The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin - book review: A genuinely chilling psychological mystery

The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin
The Long Shadow by Celia Fremlin
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Described by crime author Andrew Taylor as ‘Britain’s equivalent to Patricia Highsmith,’ Celia Fremlin’s brilliantly suspenseful and darkly humorous novels are undergoing a welcome reprise by publishers Faber & Faber.

Last year saw the republishing of the Edgar Award-winning psychological thriller The Hours Before Dawn (1958) and now, just in time for Christmas, is the seasonally-flavoured The Long Shadow in which she blends chilling domestic noir with an acutely observed portrait of family politics.

Oxford graduate Fremlin, who was born in Kent in 1914 and died nine years ago, published nineteen titles, including three collections of stories, over 35 years, and was a master of domestic suspense writing.

In a short biographical essay at the end of The Long Shadow, Chris Simmons, online editor of crimesquad.com, says Fremlin ‘took the everyday as her subject and yet, by introducing an atmosphere of unease, she made it extraordinary, fraught with danger.’

And this intensely claustrophobic and menacing thriller, first published in 1975, is a true classic… a quietly menacing mystery set exquisitely alongside a withering indictment of social mores, and a witty exposition of a woman’s role in what was still essentially a male-dominated world.

Taking centre stage is Imogen Barnicott who is struggling to come to terms with the death of her classics professor husband Ivor in a car crash two months ago. Ivor, the owner of ‘a vast, irrepressible ego,’ was a man with several former wives and mistresses, and Imogen is finding the embarrassment of her re-entry into society more taxing than the grief.

‘The hushed voices, the laughter that died as you drew near, the careful topics of conversation’ recently sent her scurrying home early from a party but later that night she was jolted from sleep by the ringing of the telephone.

Imogen stumbled through the dark empty house to answer it and at first she couldn’t quite understand the man on the other end of the line. He claimed that Ivor’s death wasn’t an accident and she knows that better than anyone… because she killed him.

For one ‘dazzling, lurid second’ Imogen was delighted that she is no longer ‘a dreary, pitiable widow, but a glittering monster of wickedness.’ Surely, though, this man is just ‘a nut-case’ getting his pleasure from kicking someone who is down.

But as the nights draw in, the man doesn’t stop phoning and he is insisting that he can prove Imogen’s guilt. Meanwhile, her home is filling up with unexpected Christmas guests – including her two stepchildren, Ivor’s grandchildren and even his ex-wife Cynthia who flies in ‘like an act of God’ – but they may be looking for more than simple festive cheer.

And then strange things start happening… someone has been rifling through Ivor’s papers, and who left the half-drunk whiskey bottle and his favourite Greek lexicon beside his favourite chair?

Something, somewhere is terribly wrong…

Happily for readers new or familiar with Fremlin’s books, Faber is reissuing her complete oeuvre, and this dark, unsettling but immensely entertaining mystery – brimming with subtlety, irony, elegance and wickedly drawn character portraits – would be an excellent place to start this Christmas season.

The darker side of human nature is laid bare with breathtaking insight and a brutal but entertaining honesty which surely reflects Fremlin’s own experiences in London society during the middle part of the last century.

A rich exploration of the dynamics of family life and a genuinely chilling psychological mystery story with a slow burn that teases and twists its way to a satisfying conclusion, The Long Shadow is the perfect accompaniment to a winter’s night, a glass of wine and the glow of an open fire.

(Faber & Faber, paperback, £8.99)