Jolted from sleep by the ringing of the telephone, Imogen stumbles through the dark, empty house to answer it. At first, she can’t quite understand the man on the other end of the line. Surely he can’t honestly be accusing her of killing her husband, Ivor, who died in a car crash barely two months ago.
As the nights draw in, Imogen finds her home filling up with unexpected Christmas guests, who may be looking for more than simple festive cheer. Has someone been rifling through Ivor’s papers? Who left the half-drunk whiskey bottle beside his favourite chair? And why won’t that man stop phoning, insisting he can prove Imogen’s guilt?
As the nights draw in and cosying up in front of the fire with a book and a blanket once again becomes a socially acceptable way to spend an entire evening, I do love reading a good mystery. There’s something about settling down with a puzzle that fits with the season so I’ve been a big fan of recent efforts by a number of publishers to track down and reissue seasonally appropriate titles.
Celia Fremlin’s The Long Shadow is the latest in Faber & Faber’s re-discovery of the Edgar Award-winning novelist, following on from their 2017 edition of her debut, The Hours Before Dawn. Fremlin, heralded as a talented writer of domestic suspense in her day, seems to have been largely forgotten following her death in 2009 and, on the evidence of The Long Shadow, certainly deserves a larger readership upon the reissuing of her works.
Although there is nothing particularly innovative about the mystery element of The Long Shadow, the tone is something quite unique. Fremlin has given her main character, the newly widowed Imogen, a sharp, wry tone completely at odds with her role of the grieving widow. It’s the source of a great deal of dark humour within the book, as in this scene, where Imogen and her widowed neighbour, Edith, discuss the new year:
“‘Not a happy New Year, Imogen, because we both know hat cannot be,’ Edith was saying, her lined, indoor face haggard and hungry-looking in the silvery winter sunshine. ‘Not a happy, but a peaceful year, that’s what I shall wish for you, my dear: I pray that you may discover what I discovered: that even though happiness is at an end, you may still win through to a kind of peace….’
I won’t. If they try to palm me off with peace, I’ll throw it at them. Happiness is where I’m going and I shan’t stop till I get there. If Peace comes and gets in the way, I shall kick it.
‘Thank you, Edith, and the same to you,’ was what she said aloud: and five minutes later, found herself wondering whether Peace hadn’t, after all, something to be said for it.”
Brilliant isn’t it?! So sharp yet without acid. To me, Fremlin perfectly captures the exact thoughts that often go through our heads during a polite conversation, but which we would never dare to say out loud! It makes Imogen a very different kind of narrator and gives the tone of the book a feel of Patricia Highsmith, filled with sharp observations on human nature and character.
This isn’t to say that the plot is in any way lacking, however. There is a well-crafted mystery here, with plenty of subtle clues that require astute reading to unravel. I feel though that Fremlin is more interested in the psychological aspects of crime that the method and means. Her focus in The Long Shadow is what makes her characters tick – the nuances of human behaviour and personal circumstance that might lead someone to do something desperate. In pursuit of this, she succeeds in crafting a tense and suspenseful domestic setting, filled with acutely observed characters with plenty of secrets to hide.
The Christmas link is, if I’m honest, a little tenuous. Although Christmas is the occasion that results in the deceased Ivor’s eclectic friends and family descending on Imogen, only part of the action takes place over the festive season and I think if you were seeking a specifically festive flavour complete with oodles of mince pies and snow at every corner, you might be a tad disappointed here. That said, I can’t blame Faber for seeing the marketing opportunity and if it brings more readers to this excellent writer, then I think we should forgive the slight over-emphasis on the holiday that the cover suggests.
Astute, well-observed, and cleverly crafted, The Long Shadow is a clever and compelling mystery with a side order of domestic noir. It’s clearly the product of a writer with a talent for observation and a wry, dark sense of humour. I can certainly recommend it to fans of Patricia Highsmith, as well as those who enjoyed more recent domestic chillers such as Kate Muray Browne’s The Upstairs Room. Well done to Faber for reissuing Fremlin’s work and helping her work enjoy the readership that it surely deserves.
The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin and published by Faber & Faber is available now as a paperback and ebook in all good bookshops and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, and Amazon. My thanks go to the publisher, Faber & Faber, for providing me with a copy of the book and inviting me to take part in this tour in return for an honest and unbiased review. The blog tour continues until 24 November 2018 so please do go and check out the other stops for more reviews and content!