I knew that Monica Dickens was a wonderful author. I knew that she had written a marvellous range of books, works of fictions and non fiction, stories for children and stories for adults. But I didn’t know that she had written crime fiction until I spotted a tatty copy of ‘Closed at Dusk’ in a charity shop bargain box.
It’s a story set in a country house, but not a conventional country house mystery.
“The house which stands in these beautiful gardens, is not open to the public. It has been the home of the Cobb family since 1750, when Sir Desmond Cobb, successful farmer and agricultural advisor to King George II, replaced the sixteenth century manor house with this magnificent dwelling designed by a pupil of John Wood the Younger.
In 1870 Sir Desmond’s descendant Walter Cobb and his wife Beatrice changed the name of the house from Lynford Place to The Snactuary, in keeping with their mission to promote here the welfare and understanding of all living creatures. Most of the animal statues to be seen about the estate date from that time.
After a period of neglect during and after the Second World War, the magnificent gardens and lake have been restores and improved by Walter Cobb’s great-grandson, William Taylor, the present owner, who welcomes you to The Sanctuary.
Open 2pm : closed at dusk.”
Monica Dickens spent some time painting a picture of the family who lived in the house at the centre of that wonderful estate. William Taylor and his wife Ruth, a professional, middle-class couple in their fifties, setting out on a new adventure. Their daughter Tessa, who was in the first flush of a new relationship and found it very useful to be able to leave her young son, Rob, with his grandparents. Ruth’s grandmother, Agnes, who lived in the lodge with a companion who had once been her housekeeper. And many others; siblings, cousins, children, who all gravitated to what they thought of as the family.
People wrapped up in their own lives; people who didn’t look beyond their own world.
Monica Dickens painted their lives and their world beautifully. And I wondered when the story would begin. It took a while, but it was worth waiting for.
The first hint came when the family began to have problems with a lady who worked in the tea rooms. She had to be eased out, and they found a positive treasure to replace her.
Jo was a young widow; a woman who didn’t need to work, didn’t need the money, but wanted to occupy her time, wanted to be needed. She was so capable, so easy to get on with; she would willingly turn her hand to whatever needed doing.
Monica Dickens wrote so beautifully, so subtlely, that I was happy to believe, with the family, that Jo was that rare gem. Even though I knew the conventions of the genre.
Of course she wasn’t!
It slowly became clear that Jo was a construct. Marigold had created her, to reach out to, to punish, one member of the family who had done her a terrible wrong.
Jo was a wonder, but Marigold was criminally insane.
The mask must never slip.
Monica Dickens drew her character so beautifully, with understanding and restraint. It was easy to understand her hurt, her pain, her anger with Tessa. But she had held on to those emotions too tightly, for too long, and that had unbalanced her mind. She was a real woman, an ordinary woman you might pass in the street, not knowing her story, not knowing who she was.
And her actions are just as real, just as believable, and that makes this quiet novel so much more chilling that many more dramatic pieces of crime fiction.
It was so easy to frighten a child, and unsettle adults, when she learned the house’s ghost story. The family could be observed and their weaknesses could be played on, their secrets used against them. A beloved pet could be spirited away.
And then there was a terrible accident. An old lady left a cigarette end smouldering, a fire started, and her companion died, overcome by fumes. But of course it wasn’t an accident, it was murder.
It wasn’t enough though, and Marigold realised what she had to do to make Tessa really suffer. Suffer as she had.
The finale is dramatic and thought-provoking. There is murder, suicide, and terrible sacrifice.
Monica Dickens manipulates her readers’ sympathies so cleverly. Her villain is so clearly in pain, her victimwas the cause of that pain, and she was careless, thoughtless, selfish …
It was all so very real, so very plausible. Every character, every action, every detail was pitch perfect.
And in the end life went on, and that made the story all the more chilling.
The Crime Fiction Alphabet is hosted by Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise.
“Each week, beginning Monday 21 May 2012, you have to write a blog post about crime fiction related to the letter of the week …”
So next week, E is for … ?