Sunday, December 17, 2006

Duet of Death - Hilda Lawrence

First published 1949; cover shown is the 1988 Pandora Press (UK) paperback edition (Classic Women Crime Writers series).

First in this collection of two novellas is Composition for Four Hands, a story of suspense which takes place over a very short period of time. Nora Manson, unable to speak or move after apparently falling down the stairs, lies helpless in her bed, watched over by a young nurse. Her only child, Robbie, hung himself just days before her accident. Through regular flashbacks we learn that Robbie had been accused of stealing hundreds of thousands of dollars from his family's bank, that Nora knows Robbie's death was not suicide, and that one member of Nora's loving family is biding his time... waiting for the right moment to ensure she never speaks again.

In The House, Isobel has returned to her family home, a monstrosity of a mansion, after spending 15 of her 21 years living in boarding schools. Her father, mentally and physically ill, is found burnt to death in his car soon after her return, and Isobel is left to grieve with her mother, a handful of servants and her father's mysterious dog, Tray. But something isn't right: the servants are terrified, her mother wanders the house late at night, Tray appears to be guarding Isobel (from what?), and strange lights are seen flickering in the upper windows when the house is meant to be empty.

Both novellas are filled with a sense of foreboding - Nora, lying mutely helpless in her bed while gloved hands appear underneath the window screen... Isobel, living with a mother she barely knows, in a house filled with dark corners and strange sounds. The suspense is kept up right until the end, making for good stories (especially Composition for Four Hands) and leaving a feeling of wanting more.

Hilda Lawrence (1906? - 1974) was an American writer who began her literary career when she divorced her husband and had nothing else to do. Her five books were all written/published in the 1940s. She said she wrote detective fiction because, "No one expects perfect construction. To begin with a novel is fatal unless you are a genius. The detective story doesn't ask too much."

No comments: