The Secrets of Houses
Reviews of: Christobel Kent, The Crooked House; D.D. Johnston, The Secret Baby Room; Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train; and Liane Moriarty, The Last Anniversary
A mark of good crime fiction is that readers can intensely experience the spaces through which the characters move or in which they are trapped. Whether they are in urban mean streets or small towns, buildings are more than background or setting. They can generate the fears and desires that drive characters to commit crimes; they conceal secrets and retain the impress of crimes committed; protagonists may dread to enter them or feel a false sense of security when they lock the doors. Three excellent recent crime novels construct gripping narratives that centre on the manifold ways in which buildings are perceived, experienced and remembered. In Christobel Kent’s atmospheric novel, The Crooked House, the house of the title is a gothic embodiment of past terrors, containing the lost narrative of a murdered family; in D. D. Johnston’s forthcoming The Secret Baby Room, an almost equally gothic building, a derelict tower block, summons up the protagonist’s worst fears; and in Paula Hawkins’ tense thriller, The Girl on the Train, what we’re led to reflect on is the deceptive uniformity, the apparent interchangeability of suburban houses, so blank that it is easy to miss their role in concealing disastrous and violent acts. Also reviewed is a novel first published a few years ago (2006), Liane Moriarty’s The Last Anniversary, a playful, enthralling mix of romance and mystery, in which houses stimulate desire and feed the imaginative hunger for enigmas.
Our May 2015 reviews are part of a new Editor’s Choice feature – a selection of some of the best recent crime novels.
Christobel Kent, The Crooked House, Sphere (January 2015)
The crooked house, standing on a windswept Essex estuary, has been named “after the tilt to its roofline, its foundations unsteady in the mud, out on its own in the dusk.” The gripping, horrifying narrative opens with a fourteen-year old girl, Esme, hiding in an upstairs room of the house, shaken by the booming noise of a shotgun as someone slaughters her entire family. The novel repeatedly brings us back to the unspeakable events that took place in the now derelict house, vividly conjured up by Kent’s rich, evocative prose. Much of the novel takes place elsewhere – in south London, or in other houses, pubs or boats in the coastal town of Saltleigh. But the crooked house itself is the dark heart of the narrative.
A deeply traumatised survivor, Esme moves far away, changing her name to Alison and eventually establishing a new life for herself in London. Some thirteen years on, when her boyfriend decides to attend a wedding in Saltleigh, Alison reluctantly accompanies him, knowing that it will bring her frighteningly close to her hidden past and that she won’t be able to avoid a confrontation with the terrors and the secrets of the crooked house. She is inexorably drawn back to the boarded-up house, “its brick dark and its angles wrong, a blotch on the pale lovely morning.” She needs the courage to return if she is to understand the horrors of her childhood: “in her brain she had forced the house into the setting of a horrible story, of a bad, bad dream, branching into cellars and cluttered attics and corridors that had never existed except in her imagination…” But once she forces herself to revisit it, the reality of the misshapen house overwhelms her. As the end approaches, her brain seems to turn to darkness and the house seems to topple towards her. She has to enter it to know the truth of the crime: “The black- painted boarding gave a little under her shoulder and she turned to its blank face …This was it, this was the answer. They were all inside, they were waiting for her…..Stealthily the house was taking shape again around her in a grey darkness, the fogged outlines of things broken…” The answers to the mystery and Alison’s own fate are held in the balance as characters converge on the crooked house, the complex plot playing itself out in ways the protagonist never anticipated.
D. D. Johnston, The Secret Baby Room, Barbican (forthcoming July 2015)
“Welcome to suburbia: everyone has a secret.” D. D. Johnston’s The Secret Baby Room is a tense and compelling psychological thriller. A sinister, decaying tower block looms over Claire Wilson’s new home, and she feels driven to uncover its secrets before they are hidden forever by the building’s impending demolition. Johnston creates a sustained sense of the tower block’s mysterious and frightening presence. A hippy neighbour tells Claire that “the tower is crying out to me. It’s in pain and it needs to be heard.” Even in Claire’s more down-to-earth mind, the tower becomes the focus of imaginings so dark that she is unable to resist the compulsion to venture into it, to brave its terrors and find her own answers to its mysteries.
In the taut, suspenseful opening pages, Claire, just moving into her new house, looks up to see “the strangest thing. High up in the abandoned tower block that overshadowed their estate, a woman was bottle-feeding a baby.” The woman disappears, but the mystery haunts and deeply disturbs Claire. The tower is condemned, fenced off and surrounded with yellow-black warning signs, its entrances boarded “and clearly marked: DANGER”. Obsessed with breaking through into this forbidden zone, Claire fears that she is actually going mad, as she sits “staring at the concrete, as though the Secret Baby Room might somehow reappear…She suddenly saw how crazy it all was.”
