Friday, May 31, 2013

The Book You Have to Read:
“The Unquiet Night,“ by Patricia Carlon

(Editor’s note: This is the 126th entry in The Rap Sheet’s ongoing blog series highlighting great but forgotten books. Today’s recommendation comes from Patrick Balester, a mystery writer, photographer, and computer programmer in Kansas City, Missouri. Balester’s first e-novel, In the Dismal Swamp, was published in 2012. He also writes a blog called Picks by Pat.)

I stumbled across Australian author Patricia Carlon quite by accident. I was taking a break from writing my first novel and decided to wander among the fiction aisles of my local library, looking for an author I hadn’t read before. I started at “A” and stopped at “C” when I pulled the 2003 Soho Crime edition of The Unquiet Night from the shelf. At first glance I was attracted to its garish cover photo--a woman in a flaming red skirt with a torn stocking lying on the grass. Well, I thought, shall we give it a go?

It turned out to be one of the most suspenseful and terrifying novels I have ever read. It lacks the hardcore violence of today’s thrillers, yet the writing is so powerful and straightforward, the author’s mastery of language so complete, that even now--nearly 50 years after it was first published--the story speaks without being dated. Except for its lack of cell phones, it could have been published last week.

In The Unquiet Night we meet Martin Deeford, and by the end of the first sentence (“He hadn't meant her to die”), we know he is in deep trouble. He’s just strangled Rose Gault, a young woman he picked up at a bus stop on a rainy Sunday afternoon and took to an isolated nature reserve. After disposing of her body in a nearby lake and leaving the scene of his crimes in a panic, Martin stumbles across a child, 9-year-old Ann Penghill, and her aunt, Rachel Penghill, who had come to the reserve for a picnic. Rachel looks right at him and Martin quickly realizes that if she comes forward after Rose is declared missing or her body is found, he’ll go to prison for murder. Without knowing little Ann’s name, he is later forced to rely on his knowledge of their small town to track her down. And through her he hopes to find the woman. The woman he plans to silence.

It may seem hard in our own day and age to believe that adults would willingly give up names to a voice over the telephone, but Martin works in a retail shop. He knows his customers and knows how to talk to them. His cleverness only takes him so far, though; each clue to Rachel’s identity and whereabouts becomes a dead end, leaving him angry, frustrated, and--as the night of his crimes progresses--more of a threat to anyone who crosses his path. Yet Martin is no criminal mastermind. He is impulsive, violent, and quick to blame others for his shortcomings. His fear of discovery is palpable and almost sympathetic. When he finally finds his intended victim, it is by luck.

He tricks Rachel into opening the door to her jewelry shop, but confronted by the chance to actually murder her, he vomits, revealing his cowardice. Then Rachel makes a tremendous blunder without even realizing it. She blurts out, “I've seen you before”--a statement that seals her fate. It reminds Martin of his nefarious goal, and a glance around the shop where Rachel works as a designer suddenly shows him how best to finish her: he entombs her in a vault. In there, he’s sure, she will soon suffocate--a slow and agonizing death.

Rachel thinks this is only a robbery, and she waits patiently to be released. Only slowly does it dawn on her that Martin is not coming back. Her only hope is to be missed--and that’s a vague hope, indeed. She had told several people that she’d be out of town at a jewelry convention. She has recently broken it off with a boyfriend. A handyman who was planning to make repairs to the shop fails to show. Small clues which might otherwise have alerted neighbors that something was amiss go unnoticed. The suspense builds painfully over the course of this story, and the reader does not learn Rachel’s fate until the very last sentence.

The Unquiet Night was originally released in 1965, when Patricia Carlon was at the height of her creative powers. (Another of her books, published that same year, was Crime of Silence.) She had been producing romance and mystery stories ever since her teens, when she’d entered a writing contest and won. Unfortunately, Carlon could not initially find a publisher in her native Australia and most of her best work was released first in the United Kingdom. Not until much later, when she was in her 70s, did this author finally see her stories published Down Under, something that brought her great satisfaction.

Isolation and a sense of insignificance are themes that found their way into many of Patricia Carlon’s tales. Her characters often lack the ability to warn others of impending danger or protect themselves. The author’s own life suggested a self-imposed desire to hide from the world. She lived in a small town, next to her parents. She had a handicap--deafness--that she hid so well, her own publisher and most of her neighbors were unaware of it until it was discovered after her death. Yet it may have strongly influenced her writing.

For me, what started out as a one-night stand evolved quickly into a lifelong love affair with this remarkable writer’s works of suspense. Yet even though her books were published through conventional channels in the United States, they aren’t yet available for e-readers. It’s ironic that an author who mastered the sense of isolation in her storytelling is, in a real sense, still isolated from many readers. I hope this will soon be corrected. Carlon deserves a much wider audience.


Ed Gorman said...

Several years ago--over a two week period--I read all the books of her that Soho published. The suspense craft is impeccable. Your well done review has already sent me to the shelf where her books are. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

What an interesting review! I have not read her work yet. Thanks!

--Brenda Perrott Williamson

Picks by Pat said...

I find myself re-reading several of her best novels every couple of years, for inspiration. "Hush, It's A Game" is another favorite.