Miss Fenny (1957) was later retitled in its US publication The Woman in the Woods and is better known under that second title. The first title refers to the seemingly imaginary friend of a bedridden crippled boy named Daniel. The two of them become the most important characters in the book. Daniel is a petulant, demanding eight year-old, the only son of Nicole Sherratt who spends much of the book fretting over her son and pining for her dead husband. Brennan has been seeing Nicole for several months now and has developed a bond with Daniel. He tells the boy stories, creates nightly drawings for him, and listens to Daniel's fanciful tales of Miss Fenny, trying to win over Nicole in the process but frustrated repeatedly by her obsessive thoughts of her dead husband.
Little do Brennan and Nicole realize that Miss Fenny is far from imaginary. It doesn't take long for the reader to recognize that Daniel at one time befriended the woman whose skeleton was found in the woods. She was indeed murdered and the identity of her killer does not remain hidden for long. The killer also has daily visits with Daniel and when he keeps hearing the stories of Miss Fenny and the facts that Daniel unwittingly reveals in the conversations he has had with her the killer fears he may be found out. The story then becomes not so much a murder investigation but a suspense tale. As in the story of the boy who cried wolf the reader keeps hoping that the adults will finally see the truth in what Daniel has to say about Miss Fenny. Until they do the entire village is at the mercy of a killer who will not stop at more murder to keep his one crime secret.
Shelley Smith and Joan Fleming who were writing similar tales of menace and murder at the time of the publication of Miss Fenny. What Blackstock does in Miss Fenny, however, is rather remarkable. She has written a story in which not just a violent crime but death itself has an inexorable affect on an entire village. And she does so with the macabre effects of a modern Poe.
Nicole is truly haunted by her husband, almost as if she is in thrall to his ghost. Brennan cannot compete for her love as she is more in love with a memory than anyone alive, including her son. Yet he too finds himself haunted. There is a chilling scene in which Brennan realizes that the skeleton belongs to a woman he held, caressed, and kissed. Linking the corrupted skeleton to a living being and then connecting that to a memory of a tender sexual encounter is something straight out of Poe.
Dr. Heslop, the cruel physician caring for Daniel; Rose, the doctor's simple-minded mistress and office assistant; Matthew Plumtree, an effete writer battling between cowardice and heroism are also key players in the drama and all have had their past encounters with the woman Daniel has come to know as Miss Fenny. When the identity of the skeleton finally comes to light and Daniel's stories are seen to be truth and not fiction it is only a matter of time before the cowards will make bold confrontations and the killer will strike out again.
Anthony Boucher, champion of new crime fiction writers of immense talent, was thoroughly impressed with Blackstock's novel when it first appeared. He noted her "technically faultless" construction, solid characters of "believable complexity" and an "evocative hint of fantasy" in the person of Miss Fenny. But notably as I have mentioned above he writes "...there is a spell of the sharp immediacy of death itself, such as is too rarely cast in our novels of violet crime." Contemporary writers have since capitalized on this crucial aspect of crime fiction, but it was Charity Blackstock who perhaps was one of the earliest pioneers to recognize the dread power Death has over the living. Her ruminations on this conceit captured in evocative writing and impassioned emotions make Miss Fenny -- or The Woman in the Woods -- a book worthy of your attention.
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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age Bingo card, space O6 - "Book with a Woman in the Title"