June 2007

Colleen Mondor

fiction

The Twilight Hour by Elizabeth Wilson

As a longtime fan of European mysteries I was immediately attracted to Elizabeth Wilson’s The Twilight Hour, which is set in post-World War II England. The atmosphere is as much a part of the story as the murder of a down-and-out artist, and the realities of life in a country that won the war but is starving in peace makes for fascinating reading. We are so far removed from 1947 that there is much in Twilight that might seem improbable, even impossible, but life in London truly was difficult, even for those like the novel’s protagonist, Dinah Wentworth. Married to a war vet who made a critically acclaimed documentary, Dinah is solidly upper class and yet now struggles to stay warm and find a decent meal. In the manner of Germans in the 1930s, however, she and her husband Alan, along with his friends, all find ways to drink cheap wine, smoke endless cigarettes, and sit in pubs dreaming up ways to find artistic and financial success. It is only after Dinah scores a job (over her traditional husband’s protests) as a secretary for a businessman friend that the story takes a sharp turn from social satire to murder mystery. While delivering a letter for her boss one evening, Dinah finds a casual acquaintance dead. Her boss doesn’t want her to report the body -- or her presence at the scene -- so she doesn’t.

There is no murderer chasing after witnesses in The Twilight Hour. Rather, the moment Dinah tells her husband what happened the night before and they concoct a story for the police, the novel becomes a painstaking attempt to uncover just who knew what and when. The dead man was once an artist of some note, but he had a lot of enemies and even more bad habits. Anyone, really, could have killed him. But because Dinah didn’t report him dead that first moment, and because she changed her story to protect her boss more than once, it is their friend Colin who ends up getting arrested and put on trial. And even though Dinah and Alan are determined to save him they quickly discover that his politics might make that difficult. Colin is an avowed Communist and while the Russians might have been allies once, now they most certainly are not.

There is a mysterious film actress and lying producer, friends that turn out to be worthless, an illegitimate child, a sudden love affair, a hidden love affair, another death, and allegations of spying during the war. For Dinah, who came from the country to London during the war and never imagined a life among artists and film stars, it is all both dazzling and disturbing. She never planned to put Colin in danger and now finds herself forced to solve the murder in order to save him. But saving Colin might not be the right thing to do if he really was a spy.

I found myself thoroughly pleased both with the way the mystery was solved and the many insights she provided for postwar British life. Oddly, I kept thinking of Dorothy Sayers as I read The Twilight Hour -- not as if the book was written like one of hers, but more as if this was the kind of mystery that would have happened in 1947, unlike all of Sayers’s dandy stories from life before the war. Life was beautiful and well mannered and murders took place in parlors or country houses in the 1920s, but two decades later it was simply cold and dirty and sordid and even though Dinah reads like a Sayers heroine, she is certainly a product of her time. When she discovers the body, Dinah walks up and touches him -- she makes sure he really is dead -- and then she walks away. She has, after all, seen worse during the war. Since the war, nothing seems nearly as awful as it used to.

The jacket copy refers to The Twilight Hour as a, “brooding thriller with a corkscrew twist.” I would certainly echo that sentiment and call it a marvelous whodunit with a startling finish.

The Twilight Hour by Elizabeth Wilson
Serpent’s Tail
ISBN 185242477X
313 pages