Yesterday, I kissed my husband for the last time . . .
It’s the summer of 1959, and the well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes, California, wilt under the sun. At some point during the long, long afternoon, Joyce Haney, wife, mother, vanishes from her home, leaving behind two terrified children and a bloodstain on the kitchen floor.
While the Haney’s neighbours get busy organising search parties, it is Ruby Wright, the family’s ‘help’, who may hold the key to this unsettling mystery. Ruby knows more about the secrets behind Sunnylakes’ starched curtains than anyone, and it isn’t long before the detective in charge of the case wants her help. But what might it cost her to get involved?
In these long hot summer afternoons, simmering with lies, mistrust and prejudice, it could only take one spark for this whole ‘perfect’ world to set alight . . .
Despite being permeated with the sultry heat of a long summer afternoon, The Long, Long Afternoon did not take a long, long time to read. Instead journalist and editor Inga Vesper’s debut novel whips along with a page-turning quality that belies the suffocating atmosphere radiating from its pages.
Beginning on hot summer afternoon in 1959, the novel opens with housewife Joyce Haney standing in her picture perfect suburban garden , contemplating whether or not she should water the pots on her patio. A few pages later and Joyce is missing, the only remnant of her existence a bloodstain on the kitchen floor and two terrified children. Joyce’s distraught husband can think of no reason why anyone would wish to harm his wife. And her neighbours in the manicured suburb of Sunnylakes say that any disappearance would be very out of character. But behind the respectability of their coffee mornings and art classes, the women of the Sunnylakes Women’s Improvement Committee might no more about Joyce Haney than they’re letting on. And as the investigation continues, the Haney family’s ‘help’, Ruby Wright, quickly realises that something terrible may have happened to her mistress…
The characters in this suburban thriller are all brilliantly drawn and I loved finding out all the secrets hidden behind the respectable facades and well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes. I particularly liked the character of Ruby Wright, the Haney family’s ‘help’. Overlooked because of the colour of her skin, Ruby’s position as an outsider in the Sunnylakes community confers on her distinct advantages when it comes to investigating what happened to Joyce. After all, no one checks their conversations if it’s only the help listening in do they? And I really felt for Ruby as she has to choose between keeping her head down (and keeping her job) and pursuing her suspicions that someone in Sunnylakes may have deliberately harmed her employer.
Whilst Joyce’s disappearance remains the focus of the book, Inga Vesper has done a fantastic job of weaving in the racial tensions and politics of suburban America in the late 1950s, and I got a real sense of the varying constraints placed on different members of the community. From the daily prejudices Ruby faces as a black woman who refuses to let her intelligence be dismissed, to the stifling constraints required of a suburban housewife, the novel deftly weaves discussions of race, class and gender together to create a multi-layered mystery packed with atmosphere and period detail.
Whilst I didn’t find the ‘whodunnit’ especially surprising, The Long, Long Afternoon did keep me hooked right up until the end. Alternating between the perspectives of Joyce (in the past), Ruth, and investigating detective Mick, the story offers plenty of unexpected twists to throw the reader’s initial suspicions off course. And even though I did guess who lay behind Joyce’s disappearance, the explosive ending offered last minute twists and turns worthy of a thriller!
The Long, Long Afternoon combines the vivid atmosphere and lush writing of literary fiction with the pace and twists of a thriller to create a rich and compelling read that is perfect for whiling away your own afternoon with! With its suburban setting and noir-ish feel, fans of classic hard-boiled fiction will find a worthy modern take on the genre here (and one that comes with a delightfully feminist twist), whilst historical and literary fiction lovers will relish the well-told mystery and precise sense of place.
The Long, Long Afternoon by Inga Vesper is published by Manilla Press and is available now from all good booksellers and online retailers including Hive, Waterstones, Bookshop.org and Wordery. My thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy of the book in return for an honest and unbiased review.
If you can, please support a local indie bookshop by ordering from them either in person or online! Some of my favourites include Booka Bookshop, The Big Green Bookshop, Sam Read Booksellers, Book-ish, Scarthin Books, and Berts Books.
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