THE DARKENED ROOM by Anna Clarke (1968)
Encapsulate the book in one sentence?
She got away with murdering her blind husband and stepdaughter, and now embittered closet-case Mary Wentworth has moved to Bloomsbury, where she works in the British Library, hankers after the scruffy girl next door and plots further, necessary-seeming killings.
When did I buy it? Where and why did I buy it?
I was reading online about Cosy Mystery series from down the years – and something about her books leapt out at me. Maybe two years ago I snagged a 1p copy from Amazon.
Why is it something you stashed away and hoarded?
It was a murder book I put away for a rainy day. Then it just got lost in the tottering stacks of books of all genres.
What year or edition?
It’s an early 90’s Berkley Mystery reprint of a 1968 British hardback. Reading a little about her, it seems that Anna Clarke didn’t start publishing mysteries until she was fifty, and then made up for it by writing almost twenty. She was published in her native UK first, but that frazzled out, and then Berkley seemed to take her up and champion her in the 1990s – bringing out new novels, and reissuing the older ones (‘The Darkened Room’ is her first.) In the advertising pages at the back of my copy, they’re really pushing her, listing her name alongside PD James, Josephine Tey and Ngaio Marsh. They clearly thought a great deal of her.
What’s your verdict?
I thought it was brilliantly nasty, sinister and bitter. There’s hardly any mystery involved, really. Mary Wentworth is such a fabulously awful invention – a relentless self-justifier and skilled criminal, hiding her murderous impulses under an impeccably bland, respectable surface. We know that she killed her husband and that she lusts after any pretty young woman in the vicinity and we know that she’ll stop at nothing to retain her freedom. This is just so dark and chilly it’s hilarious. It also has a wonderful setting – in and around the squares of Bloomsbury and shabby boarding houses of the 1960s.
Did you finish it? Did it work for you?
I whizzed through it and relished every minute of it.
What genre would you say it is?
It’s not quite high-camp. At times, perhaps, such as when she’s got behind the wheel of unctuous Malcolm’s sports car and is trying to kill them both on the A1. It’s outrageously camp when she’s raving about everyone being secret lesbians and queers. This is kind-of Cosy Mystery – if your idea of Cosy involves naff cocktail parties and intense paranoia.
What surprises did it hold – if any?
Having failed to commit murder with a sports car, and having holed up in a Motel to write her memoirs, we expect that she’s seen sense by the end. But then, all of a sudden, she’s back in Bloomsbury, poking holes in the partition walls and trying to gas everyone in the room next door!
What scene will stay with you? What character will stay with you?
The moment when Mary tries to kick her heaviest plant pot off her tiny balcony in order to brain Malcolm in the street below. When she wakes up she’s furiously disappointed to hear that she only concussed the horribly smug nellie.
Have you read anything else by this author? Or anything this book reminds you of?
My first Anna Clarke and I’ll be trying to gather up the rest of her books. I can see her becoming a bit of a cult figure for me – if all of her books are as cheerfully horrid as this. Some of the black humour reminded me a little of Ngaio Marsh, but there are no reassuring police or detective characters turning up in order to put things to rights. They only turn up after Mary has succeeded in blowing everyone in her rooming house seemingly into smithereens…
What will you do with this copy now?
It’s a keeper. Though I can think of particular friends I want to give this copy to and tell them to read it immediately.
Is it available today?
Alas, not. I got my copy through Amazon Used and New for a penny, plus the usual hefty postage. This seems to be the best way of getting hold of her books these days. Someone ought to bring her back into print, I’d say.
Give me a good quote:
“Tell her! Tell Judy, that stupid, conventional, prudish, provincial little girl? You’re crazy. Tell her that you were tried for the murder of your husband by drowning just over a year ago – that you did it because you hated men, wanted your husband’s money, didn’t want him to know you had been making indecent advances to his daughter; that when she tried to save him, you let her drown too; that, acquitted due to lack of evidence, you nevertheless came out of it branded as a dangerous, wicked, unbalanced woman, a female sex maniac, a menace to all young girls.
Tell Judy all this?”