- The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea by Randolph Stow
Secker, 276 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 436 49734 4
- The Suburbs of Hell by Randolph Stow
Secker, 165 pp, £7.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 436 49735 2
- Kingsley’s Touch by John Collee
Allen Lane, 206 pp, £6.95, March 1984, ISBN 0 7139 1633 8
- A Suitable Case for Corruption by Norman Lewis
Hamish Hamilton, 185 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 241 11178 1
Three of these novels might almost be called thrillers, their plots resembling sensational news items. With Norman Lewis we read of plans to assassinate statesmen in Egypt and Libya, with evil American agents blackmailing honest Britishers. John Collee tells of a wonder cure for cancer devised by a Hindu mystic in a Scottish city where surgeons’ knives are used too readily and callously. Randolph Stow’s The Suburbs of Hell deals with ‘juicy murders’ committed in a Suffolk seaside town peopled by retired gentry and genial fishermen. All three are sufficiently intelligent and sensitive to make the reader feel, almost guiltily, that the horrors and terrors should not be treated quite so entertainingly.
The exception is the reprint of Randolph Stow’s earlier book, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea. First published in 1965, The Merry-Go-Round in the Sea is a near-autobiographical narrative about a little Australian boy, aged six in 1942, and his large extended family which includes an adored 20-year-old cousin, conscripted to fight and, eventually, to be captured by the Japanese. The return of this battered soldier, without his former simplicity and athletic grace, makes the boy (now ten) feel melancholy – and henceforth suspicious about exciting news from battlefronts.
The Suburbs of Hell is harder-boiled, perhaps more playful. It begins with two epigraphs from Jacobean plays, one of them being:
Security some men call the suburbs of hell,
Only a dead wall between.
It deals with the deeds of a murderous maniac, and we are encouraged to suspect eccentric old ladies and retired naval officers, Harry the fisherman and his small-boy pal, Killer, while feeling mildly compassionate toward the innocent, the potential victims and suspects. But the author has tried to make the book more challenging than Agatha Christie’s yarns. Randolph Stow, we are told, is of Australian birth and has worked among the aboriginal people of his homeland, as well as assisting the Government Anthropologist among the subject peoples of Papua New Guinea. After spending many years in East Anglia, he now seems to take an almost ghoulish interest in the possibilities of savagery among the comfortable people of Suffolk. He frames his story with Jacobethan verses – murderers like Barabas the Jew and Aaron the Moor expressing evil desires – and his last page offers a Tarot-card drawing of Death scything off mortals’ heads.
Facing this memento mori is a page made up of headlines from the Suffolk newspaper Stow has invented for the purposes of his fiction. Most of these headlines are World News, starting with ‘1,000 Bengalis massacred in Assam’ and ‘Belfast pub holocaust’, concluding with ‘Headless corpses in El Salvador’ and ‘ “I am not a cannibal” – Ex-president’. Tucked among these items is a paragraph of local news: ‘The Coroner was told that De Vere had been drinking heavily on that day. Death was due to inhalation of vomit.’ The story that Stow neatly tells is about the events leading up to that coroner’s verdict: but his way of displaying it suggests that he is attempting, as well as a skilful whodunnit, a stern comment on the reader’s appetite for bad news and juicy murders.