The Unquiet Night by Australian author Patricia Carlon (SOHO Press) was originally published in 1965 according to my much more recent Soho first edition. The author is Australian, born nearly the same year as my Australian mother. Enough about me. The point is that the suspense in this murder mystery/thriller is breathtaking- hold onto your chair. In this novel, we do not find ourselves in the big cities so synonymous with a large fraction of crime fiction. Instead, we translocate to a small town in Australia, and the habits and familiar assumptions of small-town life play a big role in nearly all aspects of the story.
The tension of the novel starts out being notable by its absence: even the first words "He didn't mean to kill her" seem to position a killer as just a simple-minded and clumsy young man guilty of manslaughter. However, this is an illusion, in part because the viciousness that the young man's later exhibits lets us see through the facade of his manner to identify him as a true sociopath. Tension accelerates rapidly in the latter half of the book, reaching a finish that should bring your heart to 140 drumbeats per minute or higher.
At the start, a woman named Rachel and her 9-year old niece Ann go out for a picnic that is cut short by rain, and the aunt happens to see, in passing, a young man of no particular note. However, the pitch changes to a note of terror when eventually Rachel realizes that the young man is after her. Unfortunately for our delightful aunt and niece, Martin Deeford, known as "Mart", is quite clever in tracking them down, though he is hindered by some elderly residents who aren't fools. This wise behavior by the neighbors is aided and abetted by sensible family protectiveness, even though aunt Rachel and Ann's parents have no idea what they are protecting against. Something just doesn't seem right about the occasional phone call.
I'm not sure that the fractured cleverness that Mart displays, at least in mid-story, matches the rest of his somewhat stunted persona, though this is a sly character who has always manipulated and tended toward violence. Mart is certainly one smug and cruel young man who is too clever for anyone's good, including his own.
Along the way, any parent will shudder at the manipulations (of school officials, friends, and neighbors) that allow Mart to insinuate himself inside the defenses of the family circle. We can sing the praises of nosy neighbors who care, and who recognize improper behavior when they see it. Small town courtesy counteracts that suspicion in some cases, however, and we wonder if courtesy and busy family life will conspire to doom 9-year old Ann and her aunt Rachel. These ironies are not the greatest ones the story has to offer, but the rest are best discovered by the reader.
Complicating the storyline of The Unquiet Night is the very believable, modern, independent and capable aunt herself, who remains in a noncommittal relationship that provides the space she craves, space that could ultimately lead to her death. The build-up and let-down of false hopes in Rachel's final struggles batter the reader's psyche (let alone Rachel's), so that we reach a point where, for Aunt Rachel, drifting off into that sweet oblivion of death may be our only release.
In the end, this book has a lot to say about fear. Fear of discovery leads Martin from what he thinks of as an accidental death into a web of violence where he plots several murders and tries to save himself from discovery. Normal fear of modern life does its best to keep Ann and Rachel alive. Our fear of what might happen keeps us glued to the page.
With Mart's fear increasing at each step, along with his anger at the intended victims, Mart circles his fate, moving closer with each new version of his plan. All the while, Mart tries to bend that fate to his own end, the end of Ann and Rachel. We hope fervently, and some may begin to pray, that in spite of his planning, Martin never thinks far enough ahead to see the endgame.
Conclusion? This particular Australian crime fiction travels as well the best Shiraz and arrives at its destination with just moments to spare. No superhuman beasts or heroes were required to bring this story to life; great words and small town life did the job.
© James K. Bashkin, 2007
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