Friday 6 October 2017

Forgotten Book - The Bornless Keeper

I can remember looking at a copy of The Bornless Keeper in my local library at Northwich, not long after it was first published in 1974. The storyline on the dust jacket seemed quite interesting, but veering more towards the horror genre than crime. I didn't borrow it, and I've only recently, after all these years, come into possession of a copy.

One thing that intrigued me was that the jacket said that the Yuill name was "a pseudonym. The author does not want his real identity disclosed." A little later, Yuill produced a series of three very different books about a private eye called James Hazell. I did read those, and very entertaining they were. What's more, they were adapted for television ,with Nicholas Ball playing Hazell. And the authors were revealed to be Gordon Williams and the former footballer (who also became England football manager) Terry Venables.

The Bornless Keeper, however, was written by Williams on his own. And the copy I've acquired actually bears his signature. Williams is an unsung figure in the annals of crime fiction, and I've only just discovered that he died recently, in August. He received very respectful obituaries, but perhaps less attention than you might expect given that one of his novels was shortlisted for the very first Booker Prize. His output of fact and fiction was extremely varied - he ventured into science fiction at one point and apparently also wrote pseudonymous thrillers - and he scripted the TV version of Ruth Rendell's Tree of Hands. But he said he'd become bored with writing novels.

At his peak, though, he was a fine novelist. He was a Scot, but for a while he and his wife lived in rural Devon, and while there he wrote a novel set in the area, The Siege of Trencher's Farm, famously turned by Sam Peckinpah into the violent and controversial  Straw Dogs. Peacock Island, the setting for The Bornless Keeper, was evidently based on Brownsea Island. Williams writes evocatively about place, and numerous small touches reveal that this is an author of considerable distinction.

A weird creature seems to be running amok on the island, prompting locals on the mainland to recall the legend of the mysterious Bornless Keeper. For years, one wealthy woman has lived on the island as a recluse. But now the place seems to have been taken over by a grotesque beast with homicidal tendencies. Despite the horrific and supernatural trappings, this is indeed a crime novel, and the depiction of tensions between the investigating police officers is one of its strengths. The jacket blurb suggests that Yuill was contemplating more books, and it may be that this was meant to be the start of a series, before he decided to collaborate with Venables on the Hazell stories instead.

The inquiry is complicated by the intervention of a TV crew, who want to make a film set on the island. I didn't find their activities quite so compelling, and you don't have to be excessively sensitive to find the presentation of the female lead character unpleasant. It's a reminder that attitudes in the Seventies were very different from those prevailing today. The Bornless Keeper is an odd book, not quite like anything I've read, and far less conventional than the Hazell trilogy. But it's certainly readable, and Williams' work in the genre does not deserve the neglect into which it has fallen.


Margaret @ BooksPlease said...

What a very interesting post! And what an interesting life Williams had. I did enjoy the TV version of the Hazell books, which I haven't read. I'm not sure I'd like The Bornless Keeper, the horrific elements bother me, but I'll certainly look out for it.

Martin Edwards said...

Thanks, Margaret Yes, it's a curate's egg of a book really, though with enough positive elements to make me glad I've read it. But it certainly won't be everyone's cup of tea.

J F Norris said...

Not a fan of this book at all. It belongs with all that sordid exploitation pop fiction and schlock movies from the 1970s. The gore, the rape, the rancid misogyny... Bleeh. The twist at the end is anti-climactic, too. I guess I've read to much of this kind of thing and seen hundreds of similar plots in horror movies. I knew the ending by about the third chapter. I know a lot of horror fiction fans who love this book, but I don't count myself among them. I did enjoy the contrast between the stubborn old veteran cop and the younger, creative, out-of-the-box thinking policeman -- that was the only thing that kept my invested. The movie crew subplot and that basket of stereotypical characters are the weakest elements of the book. Amazing that Williams wrote a book that is the antithesis of this one -- almost a feminist crime novel -- HAZELL PLAYS SOLOMON which is much, MUCH better than BORNLESS KEEPER. I highly recommended the HAZELL mystery novel. This one is for lurid horror fans only.

Anonymous said...

One of my favourite crime novels.

I’ve read it a couple of times and two references come to mind - one is the marvellous Wicker Man, and the other is an obscure horror film which made a greater impression on me than it ought to have, paranoiac, written by Jimmy Sangster, starring Oliver Reed (who hams it up splendidly) and to my more recent surprise thanks to google, based on Bratt Farrar by Josephine Tey.

Both films are in the horror genre and this as you rightly say is where this book lies, but it also sits firmly in the crime storiy genre as well. Another comparison might be with the more supernatural of Hubbard’s novels.

He ghost wrote autobiographies for footballers such as Venables and Bobby Moore, wrote the Hazel series, did the screen writing for Rendells Tree Of Hands, had a part in a documentary move of the boxer Randolph Turpin’s life, and also wrote one of the great Scottish novels of the twentieth century, ‘From scenes like these’.

Strange that he is so little known.

GML said...

Does Hazell appear in the Bornless Keeper?

Martin Edwards said...

No, though some sources suggest he does