While I was waiting for this month’s Dodie Smith reissues to appear, while queueing patiently for the Cornish Library Service’s much in demand copy of ‘Look Back With Love’, I had another look at the library catalogue to see if there was anything else interesting by Dodie Smith that I might order up.
The title ‘The Girl from the Candle-Lit Bath’ caught my eye and I placed my order.
When the book arrived I learned that in 1978, at the age of eighty-two, Dodie Smith published her first story of suspense.
It started beautifully. Nan arrived home and she overheard her husband on the telephone. He was arranging a rendezvous in what Nan had thought was their own special place, and her hurt and anger were palpable.
Nan had been an actress, and she had been famous thanks to an advert in which she starred as ‘The Girl from the Candle-Lit Bath.’ But when she married Roy, a rising MP, after a chance meeting and a whirlwind romance, she gave up her career to play the role of consort.
She’d had doubts about whether she had done the right thing, and suddenly she was sure that she hadn’t. And she decided that before she did anything else she had to find out what her husband was up to.
When Roy put the phone down he rushed out of their flat, not even noticing that his wife had arrived home, and hailed a taxi. Nan followed and hailed a taxi of her own to follow him. She saw the rendezvous, and it wasn’t what she had expected at all; a small packet was passed between her husband and another man …
Nan was confounded, and she poured her heart out to her very sympathetic taxi driver. He, Tim, told her that he was actually a crime writer who drove a taxi to supplement his meagre earnings as an author. He suggested many possible explanations of what Nan had seen: blackmail, whistle-blowing, espionage …
He convinced Nan that she would learn more, and she would be safer, if she carried on as usual and didn’t share her concerns with anybody else.
So far so good. I had my doubts about whether a woman betrayed by her husband would share so much with a strange man, but I could have put those doubts aside if the story was good. And the potential seemed to be there. But, sadly, things went horribly wrong.
Nan took steps towards independence, looked to revive her acting career. but she hung on to the hope that there was an innocent explanation for her husband’s behaviour and accompanied him to a house party at the country home of two of her husband’s patrons.
They make it clear that they don’t like her, that they don’t think that a girl from a tantalising advertisement is in any way a suitable wife for their protegé. And when Nan goes back to town she finds she is being followed.
All of this made the story lurch from being fanciful to being unbelievable. I suspect it was compromised by the author’s wish to write about what she knew, what she had written about many times before. And I could see that suspense didn’t suit her.
The characters were paper-thin, the settings were uninspired, and I found it hard to care.
That title was a bit of a cheat.
And the ending really doesn’t bear thinking about.
Such a pity, because the potential was there in the early chapters. But this was maybe a book too many, a stretch too far.
So it’s straight back to the library with this one.
Fortunately though those reissues, of much earlier novels, look much more promising …