Wednesday, April 25, 2012

The Bornless Keeper - P. B. Yuill

1st UK edition, artwork by Chris Yates
This was one of those books I came across because of a comment on one of the many blogs I read. I noted the title, went looking for a copy and when they all proved to be in horrid condition set aside my search. Then a very cheap 1st UK edition came up for sale on eBay so I bought it and eagerly read the book hoping that it would prove to be as advertised by the commenter who called it the best by author P.B. Yuill, "a horror/whodunit on the lines of [T]he Wicker Man." The paperback edition plastered on its cover a blurb from a review that appeared in The Observer: "The most haunting novel of terror since The Hound of the Baskervilles." Typical P.R. hyperbole as far as I'm concerned.

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
Prior to the halfway mark when the entire book devolves into something akin to a sequel in the Friday the 13th franchise there were some interesting allusions to the ecological decay of the island, commentary of industrial pollution, and jabs at the thoughtlessness of tourists who use lakes and rivers as their dumping ground. I was hoping that the writer would expand upon this and that the mad killer would turn out to be some kind of monstrous thing along the lines of the creature in the very weird, unintentionally campy, 1979 horror movie Prophecy. No such luck. All of the eerie, supernatural qualities quickly dissipate along with the sideline ecological commentary and we are left with nothing more than another psycho killer tale. We get ersatz Gothic secrets, a dash of Blochian necrophilia, hidden tombs, and a very disturbing rape scene.

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.


  1. Hi John - yeah, it's not a great book, is it? I think Harry Keating said quite nice things about it but I'm no fan - my edition has the second cover you used on your post. Although there is some confusion depending on your source, the book was the sole work of Gordon Williams, who wrote 'The Siege of Trencher's Farm', which was later adapted into the brutal and amazing 1971 version of STRAW DOGS (though Williams hated it). The other 'PB Yuill' books feature cockney PI James Hazell and were written by Williams in collaboration with football manager Terry Venables and are absolutely wonderfully entertaining - well plotted and full of great 1970s local London colour and dialogue. If you haven't read these you reall should!

  2. Sergio -

    It was your blog where I first learned of this author and book. The comment I mention was on your "100 Best Mystery Novels" page. I don't know Williams' work as a mainstream novelist. It's not surprising he chose to hide behind a pseudonym. The author blurb on the DJ even stresses that he doesn't want to be known. Guess he was slumming with this book.

    Since it is the police characters and the police work that held my interest I would like to read at least one of the Hazell books. As long as there are no psycho killers in them I think I might like them.

  3. So there I am, proud to be the purveyor of information, and ashamed to be the supplier of BUM information ... I promise, James Hazell is a terrific character and the books, like him, a very, very down to earth, without ever losing their sense of humour. Sorry the fedora tipped slightly in the wrong direction though!

  4. Sergio -

    "Do not despair, me lad." It was one of *your readers* who left the comment mentioning TBK as Yuill's best book and that he would've listed it instead of Hazell Plays Solomon which I think is the book you listed in your Top 100. In any case, I'm on the hunt for Hazell! Remember, I give everyone a second and third chance before I call "Three stirkes, you're out!"

    1. Ha! I believe that was me! I sttill think it's an excellent book and as you say groundbreaking. He does tend to be graphic in his depictions of the gruesome and excessive, and I wouldn't argue about the characterisation of the film crew. It is very much in line with horror films of the day, but with the core being a who dunit. Sorry you didn't like it but as Sergio says, the Hazell books are very different and enjoyable in a lighter way.

  5. Sounded like this could be kitchy and least until I got to the part about a disturbing rape scene...