Hostage to Fortune by Elizabeth Chaplin

aka Jill McGown

published 1992

Hostage to Fortune 1

[A group of people are having an outdoor meal]

Sunlight glinted on the wine bottle as the younger of the men reached across the other to pour the last of its contents into the woman’s glass, and she thanked him with mock prettiness. She wore a sleeveless top loose over matching white shorts that accentuated the length and elegance of the brown legs at which the older man glanced appreciatively as he rose and wandered away from the table towards the road…

Beside the house, the door of a newly built double garage sat open; inside could be seen the sleek lines of a Rolls, and outside on the garage forecourt, a sporty Mercedes and another, less upmarket car. Inside the house, a third man, unseen by his guests, pressed a gloved fingertip down on the controls of the hi-fi; obediently, silently, the cassette began to run, taking up the leader tape. He turned the speakers towards the open patio window at the other end of the long room, and left, walking through the hallway and into the kitchen. A sudden, deafening crack shattered the still air, disturbing the birds, but the people at the table didn’t seem to notice.

commentary: This passage comes in the opening pages of the book: it’s obvious something major is about to happen. The author then rewinds – this is August, and she takes us back to the preceding January to tell us the story of the group of people.
The key element is that a 40-something childless couple has won the pools, and right there I may have to stop and explain this to American readers – scroll down to the second half of the post for my sociological thoughts on this phenomenon. Or carry on – all you need to know is that they are suddenly rich.

This is Susan getting her cheque:

Everything became a little hazy, as her heart started to beat faster and faster. Someone was speaking; the man from the pools was smiling at them. Two girls were off to the side, manhandling an outsized bit of cardboard. Then Richard Price appeared, and Susan’s legs began to tremble. Jeff put his arm around her, and Richard Price started speaking.

Hostage to Fortune 2
Susan and Jeff have a reasonable marriage on the surface. But actually – they have very little time for each other, and the new money in their life gets each of them thinking about new possibilities. We follow their thoughts in alternate sections, see how they misunderstand each other, and try to work out which of them is going to succeed in doing down the other, and quite how serious, and how much of a crime, that doing-down is going to be.

Elizabeth Chaplin was a pseudonym of a great favourite crime writer of mine, Jill McGown: I am reading her Lloyd/Hill series with great pleasure, and when I found out she had written a standalone under this different name I thought I would extend the joy and try this one. McGown died sadly young, but you can still read her words on her website, and she says Hostage to Fortune is one of her best books, and that it is a suspense novel rather than crime. I thought it was very clever, and tense, and suspenseful. You really do want to know what will happen, but you can’t guess. It is short, with a lot packed in.

But still for me it lacked the warmth and charm and humour of the series books – though it had its moments:
You would think if you came to live in the back of beyond that you could plan a murder in peace. He was tempted to ask John if he had had to suffer such an intrusion into his affairs when he laid his woman to rest under the cabbages.
The thing that most struck me was that it was a very early version of the toxic marriage crime books that have been so successful in recent years – see this blogpost for my thoughts on the theme. I think a) McGown would have cleaned up if she’d written it now and b) it must have been a bit of a shocker for 1992. There is no hero or heroine, neither of them is the put-upon goody. Both of them have their complaints, and both of them are selfishly following their own ends. It is quite startling for those days, I believe, when domestic thrillers needed likeable characters. Gone Girl changed a lot of expectations.

There’s an air of 1980s misery about it, and even a touch of the 1970s – for a social event:
Susan began to fill the vol-au-vents and the other things that she would never do ahead of time, on the grounds that they would end up looking like the church hall buffet.
And everything – the houses and décor, the clothes, the food has the same uninspiring feel. There is no charm in the history, and I did ponder how it could be updated to turn it into the 2017 winner I feel it could be…

The book also reminded me of Nick Hornby’s Funny Girl, on the blog recently, with its woman breaking out from the expected constraints of the era – ‘winning the pools’ is mentioned in that book occasionally.

