After a strong beginning that promises psychiatric suspense à la Hitchock's Spellbound, this British tale of murders past...



After a strong beginning that promises psychiatric suspense à la Hitchock's Spellbound, this British tale of murders past and present slides into a wretchedly talky tangle of secrets, mistaken identities, and red herrings--sort of echt Agatha Christie with verbal (and psychological) elephantiasis. Hugh Welchman is a kindly Cambridge psychiatrist semi-happily married to lovely, remote, well-bred Julia; and Hugh's newest patient is student Alex Brinton, who has a phobia about descending a stone staircase at college. Soon it's clear that this problem is connected to repressed memories of the death of Alex's alcoholic mum years ago: she fell (or was pushed) down the cellar steps. But whodunit? Alex's brainy sister Kate thinks Alex (then a tot) did it. Alex's alcoholic father thinks Kate did it. Many people think Alex's stepmum (then the family's live-in nurse) did it. Alex's memories start to unlock, but suddenly his father is dead of an overdose (suicide? murder?): a suicide note (forged) turns up, various people start confessing (to shield other people), the family doctor is acting strangely. And then, while Dr. Hugh is having trouble protecting (or even seeing) tipped-out, sedated Alex, Hugh's wife Julia also turns up dead. Poor Hugh; he now realizes he never knew Julia--especially when assorted sources (including two suicide notes from Julia herself) reveal her bisexual and homicidal doings. There are a few good scenes along the way--above all the one where grieving Hugh (lower-middle-class) smashes the priceless old port in Julia's posh, inherited wine cellar--and Gloag (Our Mother's House) is an always-professional writer with a convincing feel for what a real psychiatrist sounds like. But by the time most readers wade through all the back-and-forth chatter here, they won't care who did what to whom; and Hugh, a potentially marvelous character, often gets lost and wasted in the over-convoluted mysteriousness. Passable entertainment, perhaps, for mystery fans who dote on a leisurely pace; but Gloag seems to have been trying for a layered, psychological novel-of-character here--an attempt that shines through only in intermittent, unsatisfying glimmers.

Pub Date: June 24, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Dutton

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: June 1, 1980