Friday, 4 November 2016

Forgotten Book - Dawn of Reckoning

Dawn of Reckoning, by James Hilton, definitely qualifies as a Forgotten Book. Originally publisheed in 1925, it's not really a crime novel. When it was issued in paperback (following Hilton's rise to fame in the 30s) it was, significantly, produced in an orange rather than a green Penguin edition. Hilton did venture once into the field of detection, at first under a pen-name, Glen Trevor,, but he was not primarily a mystery writer.

He was, however, an accomplished mainstream novelist, and books like Goodbye, Mr Chips and Lost Horizon were hugely successful. He had a real gift, not least for conveying emotion. Interestingly, in 1941 Dawn of Reckoning was (very, very freely, I understand) adapted into an American film noir called Rage in Heaven: the screenplay was co-written by Christopher Isherwood, and the impressive cast was led by Robert Montgomery, Ingrid Bergman and George Sanders. I'd like to see the film one day.

Hilton was in his early twenties when he wrote this book, and it shows. There are many clues to his rich storytelling talent, but there is still something not entirely satisfactory about the story. We begin with a boat trip taken by Mrs Monsell and her son Philip, which is rudely interrupted by an attempted suicide .A young Hungarian girl has tried to kill herself, but she is rescued, Mrs Monsell takes a shine to her, and brings her back to England. The girl, given the name Stella, settles into British life and she and Philip take a fancy to each other.

Eventually, the pair marry, and Philip plans to embark on a career in politics. Things start to get complicated when his old friend from student days, Ward, re-enters his life. Stella and Ward become emotionally entangled, and at a late point in the book, there is a sudden death. A murder trial follows, and there is also a race against time to prevent injustice - these are the elements in the story familiar to crime fans, though they are clearly peripheral to Hilton's main concerns, and have a slightly tacked-on feel. The material is strong, but handled unevenly, almost as if the young author lost interest in the characters who are important early on, notably Mrs Monsell, and turned his attention to other aspects of his story. A flawed novel, then, but one that provides an interesting insight into the literary apprenticeship of one of Britain's premier popular novelists of the Thirties.

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