Desire to Kill by Anna Clarke

Originally published in 1982

Before Amy’s arrival, Digby Hall had been tranquil. Its soothing lawns and lilac arbors were the perfect setting in which to spend one’s golden years. But now there is a terrible gloom hanging over the old house: people are dropping like flies. It was appalling. Or so it should have seemed to Amy. She thought it delicious; and the fun had just begun.

First, Mrs. Graham dies – no one is surprised, as she had terrible arthritis and a heart condition. But when Mr. Horder is killed in a car accident and Amy is unscratched, people begin to wonder. One of those who distrusts Amy is Sue Merry, who, with her husband Bob, serves as manager of Digby Hall. When she is found nearly drowned in the bathtub, having over-dosed on tranquilizers, suspicions seem well-founded. Has murder come to visit Digby Hall, or just a series of unfortunate accidents?

Recently I discovered that I had access to the Critical Survey of Mystery and Detective Fiction encyclopedia through my local library. This multi-volume work has biographical notes and analysis of the works of hundreds of authors, some familiar to me but many not, and I have been scouring through it to find works and authors that might be of interest to me.

Anna Clarke was not a familiar name but I was intrigued enough by the description of her work to decide to track down one of her novels. I quickly settled on this novel from the latter part of her career which is highlighted in the essay as a significant work being intrigued with its rather unorthodox killer.

After Amy Langford’s husband dies her son makes the decision that she cannot live alone and so arranges for her bungalow to be sold and for her to move to Digby Hall, an old home that has been converted into a set of flats. The setting is picturesque and while the company is a little stale, most of the residents try to be welcoming. Amy however feels angry at being abandoned and quickly grows to hate the others, fantasizing about doing them harm.

We are conscious from the start of the novel that she plans to murder all of the other inhabitants, even if the book’s blurb appears to suggest this is a whodunnit. The exact means are not revealed, at least with the first murder, until after the body has been discovered but while that could suggest some ambiguity as to whether Amy is actually responsible, confirmation comes within a few pages making this a clear example of an inverted story.

There are parts of Amy’s character that seem quite well observed, such as the descriptions of how she created a personality for herself as a housewife while her husband was still alive. I had little difficulty believing in that aspect of her character, nor of understanding her bitter feelings of abandonment and social isolation. These themes are developed quite thoughtfully and credibly, and I think Clarke does a fine job of exploring both how she sees herself and how she is perceived and understood by others and the overlaps and contradictions between those images.

The problem is that this book is not simply a work about social isolation but it is supposed to be an exploration of the making of a murderer and there it falls quite short. There are several problems, not least that Clarke never really establishes where the skills required to imagine and commit these crimes comes from. These are not, after all, crimes committed in the heat of the moment – they are each carefully constructed based on what Amy percieves their weaknesses as being. While Clarke certainly convinced me that Amy was a skilled bully, capable of convincing the men in her life to try and please her, that is a fundamentally different skillset from committing a locked room murder (don’t read it for that though – the book only describes those conditions in passing long after the point at which it is committed).

Another frustration is the choice to keep the reader at arm’s length, hinting at what Amy is noticing that she might use but not directly sharing her plans with us. That makes this a howwillshedoit – that approach can generate tension if done well but, as I note above, the details of what is done are left a little vague keeping those moments from having the impact they might otherwise have. At several points in the story we see characters respond to Amy’s actions before we actually learn what they were which struck me as a choice that only serves to reduce clarity.

Perhaps the biggest problem I have though is with the book’s final third which is only possible because a group of characters consciously make a spectacularly unwise decision for what struck me as pretty unconvincing reasons. Which is a shame because the denouement is very effectively written in an almost impressionistic style, allowing the reader to sense what is happening before the details are given. In contrast a development in the final few pages, while intriguing, feels utterly unearned.

It’s all rather disappointing. There were some interesting ideas here but I just don’t think they come together in a particularly interesting or entertaining way. The result is a rather sad and depressing read. In spite of that though I am not closing the door on reading more Clarke. While the development of Amy’s psychosis is rather clumsy, her other characters are constructed with empathy and I would be willing to give her another go if anyone has any suggestions.

The Verdict: A disappointing inverted tale. The killer, an aging woman sent to a nursing home, has potential but the character development left me unconvinced.

This counts towards the Serial Killers category in the Silver Age Vintage Scattegories challenge.

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