Invisible Ink: No 98 - Patricia Carlon

Christopher Fowler
Saturday 22 October 2011 08:44
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When it came to putting women in dangerous situations and wringing suspense from them, Patricia Carlon was up there with another Patricia, Highsmith.

Born in 1927 in Wagga Wagga, New South Wales, she wrote nerve-racking novels with strong Australian themes, but was unable to find a publisher for them locally.

In the UK, Hodder & Stoughton picked up her best work – she produced 14 novels between 1961 and 1970, starting with Circle Of Fear – and published them to acclaim. An American publisher discovered her novels by chance in a London bookshop, and an Australian did the same in New York, so her books were eventually picked up for publication in her native country 40 years after she had become a success in Britain.

Her writing was intelligent, hard-hitting and unsentimental, her prose deceptively simple (as was the style of suspense writing then), but there was something odd about it ....

The Whispering Wall is fairly typical of her work. In it, the elderly heroine, Sarah, is confined to her bed by a stroke while a sinister group of individuals plots against her. They assume that because she can't communicate she doesn't understand, but she is only too aware of their intentions and is determined to foil their plans. Her only ally is a girl traumatised by rape. The narrative has an atmosphere of claustrophobic menace, and is excruciatingly intense. In Hush, It's A Game, a little girl is locked in a kitchen by her babysitter, who is then murdered. Then the murderer realises that there's someone else in the apartment ....

This ability to sustain tension to an unbearable degree would have made her perfect for adaptation by Alfred Hitchcock, but Carlon was in the wrong time and place. She never married and lived alone, right next door to her parents in suburban Sydney. She only communicated with her publishers by letter. By this time her agent had noticed an obvious theme running through her books – all of her heroines experience a strong sense of isolation.

Research after her death in 2002 revealed the reason. Carlon had been deaf since the age of 11, and understood what it was like to feel lonely and unable to communicate with others, so she recreated the sensation in her books, producing variations on a theme that never actually included deafness.

She eventually received the recognition she deserved in her homeland, and Soho Press have republished her books in the UK.

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