Friday 29 May 2020

Forgotten Book - I Love, I Kill

I Love, I Kill, is an absurdly lurid title for a book that isn't at all lurid, by a writer of considerable discernment, John Bingham. It's a novel of psychological suspense and my copy has a cover blurb from Julian Symons praising the subtlety and psychological penetration of his best fiction. This book, however, was published in 1968, at a time when Bingham's powers were beginning to falter. It's extremely interesting (I even found its flaws rather interesting), but I don't think it ranks with his best.

The story is told in the first person and framed, so that the narrator is speaking in the present and looking back on events of the past. We know that someone called Paul King has been killed but we don't know why or by whom. Most of the story takes the form of extended flashbacks as the narrator, Charles Maither, looks back to his first meeting with King, a fellow actor, and how King married the woman that Charles loved, another actor called Shirley. Charles then explains how he conceived a highly elaborate plan to win Shirley back.

It's not a spoiler to say that the plan was for Charles, in his new role as a publicity agent, to help King (a vain and handsome man with limited talent as an actor) to become a success, so that King became bored with dull old Shirley, leaving the way clear for Charles to reclaim her. Of course, things don't go quite the way that Charles planned.

In Michael Jago's interesting biography of Bingham, he says that the publishers were worried that they might be sued for libel by Richard Burton. Maybe Bingham revised the book to address this, because King didn't remind me of Burton at all. Jago also says that the publishers' reader found parts of the story boring. Because I like Bingham's crisp, readable style, I did not have that problem with the book. He was a genuinely engaging stylist in my opinion. A fairer criticism is that he lacked in-depth knowledge of the theatrical background, but on the whole I felt he did enough to make the setting credible.

I did, however, struggle with the premise. Bingham simply didn't make me understand Charles' obsession about Shirley. She is not terribly interesting at any point in the story, while Charlie is unpleasant and at times surprisingly stupid - a big disadvantage with a first person narrator. As for his plan to make Charlie famous and thus get hold of Shirley, I thought it crazy. Nor did the resolution of the murder plot, handled in a very casual way, satisfy me. The structure was clearly designed to build tension - or rather to overcome the inherent lack of tension in the story, but it didn't really work for me. There are some good scenes in which the police interrogate Charlie, but here Bingham was simply repeating what he'd done in more successful books such as My Name is Michael Sibley.

All in all, I can understand why this book didn't do particularly well on its first appearance, and why it has since slipped out of sight. So why did I rather like it, despite its manifest failings. The answer, as I say, is because Bingham knew how to write readable prose and was a talented storyteller. Even though this story isn't a strong one, I raced through it, rather than giving up because I was frustrated by Charlie's behaviour. Which has to be a positive sign.   

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