Category Archives: British mystery

Dear Henry James,

The Turn of the Screw

The Turn of the Screw

Now I’m grateful to you for writing The Turn of the Screw, but I didn’t really understand it the first time I read your short scary novel.  That was way back in

Haunted Manor House

Haunted Manor House

1959 when I was a freshman at Vassar taking English 105 and your creepy ghost story was on the syllabus. I remember reading of an aging governess who recounts how, when young, she was charged with the care and education of Dora and Miles, two adorable orphaned children living in a manor house in rural England. This desolate place makes Thornfield where Jane Eyre was posted seem a hotbed of mirth and festivity.

In 1959 I immediately identified with the governess who, like me, was young, inexperienced, and away from home. She is also under-appreciated by her handsome, wealthy, sophisticated employer. To her dismay, he literally wants nothing to do with her or her charges and refuses to reveal how their previous governess died. So when the new governess claims to see malevolent ghosts of former servants, I felt really sorry for her. Even though I didn’t believe in ghosts, I trusted her, so I assumed the former caregiver and her consort had returned and wished to frighten away the replacement nanny so they could be alone once again with the children. In other words, like most of my classmates, I was fully convinced that the narrator saw what she said she did.

Ghosts

Ghosts

I’ve always been credulous. When I was six, my father, who usually ranted against all things sugary, told me we were making a visit to a candy factory, and I believed him. I still remember how I screamed and struggled when I found myself in our doctor’s office with an ether-soaked cloth over my face. I awakened at home, my throat sore and my tonsils gone. Two decades later when someone phoned alleging to be a doctoral student in Yale’s school of Psychology surveying people about their sex lives for his dissertation, I carefully and fully answered his many questions.  Only after my husband informed me that there was no Yale School of Psychology and chastised me for my gullibility did I realize I’d been hoodwinked.

I swallowed whole just about everything I read, including the governess’s recollections as recounted in The Turn of the Screw. But when my class met, our professor introduced us to the possibility that the narrator, the governess herself, was unreliable, was maybe even crazy. Who knew? What a revelation! The idea that you, a highly respected author, would deliberately devise a narrator who twisted the truth shocked me as had my realization of my father’s perfidy and the lies of the “doctoral student” asking all those personal questions. After class I hurried back to the dorm and reread your book, noting the clues Professor McGrew mentioned and finding a few on my own. Reading so actively engaged my imagination in a new way. I felt I was inside the novel, not merely observing it unfold. Suddenly your “ghost story” became a psychological thriller and/or a case study of a disturbed young woman living in a time not overly kind to lovelorn working class girls.

The ghost of your governess haunts me still, so I decided to include an unreliable narrator in The Bones and the Book.  Aliza, a long-dead diarist writes her own story in her diary and Rachel Mazursky translates it from Yiddish to English. When she finds missing pages and realizes that Aliza hoped her children would one day read what she wrote, Rachel wonders exactly how honest Aliza’s account of her life really is. This adds a whole other layer to the characters of both the diarist and the translator.

It doesn’t surprise me that The Turn of the Screw has been made into a play, movies, TV dramas, and an opera and that it retains its place on syllabi. It’s a winner and

Turn of the Screw Movie

Turn of the Screw Movie

reading it changed the way I read everything else. Now when I begin to read a new book, I ask myself, “Who’s telling the story? Can I trust her/him?”  Not all readers agree that the governess is delusional and has gone over to the dark side herself, but this interpretation satisfies me and fills me with admiration for your layering and complex characterization. You gave new life to the ghost story. Thank you.

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under American classic, British mystery, feminist fiction, mystery, Uncategorized

Dear P.D. James,

Cover Her Face

I’ve recently attended my fiftieth Vassar reunion, an occasion designed to recall memories of 1962 when life waited like an exquisitely wrapped wedding

Reunion!

gift I just knew held something special. At a pre-reunion get-together our hostess got out the obligatory yearbook, and we passed it around, marveling at the fresh-faced girls we’d been. After I relinquished the book, I glanced at my old friends clustered around the coffee table. In that second, I saw us as we’d been five decades ago, our faces yet unmarked by experience, wisdom, or time. Not surprisingly we spent much of the weekend reliving what life was really like for young women in 1962, so it’s no wonder that when I returned home, I sought out my copy of your very first mystery, Cover Her Face, which came out that year.

Wedding Gift

Unwed Mother

You really nailed 1962. In this novel, you dramatize people’s ambivalence about the social changes sweeping England and America. The victim, housemaid Sally Judd, is thought to be an unwed mother and she is not the only woman indulging in premarital sex. Sally’s announcement of her engagement to the son of the landed Maxie family for whom she works heralds class co-mingling of the sort that became more common during the Sixties. Sally herself, described by a former employer as “Pretty, intelligent, ambitious, sly, and insecure” was also something of a drama queen with a penchant for embarrassing the powerful. In the end, it is this leaning that puts her in harm’s way. In fact, it puts her in the path of another woman equally bent on keeping power in the hands of the gentry where it had always been. And so, we end with a young woman dead and an older one going to prison.

The good news for women in Cover Her Face is the realization of loyal and sensible nurse Catherine Bower that she’d rather be single than continue her

Nurse

dubious relationship with the callow Stephen Maxie. For a woman in an English novel to turn away a suitor was still a revolutionary act, more like Brontë’s Jane Eyre than Austen’s Lydia Bennett. But the not very pretty Catherine is a new woman. She has a profession and doesn’t need to tie herself to a loser to live comfortably. And you do reward her with a worthier liaison later on. Cover Her Face is full of well-drawn characters who reflect their time and place very convincingly.

So my post-reunion return to the early 1960s was more than facilitated by revisiting your debut novel. And so was my need to lose myself in a good mystery, a book that would take me far from health concerns, news of our sad world, and my obligations to e-mail and Facebook. In Cover Her Face, you offer a puzzle worthy of Dame Agatha. And to help us solve it, you introduce Scotland Yard’s Detective Chief-Inspector Adam Dalgleish. He is a “tall, dark, and handsome” man who looks before he speaks, views the body and the crime scene before interviewing the family, and is known for his “ruthless” and “unorthodox” approach to bringing criminals to justice. He proved to be a keeper, and I followed his career and personal life with interest in subsequent books. And I followed your career too as you continued to fill your books with issues and characters emblematic of the changing times.

Time to Be in Earnest

Your socially relevant and carefully crafted novels inspire me as I dream up mysteries of my own. And your life as you recall it in Time to Be in Earnest

Working Mom

inspires me as well. For, like me, you were a working mom who came to writing later in life with a healthy respect for genre fiction. And you are still writing today! Bravo, Baroness and thank you!

Sincerely,

Jane Isenberg

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Filed under British mystery, feminist fiction, Historical mystery, mystery, Uncategorized