Book Review: The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

The House of Stairs by Barbara Vine

Writing as Barbara Vine, Ruth Rendell shook off Inspector Wexford to produce suffocating psychological thrillers that probed the darkest reaches of the human mind in all too realistic settings.

Rendell, both as herself and as her alter ego, has always been adept at creating an atmosphere of seedy glamour that’s as alluring as it is terrifying, building the suspense by drip feeding clues, throwing in symbolic suggestions and hinting at trouble to come until the pages are bulging with all that tension.

The House of Stairs is thick with intrigue, with a languid plot that doesn’t reach a climax until the final few pages. Despite the genre, Vine’s thrillers aren’t disposable page turners, but novels that dig deep and reveal themselves slowly. Reading the House of Stairs was, for me, like climbing the 106 stairs in the Notting Hill house of the title on a hot and humid day on crutches. I was eventually hooked, but Vine unpicks the plot slowly rather than letting it unravel chaotically, building the tension at the expense of driving the plot. I admit that inbetween admiring her skilful writing I wondered when we’d get somewhere, anywhere with the story.

The protagonist, Elizabeth, is a seemingly reliable narrator who is keen to record every detail of her story accurately with the reader. The story begins at the end of one part of Elizabeth’s life and the start of another path that we will follow for a while. An only child, Elizabeth’s mother died when she was young and her father remained a distant and uninterested parent. Elizabeth’s loneliness is compounded when she discovers that she may have inherited the family secret, the defective gene that causes Huntington’s disease. Living under this shadow, the motherless Elizabeth finds comfort and sympathy with her cousin’s wife, Cosette, a warm, benign woman who I imagined smelled of talcum powder and hairspray.

(As an aside, the Huntington’s disease thread was an odd one, Elizabeth’s diagnosis at first seemed to be loaded with symbolism, but in the end appeared to be constructed purely to explain the lack of children as it sort of hovered around at the beginning seemingly With Significance, before being overshadowed by Plot.)

Anyway, one fateful Christmas Elizabeth goes to stay with a friend’s family who live in a big house in the country (of sorts, they get the Central Line there – this is a very London novel). There she meets the mysterious and beautiful Bell who lives in the cottage in the grounds. On Boxing Day when the family in the big house are settling down to a quiz, Bell walks into the draughty hall and announces that her husband, Silas, has killed himself. Despite the circumstances, Elizabeth is enchanted by Bell – she’s cool and frank and intriguing and dresses in black. But right from the beginning of the novel, we know Bell has been to prison, so the blast of cold air she brings in with her when she steps into the big house is metaphorical as well as literal.

Not long after this eventful Christmas, Cosette’s (rich) husband dies suddenly on his way to work one morning and left alone but wealthy, Cosette sells her home in the suburbs and moves to a four-storey townhouse in Notting Hill (the slightly charred W11 of the 1970s rather than today’s swanky postcode). And then the story really cranks up… ha, not really.

We are introduced to many waifs and strays who move in (including Elizabeth) and the House of Stairs becomes a sort of commune with fancy wine and meals in Chinese restaurants that Cosette pays for. The House of Stairs features a large cast of characters, many of them drifting in and out of the house of the title and the page. Few of them mean anything to the bigger story, their presence is simply a way of filling up the House of Stairs (the building) and the House of Stairs (the book) as well as helping us understand Cosette’s drive to banish her loneliness by filling her home with people. One day Bell comes to stay and we all know that this is the beginning of the end, but for who? And how? It’ll take us a while to find out, but the suspense could kill you.

The House of Stairs is a clever, grown-up thriller that definitely isn’t one for people that like their crime novels pacey and immediate.

by Suzanne Elliott

 

Theatre Review: Murder, Marple and Me, Ambassadors Theatre, London

Janet Prince in Marple, Murder and Me

Janet Prince in Marple, Murder and Me

The Stella Duffy-directed Murder, Marple and Me ended its short tour with four nights at London’ Ambassadors Theatre, appropriately next door to the St. Martins Theatre that’s been showing The Mousetrap, the play based on the Agatha Christie novel that’s gone on to be the longest running stage production ever, since 1974.

