Friday, July 31, 2015

FFB: A Leaven of Malice - Clare Curzon

Zoe Freeman has left her narcissistic lover Clive Gibley and is looking for a place to stay. She ends up being offered a room in the home of Hester Keeble, a nurse whose specialty is caring for patients with end stage disease and terminal illnesses. Later we meet Dan Hammond, a part time assistant undertaker in his uncle’s funeral parlor but who also runs a second hand and antique furniture business of his own. The three of them become involved in a police investigation of the strange death of Estelle Bentall, Zoe’s best friend in her high school days. Strange because Zoe had visions of Estelle’s death the very night it happened. She heard her voice calling out to her and saw a woman’s bare feet suspended in mid-air in her new lodgings. But she dared not tell anyone for fear they would think the worst of her. When she learns that Estelle was found hanged in her kitchen and barefoot Zoe is sure the vision she had was of Estelle. Estelle’s husband is convinced her death is suicide but the police suspect him of murder due to some oddities like evidence of Estelle’s hands being bound with electrical tape.

The case becomes even stranger when Zoe begins to remember a trail of fatal accidents that followed in Estelle’s wake back in their high school days. Anyone who crossed her seemed to suffer a terrible death or in one case succumb to a nervous breakdown. Estelle used to talk of her being raised in the Caribbean by her mambo Adela who often referred to Estelle as having extraordinary powers since she was the child born after her twin brothers. In Haitian folklore this child is referred to as the dossu (or dossa when a girl) and is supposedly blessed with a charmed life and paranormal abilities that are revered by those who believe in such things. In death Estelle still seems to have an eerie influence over both Zoe and her husband Tim. Is it possible that she has become even more powerful now that she is dead?

Clare Curzon’s novel A Leaven of Malice (1979) is one of the more unusual crime novels to incorporate genuine supernatural and psychic events. It starts off with no real mystery other than Hester's work and past life which are teasingly written about in an ambiguous manner. Then the death of Estelle shifts the story into a crime novel with the murder investigation and the uncovering of her sinister past life. Finally, the bizarre events involving a mural Zoe paints on the wall of her room, the visions she has and some psychic connections Hester reveals shift the book once again into the realm of a paranormal thriller. All the while Curzon’s writing is lush and imbued with a gamut of richly felt emotions. It’s miles above the usual lurid potboilers that made up the bulk of the supernatural thrillers that were being churned out in the 1970s.

Nearly all of the characters have some sort of other world encounter in the book with Zoe acting as the catalyst. Hester Keeble has her own secrets in her past which I will not discuss since they are masterfully revealed over the course of this intriguingly told and well plotted story. Ultimately her knowledge will help uncover the truth behind Estelle’s strange powers and she acts as a sort of modern day occult detective educating Zoe in all things paranormal and the dark side of Caribbean voodoo. The finale is quite a shocker and blends an intellectual approach to evil beyond the grave with some action set pieces that rival the best kind of occult detective battling supernatural beings found in the stories of Margery Lawrence’s Miles Pennoyer or Algernon Blackwood’s John Silence.

Clare Curzon is the best known pseudonym of writer Eileen-Marie Duell Buchanan. She began writing traditional detective stories in the 1960s using the name "Rhona Petrie". Her first book Death in Deakins Wood (1963) was published in both the US and UK to mild acclaim. As Petrie she continued writing a series of books featuring her detective Marcus Maclurg and two mystery novels with Dr. Nassim Pride. She later abandoned that pseudonym and used Marie Buchanan. Under this pen name she wrote a variety of thrillers, some incorporating elements of the detective novel, but all of them dealing with her fascination with occult and psychic phenomena. Greenshards (1972), better known in the US as Anima, is the story of woman possessed by a malevolent spirit and was favorably compared to The Exorcist when it first was published. The Dark Backward (1975) tells of a haunted archeological site near some standing stones and the slow demonic possession of the archeologist obsessed with his findings. A Leaven of Malice is the first book she wrote as "Clare Curzon" and her interest supernatural is still very apparent. Eventually Buchanan focused on straightforward police procedurals and created yet another policeman series character in Supt. Mike Yeadings. It is this series of books for which she is best known, but all too forgotten by most contemporary readers. She died in 2010 at the age 88 having written close to fifty books under four different pen names.

