In Association with

Classic Crime - March 2005

Celia Fremlin, the surname being the author’s maiden name, was born in Finchley in 1914 and spent her childhood in Hertfordshire. Before having her novels published, Celia studied classics at Oxford University and worked as a charwoman during the Second World War when she was also an air raid warden. During her married life she moved to London where she, her husband, Dr. E. S. Goller and their three children lived in a house overlooking Hampstead Heath.

Celia had written quite a lot during her early life, a talent possibly inherited from her mother who enjoyed writing plays, some of which were performed locally. Celia Fremlin sent a number of short stories off to different magazines like Women’s Own, Punch and the London Mystery Magazine but she also received a lot of rejections before finally getting her first novel published which was in 1958, The Hours Before Dawn. This was the time when her writing was to become noticed.

In 1988, Pandora Press brought out a series called Women Crime Writers. The Hours Before Dawn was one of these publications. In the Preface, Celia Fremlin wrote the following:

“The original inspiration for this book was my second baby. She was one of those babies who, perfectly content and happy all day, simply don’t sleep through the night. Soon after midnight she would wake; and again at half past two; and again at four. As the months went by, I found myself quite distracted by lack of sleep; my eyes would fall shut while I peeled the potatoes or ironed shirts. I remember one night sitting on the bottom step of the stairs, my baby awake and lively in my arms it dawned on me: this is a major human experience, why hasn’t someone written about it? It seemed to me that a serious novel should be written with this experience at its centre. Then it occurred to me – why don’t I write one?”

The Hours Before Dawn was shortlisted for the Mystery Writers of America Edgar Allan Poe award for Best Crime Novel. Celia’s novel duly won and became the best crime novel of 1959. The bust of Edgar Allan Poe still adorns Celia Fremlin’s windowsill.

Her second novel, Uncle Paul, followed in the same year and then Seven Lean Years (published in the USA as Wait for the Wedding) and The Trouble Makers. Celia Fremlin’s novels have inspired many well-known authors, many of whom are still writing today. She was one of the first writers to really embrace the psychological ‘Why-dunnit’, investigating what drove ordinary people to commit such heinous crimes. She worked on what was going on in the minds of her characters and pondered the circumstances that had brought them to the chilly and harrowing conclusion they inexorably find themselves at. This is best illustrated by the three sisters in Uncle Paul where the eldest, Mildred, is so haunted by what happened all those years ago, that because of her own obsession she forces fate’s hand with terrible consequences. Also, like her other novels, Uncle Paul gives us a marvellous insight into society during the late fifties. Celia Fremlin paints a vivid portrait and perfectly encapsulates the feeling of that particular era.

In all her books, there is always a faint sense of humour, which comes about from Celia Fremlin’s sharp eye and acerbic sense of humour. It can highlight the repetitiveness of people’s lives or little things that people do naturally which we, normally, would never even notice. This humour also lends a very human element to the novels.

Celia Fremlin stated that her favourite pastimes were gossip, talking ‘shop’ and any kind of argument about anything. We can only surmise that it was through these ‘pastimes’ that Celia Fremlin gleaned ideas through hearsay and from those small kernels would eventually grow and create her novels.

Celia Fremlin wrote a fine body of work, which any writer would be proud of. She made you want to turn the pages as the suspense slowly smouldered away. Celia’s books were restrained works with tight plots, which would slowly and delicately unravel to reveal people’s lives and the absurd neurosis that had brought them to the precipice (mostly by their own warped sense of belief in what was the truth). I personally feel that Celia Fremlin was at her zenith with the short story formula. She wrote a great canon of work for the Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine. With her mastery, Celia was able to set up a dazzling story, steeped in suspense, and make you gasp at the conclusion. All in just a few short pages.

It is a great shame that Celia Fremlin is not more widely read today and that her works have fallen out of publication, especially as today’s readers are interested in both plot and with the protagonists. We can only hope that one day soon, someone will champion this author’s works and that they will be re-published for all to enjoy.

Review: The Trouble Makers.

This book provides us with a prime example of what gossip and suggestion can do to the human psyche. Katharine lives a life that could never be called tranquil! She constantly juggles her three girls, her irritable husband and her home. Not always with excellent results... Next-door lives Katherine’s neighbour, Mary, of whom she is extremely fond. Yet she is pleased to see that Mary copes even less well than herself. It is on this very unstable foundation that they build their relationship.

Then there is an incident in Mary’s home when a stranger in a raincoat stabs her husband, Alan. Later, Mary confesses to Katharine that it was she who accidentally stabbed her husband and not the imaginary man in the raincoat. Under Katharine’s advice Mary goes along with Alan’s story and pretends, for the sake of Mary’s marriage, that it actually was this imaginary figure.

The tension rises and with each passing day Mary begins to believe that she is being followed. Her conviction grows that the imaginary man is keeping a watch on her house and that her family are in danger.

Mixed in with this creepy story Celia Fremlin lets us peep in to how houses were run in those days. We see that wives were expected to keep the house clean for their husbands and that they were expected to provide meals on a tight budget by putting onions in the mince to make it stretch to five mouths.

All the ladies in the neighbourhood, including Mary and Katharine sit around berating their unfeeling, lazy husbands. There is even a dinner party held by another friend, Stella, who comes across as such a domestic goddess that she belittles Katharine. However, near the end of the novel, there is a touching moment between Katharine and her husband, which could lead to a more harmonious family household.

As usual, the tension mounts slowly and this is a much better display of Fremlin’s talents at she gradually layers on the atmosphere of suspense and intrigue – leading to a dazzling and cathartic denouement. It also shows us that we never really know our neighbours, guessing at what goes on behind their drawn curtains. It suggests that the victim is not always the most obvious character. The Trouble Makers flows more easily than some of Celia Fremlin’s other novels and I believe it is one of her best.

Reviewed by CS

CrimeSquad Rating

Review: Prisoner's Base.

Prisoner’s Base was Celia Fremlin’s sixth book. The premise is a house full of women headed by the grandmother, Margaret, her daughter, Claudia and the granddaughter, Helen. Although the story seems to centre round Margaret, it is in fact Claudia who is the catalyst for what ultimately happens at the end of the novel.

As stated in Celia Fremlin’s biography, one of her main hobbies was gossip and that is never more proven to be the case than in this tightly told little study in the art of gossip and it’s rippling effects and consequences. Claudia loves to take on lost causes and always invites them in to stay in her house - much to the chagrin of her mother, Margaret. Her latest acquisition is a young poet who tells stories of his seven years inside prison. With the intervention of Mavis, Claudia’s lost case before the young poet (who is clearly put out by the new arrival), the atmosphere in the house becomes more and more intense as the summer days slip by.

This book was written in 1967 and, again, Celia Fremlin has painted a picture of these times and shown the huge chasms that had opened up between the young and the old in this decade. There are Margaret’s Victorian values clashing with Claudia’s updated views. These are shown through Margaret’s displeasure at having an unmarried mother as Claudia’s guest and Claudia trying to seek Helen’s approval by trying to understand her daughter’s sexual needs as a growing woman only to have Helen, a typical teenager, revolted by her mother’s constant need to try to be an ‘understanding radical mother’.

As with many of Fremlin’s novels, nobody is exactly who they say they are. Was the new ‘lost cause’, Maurice, really only in prison for a robbery? Are the noises in Mavis’ head real or her imagination? Why do people keep lingering about after Maurice’s arrival? In Claudia, Celia Fremlin has created a misguided monster of a character, who truly believes she is helping these people for the good. Unfortunately, as with most of Fremlin’s novels, this is not the case.

Reviewed by CS

CrimeSquad Rating