Rose Lerner – The Wife in the Attic

Author: Rose Lerner
Title: The Wife in the Attic

Goldengrove’s towers and twisted chimneys rose at the very edge of the peaceful Weald, a stone’s throw from the poisonous marshes and merciless waters of Rye Bay. Young Tabby Palethorp had been running wild there, ever since her mother grew too ill to leave her room.

I was the perfect choice to give Tabby a good English education: thoroughly respectable and far too plain to tempt her lonely father, Sir Kit, to indiscretion.

I knew better than to trust my new employer with the truth about my past. But knowing better couldn’t stop me from yearning for impossible things: to be Tabby’s mother, Sir Kit’s companion, Goldengrove’s new mistress.

All that belonged to poor Lady Palethorp. Most of all, I burned to finally catch a glimpse of her.

Surely she could tell me who had viciously defaced the exquisite guitar in the music room, why all the doors in the house were locked after dark, and whose footsteps I heard in the night…

I have put off this review for quite a while now because I just don’t know how to put my feelings into words. I did like this book but there were also things that just didn’t quite work for me. The Wife in the Attic is a story in the tradition of Gothic Novels. Spooky houses, dark secrets…almost every chapter ends with the heroine being shocked by something and half of those cliff-hangers get resolved a few lines into the next chapter. E.g. one chapter ends with Deborah opening and orange and being shocked because blood is coming from it. The next chapter opens with someone explaining to her what a blood orange is. In most other books I would have rolled my eyes at that but here it fits right into the atmosphere. Because the atmosphere is properly Gothic, also because of how great Sir Kit is written. He makes a brilliant gothic villain by being…nice. He is very nice to Deb as long as she does what he wants. Actually he is still very nice is if she doesn’t do it…then he smiles and makes sure that she feels very stupid for wanting it in the first place. As someone who has actually an easier time with reading/watching physical violence than gaslighting/emotional manipulation those were scenes that made me very uncomfortable but then that’s what they were supposed to do.

And of course The Wife in the Attic doesn’t just take ye olden gothic tropes without questioning them. Especially the “Otherness” – in the sense of non-WASP non-English – being the scary thing. Because Deb’s family are Portuguese Jews and so for her white (English) people are rather scary. (Not just in a vague sense, her grandmother’s family was killed by the inquisition and she suffers from intergenerational trauma). And, more generally the book also has a lot to say about the role of women in that ere and their lack of power…but it does all this while still “staying gothic”. Sure, it would be frightening if the villain found out what Deb is doing behind his back. And him discovering that she’s Jewish would be even more frightening.

And because everything is so gothic I found it odd that the story continued even after a “proper” gothic novel would have ended. After they escaped the creepy castle. And it doesn’t just continue for a bit to tie up some loose ends, the audiobook goes on for over 3 more hours after what I expected the end to be. Now some of it fits together with the modernized gothic tropes, but a lot of it felt like I was suddenly reading/listening to a completely different genre and that made those last hours drag on quite a bit.

John Dickson Carr – The Lost Gallows

Title: The Lost Gallows
Author: John Dickson Carr

It started when El Moulk’s automobile roared crazily through a London fog, its driver dead as a herring. The car screeched to a stop in front of that creaky relic of ancient horrors, the Brimstone Club. Through its cavernous rooms and gaslit passages a murderer hunted victims for a private gallows. The calling cards of a notorious hangman, a miniature gibbet, a length of rope, and an inscription from the tomb of Egyptian kings warned El Moulk and his dazzling French mistress that death was on their trail. It was a perfect case for Bencolin, a detective who preferred fantastic murders. 

Carr really should be exactly for me: over-the-top pulpy mysteries about fiendish villains who don’t only make elaborate plans that makes it seem like they have an alibi for the time of the murder, no they are also in it for the aesthetic. They are doing all this for a particular reason and the murder and everything that surrounds it needs to match that reason. I love that stuff and can even overlook some of its issues….like that women in pulp fiction generally are only allowed to be distressed damsels, love interests, femme fatales (or distressed love interests). I did roll my eyes at Bencolin (and I guess in extension also Carr) slagging off crime writers who go for more ordinary, down-to-earth mysteries. I mean I knew what I was getting into when picking up this book, no need to piss on books that belong to a completely different end of the sub-genre. But I could have overlooked that as well. The ableism was harder to ignore but sadly it’s also not exactly surprising for books of that time and type.

But what really made me realise that Carr is probably just not for me is that I have now read several of his stories and in all of them I read and after a while noticed that I have absorbed absolutely nothing of what happened in the last view paragraphs (or sometimes pages). He just has a writing-style that makes my thoughts wander to everything but what’s actually on the page. His narrator is just so…rambling. The Bencolin books do go for a Holmes/Watson dynamic with his friend Jeff Marle, recording Bencolin’s adventures. It’s possible that it’s supposed to show that Marle really has no clue what’s going on and gives a lot of unnecessary information but he doesn’t only do that he describes everything in a similar way…it all sounds the same no matter if he’s describing interior decoration or fighting for his life. And that monotony makes it very hard to stay focussed on what’s happening on the page. Previously, I had just though that that I was in the wrong mood while trying to read Carr but now I have come to the conclusion that it’s definitely him, not me.