Friday, May 16, 2014

FFB: Miss Fenny (1957) - Charity Blackstock

Two teenage boys skipping out on their English class on the last day of school come across a horrible sight while walking through Braxham Wood -- a skeleton half buried in a pile of leaves and wearing only one woman's shoe. They immediately report their grisly discovery to their teacher Tim Brennan who then calls Sergeant Hawkes and soon the entire village of Braxham Parva is caught up in a murder investigation.  Who was this woman? How long had she been dead? Why had no one reported her missing?

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.

Blackstock seems to me to be the missing link in the British school of suspense writing bridging the post-war detective novel with the modern day crime or suspense novel. Prior to her appearance on the mystery scene it was the American women writers like Margaret Millar, Charlotte Armstrong, and Usula Curtiss who were pioneering domestic suspense and malice domestic novels. Blackstock brings to mind modern writers like her fellow countrywomen Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters in the use of sardonic humor and the creation of loathsome characters ripe for satiric attacks like the haughty racist Lady Grale, the prattling hypochondriac Miss Brooks, and the vile physician Dr. Heslop more interested in using the contents of his doctor's bag to harm than cure. Among the British women crime writers I can think only of Blackstock's contemporaries 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"

10 comments:

  1. Having read widely in the mystery field for fifty years I am both impressed and depressed at the number of books and authors whom I have never tried but whom you make sound so very interesting.

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    1. I have eclectic tastes for one, Ron. Some people would never discover Blackstock because most of her books have been reissued in paperback editions that are marketed to look like Gothic romances. And I'm willing to read a book for what the writer is trying to do rather than expecting every crime novel shelved in the mystery section to be a puzzling whodunnit. This begins as one, but Blackstock pulls the rug out from under the reader and goes in a completely different direction very early on. I have read reviews of The Woman in the Woods elsewhere (one very nasty one at the GAD Wiki) that mention this shift from detective novel to suspense thriller that then go on to disparage the book. I can understand dismissing a book for being badly written, but not for shifting the tone and direction of the plot. Those reviews reveal a disappointment in expectations. It's a matter of taste, of course. But no book nor writer deserves to be panned for not living up to the reader's limited tastes and preferences, especially when a book like Miss Fenny is written so intelligently and insightfully with powerful and original scenes.

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  2. This seems really impressive.

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  3. Yet another fine review, John, and another author new to me. Good job, not a Fifties crime novel most would pick (but then neither was mine).

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    1. I've read a Wilson Tucker crime novel, but not the one you reviewed. Red Herring. Pretty good, too. I've seen his others in paperback editions every now and then. Oddly, I never knew that he was primarily science fiction writer.

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  4. Sounds eerily good, John. Don't think I've ever read any books by Charity Blackstock, but I'll keep an eye out for this one. So far, my list of Vintage reading is beginning to overtake my other reading. What to do. What to do. Ha.

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  5. Not an author I know, but you've got me interested in her work now.

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  6. Terrific John - and I love the Pan cover - let's see if me can find it! Thanks matey.

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  7. Excellent! I have to read this now! I think I like the title Miss Fenny the best.

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    1. I like her original title too, Peggy Ann. That's why I posted using that title. Remember over here it's called The Woman in the Woods and I think it'll be easy to find. There are loads of Blackstock's books in the CPL system. You might find it in your local library out there in PA.

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