Murder Most Foul

Before you even turn The Girls over to read the blurbs on the back or open to read the publisher’s description on the inside jacket, you know you’re in for a lovely, barbed treat. The cover illustration is by Edward Gorey and that means you can expect sly wit and unusual mayhem.

Susan and Janet have lived a harmonious and very busy life for almost a decade near a picturesque English village doing picturesque things to stock their odd little shop in town. They keep free-range chickens and bees, sew and cobble.  The store is filled with their fresh eggs; jams, preserves, and chutney; honey combs; clogs; home-made aprons and cloth belts; their prize-winning elderflower wine–and even labor-intensive goat cheeses.

The two women have a busy and apparently satisfying life until Susan goes off to Greece to find herself and something unusual finds Janet: a one-night stand that leaves her pregnant.  It’s her first time with a man, so that’s either luck or misfortune, how she and Susan react is worthy of a miniseries.

Bowen is absolutely brilliant when it comes to charting the highs and lows of an intimate relationship, the swift changes of mood minute-by-minute as well as over months and even years.  He finds comedy there, and tragedy too.

The writing throughout is rich with color in descriptions of flowers, shrubs, flowering trees, do-dads and knickknacks, and the narrator is like a deadpan story-teller trying hard not to smirk because she knows you’re going to be surprised and doesn’t want to give anything away.  I had to read passages aloud to my spouse because they were so amusing, as when Bowen writes that “the sound of raindrops on the window was like hundreds of old gentlemen rustling the pages of the Financial Times.”

At times you may feel like you’re in wacky P.G. Wodehouse territory: the adventures of an escaped pig which will surely make you laugh aloud.  At others, you’re entering the realm of Patricia Highsmith where the quotidian is most definitely going to be exploded.  I was also reminded of Stella Gibbons’ satirical Cold Comfort Farm, but Bowen has his own voice here and his own style because his narrator is so wonderfully intrusive and even challenging.

Special kudos have to go to the book designer: The Girls isn’t just a pleasure to read, it’s a distinct pleasure just to hold in your hands.  Readers should be grateful for the publisher’s mission to reprint forgotten novels that deserve new audiences–and do so with elegance and style.  This is must read for anyone who’s a fan of British fiction, crime fiction, and comic stories set in supposedly bucolic towns. ★★★★★ 

Lev Raphael has reviewed books for The Washington Post, The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report and several public radio stations.

Sarah Perry’s Debut Novel is Wonderfully Bizarre


It’s a blistering summer in London after months of drought. Birds are dying in the street and people are fleeing the city for anyplace cooler. One of them is bookseller John Cole whose business has either collapsed or never been successful from the beginning. 

Unable to bear the heat, Cole leaves London, but he forgets his directions to his brother’s seaside home, has no GPS, gets lost and ends up at a house that is so creepy it might as well be haunted.

That house is dilapidated and inhabited by a motley assortment of people who could be refugees from the drought or former patients of a mental institution–or both.  One of them is obsessed by the possible collapse of a nearby dam and inspects it nude at midnight, another is a pastor who has lost his faith in God–or so he says.  Then there’s the mystery woman whom Cole instantly loathes and someone else who tries corrupting the pastor as if it’s a game.  Everyone there seems to see the world and themselves askew–or have some kind of secret.

The house is filled with strange rooms, strange packages, and these strange people, but the strangest of all is probably the man writing about his experiences among them: Cole.

Wandering from his abandoned car, he’s been cheerfully greeted as if he was expected but soon realizes that everyone’s mistaking him for someone with a similar name. Questions proliferate: What was the peculiar assemblage waiting for? Why does Cole continue to pretend to be someone else? Why not go back to his car and drive home?  What’s causing his crippling migraines? Does he really have a stutter and memory problems? Or is he actually mentally unstable?  Can we believe anything he says or is he hallucinating?  After all, when he comes upon the house that seems hidden in the woods, he says “It seemed to me the most real and solid thing I’d ever seen, and at the same time only a trick of my sight in the heat.”  Cole keeps referencing the heat and his exhaustion as if they’re inimical and malignant forces bent on torturing him.

The author has said she’s delighted that the book raises so many questions and has so many possible interpretations. 

This eerie, hypnotic novel is not as large in scope as Perry’s later books Melmoth and The Essex Serpent, but it’s just as captivating. And she’s as masterful a creepy story teller as Patrica Highsmith and Stephen King, both of whom seem to be just around the corner on every page.  It’s a gripping, haunting puzzle, mixing mystery and surrealism in beautiful proportions.

Lev Raphael has reviewed for the Detroit Free Press, The Washington Post and three Michigan public radio stations, one of which hosted his author interview show.