DEATH'S DARKEST FACE by Julian Symons

DEATH'S DARKEST FACE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

In the 1960's, journeyman actor Geoffrey Elder attempts to reconstruct his past and sort out an old, never-solved mystery--in a dense, seductive narrative that alternates between Geoffrey's adult sleuthing and his recollections of an upper-middle-class 1930's adolescence. Geoffrey's investigation is triggered by a visit from the would-be biographer of dashing young poet Hugo Headley, who disappeared from a seaside Kent resort in 1936. Was it murder, suicide, or a willful vanishing act? No one could ever say. But the biographer now claims, 30 years later, that he has evidence suggesting that Geoffrey's father Harold murdered poet Headley--perhaps because of blackmail (or rivalry) over 19-year-old Melissa Paten, lovely daughter of Harold's business-partner. So a shocked Geoffrey starts reconstructing that luxurious, turbulent seaside-summer in '36. He seeks information from his actress-aunt (once Headley's mistress), from Melissa herself (now middle-aged), and others. He checks out the biographer's sources of evidence--and tangles with a nasty knot of would-be blackmailers. Above all, however, he remembers: his own hopless crush on Melissa; his brutal disillusionment about his mother (whom he catches in adulterous flagrante delicto); his changing perception of stolid father Harold--who turned out to have a checkered past. And finally, after uncovering far grislier family-secrets during his 1960's sleuthing, Geoffrey (an understandably neurotic fellow) ends up sadder and wiser, in-the-know about whodunit. . .or so he thinks. Symons, you see, adds an extra twist here: an epilogue that reviews Geoffrey Elder's manuscript and comes up with a different, much trickier solution (reminiscent of Agatha Christie). It's a bravura finish to an only so-so plot: Geoffrey's coming-of-age traumas are somewhat overfamiliar, and the pacing's a bit uncertain, with too much revealed too soon. Still, it' not on the sublime level of The Blackheath Poisonings, this is superior psychological suspense--gravely ironic, richly peopled, and stylishly atmospheric.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1990
Publisher: Viking