The Football Pools were a form of organized gambling by which a vast swathe of the British population placed a complex series of bets on forthcoming Saturday soccer matches. Theoretically complex: there had to be an element of skill to legally justify the gamble, although famously many people used the same numbers each week, or chose them at random. There would be workplace syndicates, there would be troubles and unfairnesses when people won and didn’t share, or it turned out the form hadn’t gone through. In the 60s and 70s the Pools Collector went round to people’s houses to pick up the forms and stakes.

The high days of the pools faded when the simpler and more straightforward National Lottery was introduced. But up till then there was a kind of collective madness: everyone watched the football results on a Saturday late afternoon, checking them against the home copy of the form, and at the end of the results the announcer would say ‘the pools companies say they are not expecting big payouts this week, telegram claims for 14 score draws.’ So long as a winner hadn’t opted for no publicity, there would be media coverage of big wins, with the presentation of a giant cheque by some celebrity. Later there would be stories about how the winners coped with their new riches.

Different days.

Winning the pools of course pops up in fiction – JIM Stewart/Michael Innes wrote a book called The Man Who Won the Pools, and Ruth Rendell looked at it too. John Fowles’ The Collector finances his strangeness via a win on the pools. Philip Larkin’s Mr Bleaney ‘kept on plugging at the four aways’. Paul Gallico’s Mrs Harris won some money on the pools and that helped with buying her Dior designer dress. In Jane Duncan’s My Friend Madame Zora and Margery Sharp’s The Foolish Gentlewoman there is mileage in the comic servants doing the pools. This was the general theme – it was a tax on the poor – although there was also room for posh people doing it ironically.

More Jill McGown here, more toxic marriages here.


  1. You're right, Moira: Elizabeth Chaplin did die too young. I do like her Lloyd/Hill stories very much, and I'm glad to hear that this one's good, too. Interesting how coming into that much money can have such an impact on a marriage. It's not surprising, just interesting. And it sounds as though Chaplin explored some of the issues of today's domestic noir novels, only a couple of decades earlier. Wonder if she saw that trend coming...

    1. I know, Margot - I always thought she was a very smart lady, and this proves it. I do enjoy her books, and it is very sad that her life was cut short. We have to savour the books we have by her.

  2. Oh my gosh, Moira, the Pools! Is that Viv Nicholson of 'Spend, spend, spend' fame? What a sad story that was. People couldn't always cope with sudden wealth. I was especially fascinated because she came from a mining community in Castleford, like my father.

    1. I know, it was a weird collective gambling madness wasn't it? I think the pic is actually someone like Marti Caine giving the prize to a group of workmates. I was always fascinated (as everyone was) by the Viv Nicholson story: she was the extreme example, and I deliberately DIDN'T use a picture of her, it would've felt a little bit tasteless. I read her (ghosted I guess) autobiog, and the only thing you would say was that she was a personality who would have had a dramatic, up and down life no matter what...

    2. Probably you are right, but the money perhaps made both the ups and the downs more extreme.
      And then there were big wins on the Premium Bonds - they are still going, I think.

    3. Yet somehow the Premium Bond winners don't feature in news stories nearly so much do they? I always hoped I might win on them, but £50 has been the max. Sigh.

  3. I seem to remember a Dorothy Sayers short story in which Peter Wimsey deduces that the sudden and complete disapppearance of a young married couple is due to a) having overbearing and greedy relatives on both sides and b) winning the football pool.

    Of course I can't remember the story title.

  4. Margery Allingham, I think. VILLA MARY CELESTE?


    1. Anon, I believe you may be correct. I'll go and look.

    2. Shay, meet ggary. He is always right (as you are too, normally). I too am going to take a look...

    3. Yes! Shay and ggary, I found I did have this story in a collection, and enjoyed reading it. Slight but charming...and Campion makes a valid point about people visiting you early in the morning.

