Monday, October 6, 2014

Innocent Victims

Warning - spoilers

How reliable is any narrator?  I enjoy books, particularly mysteries, told by an unreliable narrator, but isn't any non-omniscient narrator at least somewhat unreliable?  Minette Walters's novels (with the exception of The Chameleon's Shadow) aren't exactly unreliable, but they're working with limited information.  Innocent Victims isn't a novel but a pair of novellas, both written as Book Week promotions but with different purposes.  Chickenfeed, the fictionalized retelling of a 1924 murder case, is a quick read meant to encourage less-fluent readers into trying fiction.  It's a testament to Walters' skill that I didn't notice how simple the vocabulary and structure were until I read The Tinder Box, which was written to tempt readers into trying new genres.

Chickenfeed's main narrator is Norman Thorne, a teenager recently demobbed from WWI who catches the eye of Elsie Cameron, a volatile and unstable young woman.   When he loses his job as a mechanic, he decides to open a chicken farm several miles from London, and they plan to marry once the farm is successful.  Norman had bought his farm impulsively, though, and two years later, it's still losing money.  Worse than that, he's fallen out of love with Elsie (if he ever was in love with her) and in love with Bessie Coldicott while Elsie's letters and occasional visits show her declining mental state.  One winter night, Elsie, who'd convinced herself she was pregnant, traveled to Norman's farm where she was discovered hanging from the rafters in his shack.  Norman claimed that he'd been out and that Elsie had probably mean to scare him but had accidentally knocked over the chair she was standing on and died as a result.  Was that the truth?  Maybe - he kept to his story through the investigation and his trial, but how believable is that story?

Siobhan Lavenham can't reliably narrate The Tindebox because she's been lied to.  Her neighbor, Patrick O'Riordan allegedly killed an old women for whom he made some repairs and her nurse, and partially at Patrick's mother's request, Siobhan became his only defender.  It's easy for her, actually - although she's lace curtain and the O'Riordans are clearly shanty, Biddy O'Riordan appealed to Siobahn's Irishness - and the dead woman's heirs were unpleasant and bigoted.  What Biddy didn't do was tell Siobahn Patrick's violent history or how she and her husband became disabled. Eventually, the O'Riordan's deceptions and a series of misunderstandings between Siobhan and her other neighbors led to tragedy, but, as we find out, the victims and criminals are not whom we suspect.

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