After having finished this book, I wanted to share some further thoughts, among them: Hunter hates aspiration! But, because I have to spoil the plot I have put the update at the bottom.
Non-spoiler: The best line of the book is when Hunter’s Oxford detective gives the following knowing meta-comment, to the reader, as it were: “And while I’m at it, the car is a Ford. In case you’re wondering. And I don’t do bloody crosswords either.”
I am reading this book to find out what a success looks like. All the books I like best are written by dead people. And whilst the canon of 18th and early 19th century literature is a great bedrock on which to build your literary garden shed, it is not necessarily a pointer as to what will be commercially successful in what is commonly known as the 21st century, or thereabouts.
Now, so far I have been extremely successful in not being commercially successful – I have learned the 18th century lesson very well – and I therefore wanted, indeed needed, to know what a commercially successful book looks like. So that I might emulate it, you understand.
Close to Home by Cara Hunter is apparently what success looks like. It is not on the favourite list of our bearded and sandal wearing friends over in the Guardian, as it is not an in-te-lec-tual book. It is, however, on the W. H. Smith bestselling list and picked for the Punch and Judy book club, or whatever it’s called. It is, whether you like it or not, a crime novel. And it is not bad.
Yes, there are the usual tropes and motifs, a detective with some personal tragedy lurking in his not very distant past, the cardboard cutout characterisation of middle class people (a symptom of a self hating middle-class writer), and as I seem to already have mentioned it: the very British (or rather English) obsession with the obsession with class. That is not a misprint. More than with class, the English (British) are obsessed, not so much with class, as with the preoccupation with class, and it is mainly the middling classes who churn and gurn and twist and writhe in the hellfire of this particular malady. So also this writer, who so clearly sees what she despises in herself in the characters that she writes with so little love. Not badly written, mind you, just loveless. Her non-middle class characters are written far more lovingly. There is a healthy dose of prejudice – such as in the little Chinese-American girl who is all materialism and money. Lovely.
This is a well written, well put together book, and quite engaging; a page turner, as they say. Almost as good as Inspector Morse, but no Jaguar.
Whether I can pull off something like this at some point remains to be seen. Perhaps an ironic crime novel. That might give rise to a new genre: the chronic novel.
Here goes: did you ever read Matilda by Roald Dahl, or perhaps see the film by the same name starring Danni DeVito and Rhea Perlman? There is an element of Matildaism in this book, but without Dahl’s dark humour or intellect. What Hunter presents on these pages is a middle class educated person’s fantasy: to be able to take the children away from those horrible aspiring working class people who think they are middle class just because they have a house and a 4×4, but who reads the Daily Mail (she gets that point in) and presumably not books like Close to Home (although they are far more likely to read Close to Home than say Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky).
Her portrayal of Mr. and Mrs. Mason, the couple who produced the offspring Daisy, who goes missing at the start of the book, are cardboard cutout types. They are not real people, there is nothing remotely real about them. In 18th century literature the standard types were very central in fiction. The John Bull-character, the fop, the young girl from the country, etc. They used these types because they represented something real, albeit in an idealised version. Hunter also uses types here, but not because they represent something real, rather it is to allow her to create characters that is not just impossible to love or feel any sympathy for, but for whom it is okay not to have feelings of human warmth towards. We want them to be guilty, we will it, just as I suspect Hunter did and does.
This is where the Matildaistic twist in the plot comes in handy: Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood, sorry, Mason are not guilty, yet they are obviously guilty: of being aspiring lower middle class people who do not go to the opera, of being interested in looks and one’s status, of reading the Daily Mail, and (although she doesn’t say this one) probably of voting Leave as well. And so, even if they are not guilty, they are guilty anyway. To readers who share Hunters mal-anthropic world view it must therefore be immensely satisfying that Mr. Mason’s sex drive lands him innocently in jail and Mrs. Mason is wrongly convicted of killing her daughter (to which the book records no emotional response that might tease out of the reader a deeper understanding of her as a human being – remember, she is just a type; the type that voted Leave, so no sympathy or understanding is required.
The actual guilty person goes free. Little eight year old Daisy has, it turns out, colluded with her teacher (remember Matilda, waltzing or otherwise, and Miss Honey?) in getting herself kidnapped by said teacher, and as the book ends they are on a ferry on their way to Ireland. Daisy’s teacher, Miss Madigan, a Guardian reading young lady, who once lost her baby, has taken it upon herself to right the wrongs of nature, by saving this poor, intelligent child from her monstrous, striving parents. It’s all she can do to avoid another one growing up to voting the wrong way and reading the wrong newspapers. It is a nice plot twist, but one that is only made possible by a disturbingly amoral view of the universe. As my headline quote of Ibsen says: to write is to judge yourself, and I think Ms. Hunter, in trying to pass judgement on the Despicables has indeed passed judgement on herself.
Close to Home is a shallow book. A book where language is little more than bricks in a utilitarian wall. I feel the words of Beethoven describing Rossini in 1824, if slightly amended, is apposite for Ms. Hunter: “Rossini is a talented and a melodious composer, his music suits the frivolous and sensuous spirit of the times...” I know Hunter has another story out with the same detective. I am not sure though, that a detective who got two people wrongfully convicted, for crimes that didn’t even take place, and let the guilty person get away with it, fills me with confidence and a desire to follow his careers.
As almost stated earlier: nice try, but no Jaguar.