* * *

Reading Challenge update: Silver Age card, space I4 - "Book by an author you've never read before"

17 comments:

  1. Not for me, John. Since psychic phenomenon falls rather flat for me. Give me a straightforward murder mystery every time. :) By the way, where's my box o'books? I knew you were just toying with me. And me a weak and trusting old lady.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One book I couldn't find for days. I know...totally lame excuse. I'm mailing them tomorrow. Really and truly! Three books all of which you hinted at in your comments as wanting to read, one of them is THE CAT SAW MURDER. I'll even send them Priority in order to make up for the delay.

      Delete
    2. Oh no, John. Don't spend the extra money. I can wait. Now that I know they're really and truly coming I can be an angel of patience. :)

      Delete
  2. Glad to see this review, though I haven't read this particular book. Clare Curzon was very prolific, and her work was, as a result, sometimes uneven, but she wrote quite a number of very entertaining mysteries, and I'm surprised she is not better known. I got to know her personally in her later years, and found her charming, another reason why I'm glad to see her being discussed.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. She certainly could write, Martin! I was truly impressed with her style, her love of language and her insights. In my estimation she is most like Charity Blackstock who I think of as a literary writer first and foremost, not a crime writer. Curzon/Buchanan is that good. I'm already seeking out her early work as "Rhona Petrie" to see what those books are like. And I'm very interested in finding a copy of Greenshards (or Animism).

      Delete
  3. I have wanted to try this author, but I did not know of all her different pseudonyms. Thanks for all that information, John.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Well, I am totally getting this one John - you're a devil (but my groaning TBR salutes you).

    ReplyDelete
  5. This sounds intriguing, John. Although, like Yvette, I'm not normally one for psychic phenomena. I've read one Curzon book--First Wife, Twice Removed--but that was long before blogging days, so I don't have a clear memory of it. I rated it pretty middle of the road on my minimalist 1-5 scale.

    ReplyDelete
  6. I read a couple of Curzons, but had no idea she had such a complex writing history. That cover looks so familiar that I think I must have read this one - I'll have to see if I can find it on the groaning shelves... I do remember thinking she wrote well. I think I mix her up with Marian Babson, do you know anything about her?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Do I know anything about Marian Babson? Sorry, no. I don't think I've ever read anything by her. I usually like to research a writer's life when they're new to me. This was my first Curzon and learning that she was also Marie Buchanan sort of took me by surprise. ANIMISM has been on my want list for a while now and I may just have to buy a copy pronto. I'm intrigued by Curzon now.

      Delete
    2. If I can butt in: Marian Babson has written some darker novels in the 70s and 80s that I think might compare to Curzon's work, but from the mid-80s onwards, she's written light (though with aspects of more acidic social satire) humorous mysteries, and at one point in the 90s she's turned to writing exclusively cat mysteries, so I think they're quite different writers.

      Delete
  7. "Greenshards (1972), better known in the US as Animism...."
    I think the name is Anima , not Animism.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Santosh. Once again my Swiss cheese memory at work. I fixed the title of that book throughout the post.

      Delete
    2. Actually, the book is available with me !

      Delete
  8. Used copies of Anima are available at Amazon.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I found two copies on eBay and managed to snag one for 50% off the asking price with my Buy It Now bartering skills. Got a copy headed my way.

      Delete
  9. I picked up one of Clare Curzon's police procedurals on the strength of your praise of her writing style, and it has been a delightful surprise. Curzon has been on my radar for a while but for some reason I've never picked up any of her books, but the one I'm reading - First Wife Twice Removed - is just excellent. Beautiful prose, memorable characters, definitely strong literary aspects.

    ReplyDelete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.