Celia Fremlin (1914 – 2009) An Appreciation

For many years now I have been bending the ear of any crime author, reviewer or reader about the lost treasure of crime fiction that was Celia Fremlin and the shame that they had all fallen out of print. This was a writer who had received the honour of winning the Edgar for Best Crime Novel in 1960 for her debut suspense novel, ‘The Hours Before Dawn’ which had also been adapted for ‘The Alfred Hitchcock Hour’ (re-titled ‘The Lonely Hours’) – and yet people I spoke to had never heard of Fremlin – even though at that time she was still alive.

I discovered her books quite by chance when browsing through a book stall. Tucked away in the corner, were two thin books by an author I had never heard of: Celia Fremlin. The titles were ‘The Spider-Orchid’ and ‘Appointment with Yesterday’. I would love to say the Fremlin’s were read that very day of purchase – but any book collector with a TBR pile of Pisa proportions would see through my little white lie. Plus, I always feel that a book waits for the right time to allow the reader to appreciate it. And that is what appears to have happened between Celia Fremlin and me.

I read neither first, in fact fast forward a couple of years later when I was in the much missed store, ‘Murder One’ in London. I found, again languishing at the back in a dark corner, a very battered Gollancz, ex-library edition of Fremlin’s short stories, ‘A Lovely Day To Die’ which I snapped up. Now this I did take home, and as it is only a slim book of 151 pages, I did start it on the train home. And that was it, folks. I was hooked. Each short story was a precious pearl, an exquisite gemstone of psychological insight and dark humour.

Back home I then uncovered my two paperbacks I had bought at that market stall in Epping and consumed those in quick succession. I had discovered an author I adored. This was the early nineties and Internet was a mere fledgling, so I had to scour the land. Most were old library editions and Fremlin’s titles popped up in the unlikeliest places and when I did discover one it was like finding unexpected gold and I would snap it up like a hungry wolf.

For many years now, especially since starting Crimesquad.com, I have been loud-hailing Fremlin’s talents and her novels of suspense. In fact, Celia Fremlin was our very first ‘Classic Crime’ author on Crimesquad.com. Her novels are artistic pieces, her lines and colours sometimes delineated with short, sharp jabs (the harshness of reality, the dry humour, a building of terror) and then her prose also creates long, languorous strokes that bring to life so beautifully the typical British seaside or a huge manor house open to the public. Her sense of place is as important as the interconnected relationships she so well observes and chronicles.

Long have I said what a travesty it is for Fremlin to be out of print and now I see the day when all her books, not just the favoured few, are back in print. Over the next three months, to coincide with the centenary of Fremlin’s birth, Faber Finds will re-release Fremlin’s entire canon. As they are released, her titles will be available in print form as well as e-book version. And they are well worth reading.

My favourites are ‘The Trouble-Makers’ and ‘Uncle Paul’ (I have written the Prefaces for both these titles for the new re-issues and the accompanying biography) as well as all the short story collections, but each and every one of Fremlin’s books has some merit attached to it. I will also be reviewing the titles as and when they appear. So, finally my wish has been granted and I very much urge you to explore this author’s work – or if you are an old fan of Fremlin’s then, like me, you now have a great excuse to re-read these delicious treats!


Celia Fremlin - Uncle Paul

"Fremlin’s brilliance is in recording the minutiae of daily routine and turning them into small spiteful acts."

‘Uncle Paul’ was Mildred’s husband for a very short time before being arrested for the murder of his first wife. Now, fifteen years later, Mildred has escaped to the small seaside cottage where they honeymooned and the scene where Paul was arrested. She has not seen him since being sentenced and with good behaviour, Mildred believes that Paul could be released any time now. As Mildred seeks refuge from humankind, she believes she hears footsteps outside on the gravel path. Is it Paul? Has he come for her, to kill her for abandoning him all those years ago?

Mildred’s half-sisters, Meg and Isabel were very young when ‘Uncle Paul’ briefly entered their lives. Now Isabel has asked for Meg’s help in rescuing Mildred from herself. Isabel, husband, Philip and their young children are holidaying at a caravan resort just down the coast from Mildred’s cottage. She begs Meg to come down and help her sort Mildred. But Mildred’s paranoia is infectious and soon all the sisters are ‘seeing’ Uncle Paul in all the men they know.

People always credit Fremlin’s first novel, ‘The Hours Before Dawn’, mainly I feel because it did win the Edgar for Best Crime Novel in 1960. However, her second novel has always I feel been slightly overshadowed by her first, which I feel is a shame, as I feel it is stronger than its predecessor despite it winning the Edgar.

Fremlin shows wonderfully in ‘Uncle Paul’ her talent for creating menace and claustrophobia regardless of the setting. By day, Fremlin gives us frolicking children running and playing in the rolling sea, the sun beating down and ice-creams eaten by the truck load. But by night Fremlin delivers a whole new landscape, one of horror, of dark imaginings, of potential evil and malevolence. I have described her other works as ‘light and shade’, but here Fremlin shows us the two definite sides of the coin with panache. Fremlin’s brilliance is in recording the minutiae of daily routine and turning them into small spiteful acts. She can turn a tiny gesture into a threat, a leer.

The power of self-suggested hysteria rings like a warning bell, vibrated by every carefully chosen word. I could write about this fine writer for hours. I have certainly bent many people’s ear's about Fremlin’s work, and ‘Uncle Paul’ is one of her finest. I am so chuffed that finally, after many years, that Fremlin’s work is back in print and available to all. Start with this one and I guarantee you will be hooked on this author’s small, yet powerful body of work.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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