Friday 25 October 2019

Forgotten Book - A Case in Nullity

Evelyn Berckman is a writer whom I've only started to read in the past year or so. She was an American who moved to London after earlier having a career as a pianist and composer; she only embarked on a new career as a crime writer in the mid-Fifties, when she herself was in her mid-fifties. Her fiction was quite diverse, and she also wrote books about naval history. It may be that her failure to focus on a memorable series character has contributed to her neglect in recent years, but she could write very well.

A Case in Nullity is an example of the way she takes an interesting scenario, of the kind that you might find in many a novel of psychological suspense, and turns it into a novel of character, where development and revelation of character is at least as important as development of the plot. Actually, I'm not sure whether she was really very interested in plot, but even if (like me) you are, don't allow that to discourage you from looking at her work.

This is, on the surface, a variation on a classic woman-in-jeopardy theme. Auriol makes an unsatisfactory marriage, and when she seeks an annulment, because her husband refuses to have sex with her, he embarks on a malevolent campaign of persecution. The suspense builds well, as Auriol's situation becomes increasingly desperate.

Yet it becomes clear in the closing pages that Berckman's real interest is in the effect of the events of the story on her people. This book was first published in 1967, the year that homosexual acts were decriminalised in Britain, and attitudes towards (and on the part of) gay and lesbian people are central to Berckman's concerns. It must have seemed very "cutting edge" when it was written. Today, some of the attitudes portrayed seem questionable and dated, but even so, I found this an intriguing and unusual story. 

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