17/07/2005

Call in the Night

This is one of Susan Howatch's early 'Gothic' novels - there are six of them in all. They're short, less than 200 pages, each, and nothing like as powerful as her later family sagas and the Starbridge series. Nevertheless, they're well-written and suspenseful without being ghastly. I read this book in about three hours this afternoon and didn't find it disturbing at all, despite not being much of a thriller reader. The genre is more like Mary Stewart's thrillers than a modern one, based as it is in the pre-computer pre-mobile phone era, where long distance calls had to be done via an operator and were extremely expensive.

This story starts with Clare Sullivan (who narrates the book in the first person) receiving an anguished phone call in New york from her sister Gina, who is in London. The call is stopped abruptly, and Gina apparently vanishes. Clare's intuition tells her something is badly wrong, so she flies first to Paris, then on to London, and finds herself quickly embroiled in a dangerous and worrying set of circumstances.

Showing a distinct flair that comes out more strongly in the later novels, Susan Howatch manages to build up suspense by Clare's research: she meets people who know something about Gina, or what's happened to her, and they give their perspective. Each time we learn a little more although we're not entirely sure who can be trusted until the end. The climax of the book is highly dramatic, perhaps somewhat over melodramatic, but in context it appears entirely possible - another sign of a great writer!

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