Penguin Classics, £12.99
The Pursued, By C S Forester
Arifa Akbar is literary editor of The Independent and i newspapers. She has worked at The Independent since 2001 as a news reporter and arts correspondent before joining the books desk in 2009. She was a judge for the Orwell Prize for books, 2013.
Thursday 17 November 2011
Cecil Louis Troughton Smith wrote this sleek crime novel under his famed pen name of C S Forester in 1935, but it got lost soon after he had finished writing it. He held onto the hope that it might one day be found and published, and wrote in his autobiography: "It is just possible that a typescript still exists, forgotten and gathering dust in a rarely used storeroom in Boston or Bloomsbury."
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Sadly, he was not alive to see it resurface in a Christie's auction in 2002. This wonderful little book, a departure from the Hornblower novels that made his name, reminds us that Forester was an accomplished crime writer. Two earlier novels – Payment Deferred in 1926 (a psychological thriller adapted for a film starring Charles Laughton) and Plain Murder in 1930 – were highly successful in their day.
The Pursued is set against the quiet London suburbs of the 1930s and the daily life of a seemingly happy married couple. The prose is fast, pared-down and psychologically loaded, creating its own brand of English noir. Opening with a mysterious death, the plot reveals the inner workings of Marjorie and Ted's marriage, flecked with domestic abuse and sexual sado-masochism.
Its thriller elements are blended with radical gender politics through this channel of disgruntled domesticity. A reader coming new to C S Forester might be forgiven for thinking this writer a woman. The domestic drudgery of Marjorie's everyday life is imagined in minute detail – the washing, cooking, shopping, the children, and the husband's tyrannical demands.
The fulminating passions, the quiet rage, and the burning desire for violent revenge belongs largely to the disenfranchised female characters. Marjorie looks at her spinster friends – the newly independent, career-minded women of the 1930s – with a fear that she overcomes. Her mother, seemingly mild and meek, seethes with the sly, unquenchable vengeance of Clytemnestra.
Yet the outburst of bloody and baroque violence is over in an instant, and the story quickly returns to a quiet, quintessential Englishness. The Pursued reads not just as an excellent crime story but as a fascinating piece of social history.
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