  5. I think that the story can be found in THE ALLINGHAM CASE-BOOK.

    Though I'm no psychiatrist, Viv Nicholson always struck me as someone with a bi-polar disorder. To win that much money, blow it, manage to win back a big slice of your late husband's estate and blow that AS WELL strikes me as the actions of someone who is in thrall of much stronger urges than simply greed and bad judgement.

    I do miss sympathetic characters in some modern thrillers. When there is no-one to engage my sympathy I find it difficult to care. A good author can make even the most awful reprobate human enough to care about. If you don't care then it's just like watching warring ant colonies. Who cares who wins?


    1. Will have to look that story up. (The Allingham short stories are collected in really annoying books, with similar titles, always v hard to know if you have the right one.)
      I don't know about bipolar, but as I imply in the comment to Christine, she was the kind of person who attracts trouble, she was never going to live a quiet life. When Jack Rosenthal wrote a TV play about her life, she sat and watched it in great glory, then answered the door an hour later and it was her ex come to yell at her about how he had been portrayed. There is something about that anecdote that sums her up for me.
      Yes, sympathetic would be nice. And I am fed up with being told, as readers, that we are not supposed to want to like the characters. We'll be the judge of that.

    2. Or being told to DISlike characters. I always had a bit of respect for Becky Sharpe.

      Lotteries are the big thing here, and occasionally there'll be a follow-up on big winners and their (usually) not so happy endings. There are a lot of people who did just crazy things like buying twelve Rolls Royces or something, or being drained dry by family and hangers-on.

      When I was a kid I remember hearing about the Irish Sweepstakes, and I never quite knew what it was. I had this image in my head that it was related to horse racing. Although I'd heard allusions to "the pools," I hadn't realized it was as all-consuming and official as it apparently was. Sounds a bit like number-running which was totally illegal! I even knew a few people who were suspended from work for setting up a Super Bowl pool. That kind of gambling was usually on the down low.

    3. The attitude to gambling is quite different in the US, I gather, Paula. It is much more legalized and accepted in the UK. I remember as a young person reading of an actor who had got in trouble (as a teenager) for being involved in betting on horse-racing, and I couldn't understand it because it seemed like a harmless pastime, something my uncles and grandfather liked to do in a casual way...
      The Irish Sweepstakes is a whole other thing, a very big deal indeed.

    4. Horse race betting is legal, but I think it has to be done at the track. I don't know I'm so NOT a gambler. My neighbor takes his toddler son to the Santa Anita racetrack on a regular basis. I'll have to ask. He bought his son a stuffed horse toy. The little boy loves one of our dachshunds, Shanni, so he named his horse Shanni. His mom put an outgrown Hawaiian shirts on 'Shanni,' and now it's Hawaiian Shanni -- his racing name. So cute.

    5. Sweet!
      I remember when we lived in Washington State having to have it explained to me about small areas of Native American land - where gambling, fireworks and cheap cigarettes were all legal...

  6. I would probably enjoy this one, but we'll never know. I don't need to seek it out.

  7. How did I miss this? You know how I love Jill McGown. I have never read any of the non-series books but always thought that I should do that. Great review, and interesting information about the pools.

    1. I re-read my post on seeing your comment, and found it terribly interesting myself: Jill McGown and the football pools, what a combo, and my thoughts on toxic marriage books. If you'd asked me what I'd written on this I would never have remembered all that!
      I think you would enjoy it. I am really rationing myself on the Jill McG books, trying to spin them out because I like them so much and don't want to have read them all. I see there are a few more standalones as well as the series.

    2. I only have one standalone novel by McGown, called Murder Movie, which I got for free just a year ago from my neighbor who sells books online. His home is stacked with books all over. The next series book I want to read is The Murders of Mrs. Austin and Mrs. Beale, which you have reviewed. Just because I like the title and don't remember anything about it.

    3. Murder Movie is a great title - I will look out for that one.


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