As her own life falls apart, Claire risks everything in her quest. It’s an investigation that leads her not only towards the dark knowledge of past crimes but towards an understanding of the damaged lives of those around her. Johnston offers us a wonderfully gripping read, but also a compassionate and moving story of people struggling to survive at the margins of a rapidly changing city.
Paula Hawkins, The Girl on the Train, Doubleday (January 2015)
The Girl on the Train is a tightly plotted, absorbing story told from the viewpoints of three women. Each of their perspectives is partial, and we only gradually come to recognise how damaged all of their lives are and how disturbingly intertwined. The main narrator, Rachel, commutes every morning from a suburb into London, looking out of the window as her train slows on a worn section of track just behind a row of Victorian houses. Two of these are of particular interest: no.23, her former address, currently occupied by her ex-husband and his new wife; and no. 15, another modest two-storey semi, so like her one-time home that she feels she is familiar with every brick: “I know it because it’s exactly the same as number twenty- three.”
As Rachel’s train journey carries her past her old house, she feels that she “can’t bear to look at it. Well, I can, I do, I want to, I don’t want to, I try not to. Every day I tell myself not to look, and every day I look.” Instead of dwelling on no. 23, she becomes obsessed with imagining an ideal life acted out within the identical no. 15, which becomes, for her, the home of “a perfect, golden couple” who frequently appear on their back terrace together, returning from days spent pursuing rewarding careers, passionately devoted to one another. “Twice a day,” she reflects, “I am offered a view into other lives, just for a moment. There’s something comforting about the sight of strangers safe at home.” But of course, they are far from safe, and are not at all as she perceives them to be. Throughout the novel, Hawkins plays cleverly on our sense of the insidious, treacherous attractions of voyeurism, inviting us to enter into the unexpected ways in which these very ordinary-looking houses are inhabited, to penetrate the deceptive surfaces of neighbourhood life.
Rachel’s resistance to looking at her former home and her fantasies about other lives serve, like her compulsive drinking, to blot out life’s realities. But as she stumbles from the role of passive observer to that of participant, she ventures back inside the houses, learning their secrets – as well as further complicating them. This shift brings a strong sense of disorientation. One of the more vertiginous plot reversals, for example, comes in a scene in which she is in no. 15 and feels as though she is looking back at herself on the passing train: “The train rolled slowly past and I looked out towards the tracks. I felt dizzy, as though I were having an out-of-body experience, as though I were looking out at myself.” The repetitive movement of the train has been a distraction, and as Rachel’s vision becomes progressively clearer, we see, inside the apparent security of houses, a quite different kind of movement, the perilous instability of emotions, guilts and betrayals. This is a constantly shifting reality and is, for us as readers, a source of suspense to the very end.
Liane Moriarty, The Last Anniversary, Penguin (October 2014; 1st edn 2006)
Liane Moriarty’s wonderful novels are dark and funny, suspenseful and touching. She mixes genre as well tone: The Last Anniversary beguilingly combines a romance with a mystery plot, drawing us into these intertwined stories with such artfulness that we are unsure which genre will play the greater role in shaping the arc of the narrative. The novel’s backstory is centred in a carefully curated house that has been preserved as a repository of the standard elements of the classic mystery – the bloodstain on the floor, the signs of ordinary life interrupted by an unexplained event. Visitors, who come annually to the tiny island of Scribbly Gum for a tour of the house, are informed by a colour brochure that it is the site of ‘The Munro Baby Mystery, ’ the home of Alice and Jack Munro, not altered since a July day in 1932, when teenage sisters Connie and Rose Doughty stopped by for tea with their neighbours and found “the kettle about to boil, a freshly baked marble cake waiting to be iced, and a tiny baby waking for her feed – but no sign of her parents…”
Moriarty creates all of her main characters in relation to places that have great meaning for them. Frozen in time, the Munro house is a testimony to the power of an unsolved mystery, and Connie and Rose have devoted themselves to sustaining this mystery in people’s imaginations. The novel’s other compelling house is the embodiment of love and desire. When Connie dies, she bequaths her own extraordinary house to a young woman she barely knows – and thus Sophie, protagonist of the present-day story, comes to live on Scribbly Gum and ultimately to share long-hidden family secrets. Sophie has had her share of romantic failures and might or might not find a new romance on the island. But her true love affair is with the house itself: “A beautiful house. An extraordinary house…she’d never been in someone else’s home and thought to herself, ‘I’d give anything to live here’…It really was like a house in a fairytale.” The novel repeatedly circles around the idea of how much love we invest in houses, how love shapes them and how they repay our love. But we also, briefly, in one of the novel’s darkest and most satisfying twists, are taken to an unloved house, a place with an unpleasant-smelling kitchen, a meal of horrible sludgy porridge, a buzzing blowfly – a house in which the objects of ordinary life become sinister, and past realities are briefly glimpsed. A hugely compelling novel.