aka Jill McGown
[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.
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.
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.