One of this blog’s policies is to remain polite even in the face of events and behavior that defy politeness, so I’ll refrain with extreme difficulty from using stronger words than « shameful » to describe the media’s abysmal coverage of the death of Celia Fremlin. It took two months for the mystery world to know of the sad event thanks to the invaluable Martin Edwards who proved thus to be a more reliable news source than The Times and The Guardian. We tend to think our genre enjoys a better treatment nowadays than it once did, but stories of this kind remind one the path is still a long one.
Not that the whole thing is entirely surprising: Celia Fremlin was never a best-selling writer, she was not very prolific and most of her output was out of print. Her kind of books – psychological suspense – was no longer « hip » and was always somewhat marginal in her own country. It’s telling that the only award she ever got was from a foreign organization, the MWA.
Even more saddening in a way is that the few people remembering Fremlin do so because of just one book, the Edgar-winning The Hours Before Dawn and mostly because of its feminist overtones. I don’t dispute the validity of such a reading but it is way too narrow in my view. Hours Before Dawn is first and foremost a splendid piece of craft, especially if one considers that it was Fremlin’s debut. The characterisation and the depiction of suburbian life are superb and the writing is sharp and quietly ironic. The plot may sound familiar to the modern reader, but it’s only because it has been much recycled on both print and screen since 1958. Even so, Fremlin plays the reader’s nerves with expertise and the book is hard, almost impossible to put down – I, for one, couldn’t. That it appealed so much to Edgar voters comes as no surprise: Fremlin’s blend of the ordinary and the creepy probably reminded them of their homegrown school of domestic terror, most notably Charlotte Armstrong and Ursula Curtiss with whom Fremlin has a lot in common.
The not-that-young newcomer seemed poised for great things, and she delivered in the dozen books (including my own favorite, The Long Shadow ) and the many short stories that followed. Unfortunately she never became a household name despite admirers as prestigious as Ruth Rendell or P.D. James. Now that she’s gone, let us hope that her work won’t go the same way and that interest, even misguided, for her best-known work will bring the rest of her output back in print. It’s way overdue.
Her obituary in The Times, alas more concerned with her stance on euthanasia than her crime writing.
Her obituary in The Guardian, somewhat more detailed and interesting.
A review of The Hours Before Dawn on Steve Lewis’ MysteryFile blog.