2011)

In a piece she wrote for the Daily Telegraph (included in the paperback edition of Death Comes to Pemberley)  P D James explained the genesis of the novel in her desire ‘to combine my two lifelong enthusiasms, namely for writing detective fiction and for the novels of Jane Austen’. In evaluating this sequel to Pride and Prejudice consideration must be given to the degree of success she’s achieved with that combination of enthusiasms as well as all those other touchstones for masterful writing. The imminent screening of a BBC serial based on the novel  proves that the public appetite for such a combination is certainly still there  — though from the trailer clearly a lot of dramatic licence has been taken.

The trigger for the action is easily adumbrated… Continue reading “Two enthusiasms combined”