|1st UK edition, artwork by Chris Yates|
Peacock Island is home to the eccentric recluse Lady Bennett. She allows no one to set foot on her land. The only boat allowed to dock brings her monthly groceries that are left beneath a bench. One day a crew member on the delivery boat notices that the bag usually left empty in full view on top of the bench has not been touched. He suspects something is wrong and daringly sets out to the Lady Bennett's home, an old country house with a Gothic facade and other tasteless Victorian crenelations that make it appear to be a castle. When he doesn't return his brother goes in search of him and finds some gruesome surprises inside the castle. The police are called and a murder investigation begins. There is a parallel story of a TV documentary crew who get word of the murder and set off to illegally make a movie about the crimes. Any reader can guess that these characters exist as only the characters in a slasher movie exist - as future victims.
While the book does a good job of creating an atmosphere of creepy Gothic chills with a killer dressed in a weird outfit of feathers and man-made claws who roams the island in search of victims I found the book overall to be extremely familiar. Granted it was published in 1974 prior to the onslaught of slasher movies and similar "they're all doomed" thrillers about people trapped on an island at the mercy of a mad killer, but it just didn't do it for me. From the very start I got too many echoes of August Derleth's love of Gothic family secrets, Hammer Horror films, and the entire 1980s slasher movie craze that have used plot ideas and situations found in The Bornless Keeper. I'm usually quick to place books like this in the evolution of crime and modern horror fiction, and I ought to give the writer some credit for perhaps being something of a groundbreaker. This novel could easily be seen as a forerunner to much more terrifying and suspenseful books in the same vein as The Silence of the Lambs and The Running of Beasts, but because it does it less skillfully I am reluctant to give it that place of honor.
|UK paperback edition|
The strength of the book is really not in the very familiar horror elements but rather in the depiction of the policeman characters. Inspector Victor Daniels is at war with his superior Supt. Groves. What keeps the book alive is the caustic relationship between these two very different policemen. Groves is an insulting boss with little tolerance for creativity in crime solving and Daniels endures his bullying with restrained anger. While Daniels takes phone calls from the local historian who links a local legend with past crimes and does research on Lady Bennett's family tree, Groves scoffs at him and does yeoman police work delegating his men to look for stolen boats and local thugs who might have been interrupted on a trespassing adventure. I liked the police business here and thought the contrast between the ex-city dwelling Daniels and the gruff, bullheaded Groves was handled well. Daniels is a sympathetic character and you root for him to show up his narrow-minded boss. He does some decent detective work even if most of it happens through telephone calls.
The characters making up the TV crew on the other hand are the stuff of B movies. Tiresome, flat portrayals of a driven bitchy woman producer, her handsome Lothario assistant producer, the sad sack married cameraman who desires her, and a cipher character who you know will be the killer's first victim. None of the drivelly soap opera subplots between this quartet was interesting. I skimmed over these pages just waiting for someone to get knocked off or "disappear" only to "reappear" in the violent finale that is telegraphed amateurishly in previous chapters.