The Trouble Makers by Celia Fremlin (review)

thetroublemakers_fremlin_doverA man’s character, she reflected with surprise, consists a good deal more of the way people feel and behave towards him than of the way he himself feels and behaves. (location 1115)

Much of this domestic thriller, first published in 1963, is a keenly observed portrait of women whose marriages are floundering in a small English neighborhood.  One is almost lulled into forgetting that it is a thriller by the cattiness of the troublemakers of the title and finds oneself sidetracked from the effects of their pettiness and behavior on Mary, the youngest of the foursome, by the personalities and domestic dramas of Katherine’s life in particular, along with Stella’s need to feel superior, and Agnes’ need for others to feel as badly toward their husbands as she does.

Bother Mary, she was almost visibly thinking: Why must she get her wretched husband murdered or driven to suicide or something; now we shan’t be able to say anything nasty about either of them for weeks and weeks. (location 308-309)

Katherine’s life serves as the main focus of the narration, with the “action,” as it were, happening a bit offstage.  It is only through her visits to Mary’s home, Mary’s confidences in her, and the various interactions that Katherine has with her fellow natural-born gossips and Mary’s solid and outspoken sister-in-law that we see the undercurrent that exists nearby.  Husbands, while a frequent topic of conversation, are little seen beyond Katherine’s own.

Katharine listened, both enjoying it all and gently priding herself on the fact that she wasn’t disloyal enough to expose all her husband’s weaknesses like this. But paradoxically, as well as priding herself on this loyalty, she also felt guilty about it . If you were prepared to take part in and enjoy these husband-belittling sessions, then you really ought to contribute something— some complaint, some grievance— for the others’ delectation. To come merely as a listener like this might be loyal, but it was also mean— like coming emptyhanded to a bottleparty. (location 626)

While this novel is a work of psychological suspense, it is also filled with social observation and gives an interesting look into the inner world of a gossip.  What I found myself most enjoying, and perhaps that was part of the author’s intent, were the domestic scenes and Katherine’s observations.  I couldn’t help but almost like her, and as a reader became most invested in her, which only helped to make the build up to the climax and the ending more a creeping in of dread and inevitability not quite foreseen.

“Sometimes— I almost think— that he knows something. That he knows— he expects— that something is going to happen. . . .” (location 2013)

This is a short novel tightly plotted for maximum impact.  I went in expecting to find a story that would have been considered domestic horror in the 1960’s, but would be a bit more light suspense and a piece of slightly amusing mid-century genre fiction for today’s reader.  And perhaps this expectation was inadvertently doing a service to the novel because, oh, that ending!  So abrupt and effective.

I requested a NetGalley copy of this book partly because I’ve been enjoying the mid-century suspense novels of Mary Stewart and because the description pulled me in.  While Fremlin does employ a bit of the same “if she’d only known then…” as Stewart’s early suspense, perhaps it is due in part to being written in third person rather than first that her story is somewhat darker and her social commentary deeper.  The lack of romance could also be a contributing factor.

While I am undecided as to whether I will read more of this author’s writing, I won’t rule it out.  Kudos to Dover for recognizing the talent that was Celia Fremlin and ensuring that it will come to the attention of modern readers.

The Trouble Makers by Celia Fremlin | Dover Publications, March 2018 | paperback or ebook, 208 pages

This review refers to an e-galley read courtesy of the publisher through NetGalley.  All opinion expressed are my own.  Quoting from e-galleys is usually a no-no in my book, as in the case of any pre-publication version, changes are likely to be made before final publication.  As this is a reprint, changes are less likely and so I am quoting with restraint.

From the publisher:

Poor Mary. Her husband is so stingy and critical that he makes the other neighborhood spouses look princely by comparison. All of the housewives on the block complain about their domineering husbands, their noisy children, and their dreary chores. The women’s only consolation lies in getting together to vent their frustrations and share the latest gossip. But when Mary spies a man in a raincoat, lurking about the neighborhood, she develops a panicky obsession with the stranger that her friends can’t soothe — and the frustrations of everyday life suddenly take a sinister turn.
In this terrifying mystery classic, Edgar Award–winning novelist Celia Fremlin blends the desperation of 1960s domesticity with gripping suspense.

Reprint of the J. B. Lippincott Company, New York, 1963 edition.