Forester’s lost novel proves to be a real find
31/12/2011 1 Comment
Published in this week’s Irish Examiner, my review of a lost CS Forester novel…
Review: Val Nolan
Though best known for his swashbuckling tales of naval warfare, the British novelist C.S. Forster began his career as a thriller writer, rehearsing the taut plots and realistic characters of his Horatio Hornblower series in crime novels such as Payment Deferred (1926) and Plain Murder (1930). A third book, The Pursued, was written in 1935 but the typescript was lost for almost three-quarters of a century.
Published now in this handsome hardback edition, The Pursued is Forester at the height of his powers, a classic tale of death, sex, and revenge in a time when people still hung for murder. Set in suburban London between the wars, this is a noirish world of dark laneways and flickering curtains, a city in thrall to the author’s grim, unforgiving sensory detail. In an ordinary house on an ordinary night, the twenty-eight year old Dorothy Clair has just committed suicide. Her sister, Marjorie Grander, is understandably distraught; too distraught, in fact, to notice the behaviour of her own husband.
Described as a ‘beast’ and a ‘devil’, Ted Granger seems oddly affected by Dorothy’s death … is it possible he had something to do with it? Certainly the woman’s mother, the manipulative Mrs. Clair, suspects this to be the case. Consumed with hatred, the old lady’s mind is like that of ‘a cunning and farsighted psychologist’. Slowly she begins to manipulate all those around her, not just Marjorie and Ted, but also the local constabulary and the passionate, easily led George Ely, her ‘quiet and even-tempered’ lodger, ‘just the opposite of Ted in every way’.
A lean and effective, novel, The Pursued is a throwback to a time before the snobbish demarcation between Literary Fiction and entertainment had solidified. Forester’s writing strikes the ideal balance between efficiency and art, with every chapter providing an essential beat of the story and the succession of mysteries surrounding Dorothy’s demise eventually narrowing down to a single question: How will a parent avenge a child’s murder?
‘Absolutely safe except for his mother-in-law’s vengeance’, Ted is not necessarily a complex villain, yet the social conventions of the day impede Mrs. Clair’s quest. She cannot simply draw police attention to Ted’s crime without tarnishing the lives of her grandchildren. Instead she must connive like Ted himself, Forester emphasising the psychology of killers and victims in a fashion ahead of its time.
Indeed, while The Pursued has its anachronisms, the beauty of the novel is how modern it feels despite them; less a curiosity piece – or even a historical novel – this is a thriller as compelling and realized as the best of present day fiction. In particular, the frankness with which Forester acknowledges the erotic lives of his protagonists is a surprise. A palatable sexual tension exists between George and Marjorie, while the brutish Ted is a character of great physical appetites, a man who can be ‘troublesome’ to his wife.
Such characters, made real by the small travails which accent their larger tragedies, are quick to infect the reader with their sense of gloom and claustrophobia. Their lingering presence in one’s mind confirms The Pursued as the work of a master storyteller, a terrific discovery which bears out Forester’s reputation and proves that he still has much to teach contemporary novelists. Highly recommended.