The Mousetrap would have already been going nine years when Margaret Rutherford brought Christie’s silver-haired spinster to the big screen. Not that Rutherford would have seen it. When the comedy actress reluctantly agreed to play Miss Marple at the age of 70 she’d never read – or intended to read – any of Christie’s books. She was also, mysteriously uneasy about the idea playing a woman who relished a good murder.

And the indifference was mutual. Christie was less than impressed at the idea of her beloved ‘birdlike’ OAP sleuth being played by a comedy actress whose fondness for treats from Fortnum and Mason left her with a waistline more ostrich than robin. But despite their lack of interest in each other’s professional lives, the pair formed a friendship of sorts during shooting of the first Rutherford Marple, Murder, She Said (I assume, I don’t remember it being referenced during the performance) in 1961. Murder, Marple and Me is a fictionalised account of what might have brought the two women together based on real life events.

Murder, Marple and Me is a one-woman show with Janet Prince at the helm, breaking down the fourth wall as Agatha Christie, Margaret Rutherford and Miss Marple. Miss M, as ever, sits observing from the sidelines, the click of knitting needles soundtracking her telling of the more grisly details of the story that eventually unravels.

Prince plays Rutherford with a jolly hockey sticks joviality, physically embodying her less gym teacher like briskness brilliantly; legs wide apart, back slightly hunched. Prince’s Christie meanwhile has a warmth I’ve never associated with the Queen of Crime, but which suits her. Not that she’s a sweet old lady, the steeliness that made her the world’s best selling author is never far away. Her Miss Marple meanwhile was probably the closest to what Christie had in mind, her “my dears” concealing a sharpness of mind and genuine enjoyment of murder.

In many ways there’s a fourth character; ‘Peggy’, Margaret’s guileless, childlike persona that counts cuddly toys as “her family” whose odd regressive behaviour alerts the sharp-eyed Christie to Rutherford’s secret – no one, Agatha surmises, could slip so naturally into such an innocent state if they weren’t in hiding from something. That, and her belief that no-one would turn down the opportunity to play her beloved Miss Marple without a very, very good reason. Sensing a mystery, Christie extracts the dark secret that  made the actress queasy at the idea of playing a woman who lives for murder over high tea in Rutherford’s parlour.

As is so often the case, Murder, Marple and Me is a play of two halves. And, like Christie’s novels, where her world of bone china tea cups and dollies hides sinister secrets, Murder, Marple and Me is, as Miss M says, “bittersweet”. Philip Meeks’s script in the first half is littered with great one liners, while Prince’s physical performance, particularly as Margaret, is often brilliant comic turn. The second half is darker, I actually winced during Miss Marple’s exuberant re-enactment of one of the key scene.  Not that the end is gloomy, Margaret is upbeat, despite losing her Oscar and Miss Marple and Agatha have got their murder. And we, the audience, have got a charming hour of great theatre about three fascinating women.

 by Suzanne Elliott

Me, on the sofa, with an Agatha Christie

agatha_christie1

Agatha Christie, Queen of Crime

I have a propensity to be a bit fussy (some might say snobby) about books. But for all my tuttings at bad writing and groaning at sloppy, cliched plots, Agatha Christie – who is many things but Charles Dickens she ain’t – remains my most-read author. I’ve devoured her novels since I was on the fringes of adolescence having outgrown (and out-read my local library’s supply of) Sweet Valley High and I continue to turn to her now, especially when I’m in need of a literary comfort blanket.

For despite dealing in the murky world of murder, there’s something wonderfully comforting about Agatha Christie’s novels. She was a soothing companion when I was bedridden with chicken pox/measles/mumps in childhood and, more recently, got me through a couple of weeks of concussion when my bruised brain could deal with little else.

She remains the perfect reading palette cleanser, the ideal antidote to a tired mind. When I’m all-read out I turn to the easy prose and perfectly-plotted writings of Ms Christie to jolt me back into my habit.I can’t remember my first Christie, but I was hooked from the beginning and it didn’t take me long to exhaust the local library’s stock of her novels too. Not that I have ever been averse to reading Christie novels once or even twice – I can rarely remember “whodunnit”, which I’m not sure says more about Christie or me. Miss Marple, not your average teen idol, was always my favourite Christie hero, but I lapped up most of her other Marple-free novels except, perversely, Herclue Poiret (the fussy Belgium detective who featured in almost half of her novels) who I deemed ‘boring’ for reasons my adult self can’t remember. David Suchet – and the impeccable art deco staging of the TV dramas – has since converted me.

I’m not a natural fan of crime writing. I am, even within the relatively safe pages of a novel, a sensitive soul. A detailed description of a sagged cuticle is enough to have be squirming. I snivel at the slightest injustice and physically flinch at any violence. Christie’s books are littered with victims of poisoning, fatal blows on the head from fireplace ornaments and grisly stabbings, but the sang-froid of her writing and stiff-upper lip-ness of her characters create a reassuring barrier between the reader and the emotive reality of these horrible crime. It also helps that there are very few likable people in a Christie novel. I’m rarely sad to see any of them bopped on the head or poisoned by a fruit cake.I have dabbled in the bloody waters of other crime writers. I flirted with Ruth Rendell and her Inspector Wexford for a bit; endured an Ian Rankin because I felt like I should and I have hazy recollections of picking up a P.D. James, but I never felt that compelling pull into the story with them as I did with Agatha Christie. I am, I confess, yet to try M.C Beaton’s Agatha Raison books which I can’t decide I’ll love or find unbearably twee.

When forced to dissect my love for Christie (or rather her books, she doesn’t seem like much of a giggle) I find that there are as many reasons not to like her novels. The prose is efficient but unlovely; the characters, neigh, the ambiance of the books is cold and brisk. We’re dealing with murder, but not emotions – there are few, if any, histrionics in Christie’s novels. In one of her novels, I can’t remember which, the mother of a murdered boy says, and I paraphrase, “Well, he was a very naughty little boy, so I suppose he had it coming”. The plot often offers more than it delivers. The build up is so brilliant and compelling that when the murderer is revealed it often manages to be both mundane and overly complicated. She is twee and old-fashioned (which, at its worse, translate as racist and sexist – I’m frequently taken aback by how much Christie appears to dislike women).

But I don’t read Christie for exquisite prose or her take of feminism. Nor am I have much interested in the murder sides of things. I read her books for her swift, brilliant plotting, the cosy yet toxic world of a time (thankfully in my opinion) long gone and her tangled web of deceit and lies that allows me to play detective from the top deck of the bus or my bed. I love the puzzle of the crime even if I rarely guess right – for a while I thought I’d hit on the perfect formula, assuming that it was the least likely character who was the chief suspect, but more often than not Christie was one step ahead of me.

There continues to be a huge appetite for Agatha Christie books and their small screen adaptations. Waterstones and Hatchards have whole bookcases devoted to her novels including new editions with fancy retro covers. There’s a new (and final) series of Poiret with David Suchet reprising his career-defining role as the moustach-ioed Belgium detective that’s set to air later this year (or possibly the beginning of next). And ITV3 would have to sell a lot more ads for cruises if it wasn’t for the back-catalogue of television adaptations. While over in Dartmouth it’s estimated that 100,000 visitors walk through the doors of Christie’s former home Greenway every year since it opened in 2009 (I was amongst the thousands in 2010). So it looks like the Queen of Crime will continue to rule for quite some time.

by Suzanne Elliott