A Fragment of Fear was published in 1965. At the time, the author, John Bingham, was riding high. He was lauded by leading reviewers such as Julian Symons and Francis Iles, as well as by his friend and former colleague John Le Carre. A couple of his books had been adapted for television and this one was made into a feature film starring David Hemmings. I reviewed the movie version back in 2018 and I've finally got round to reading the book.
The novel reminds me of the books of Cornell Woolrich and, to some extent, of Boileau and Narcejac in the way it places the protagonist in a nightmarish situation. It's a psychological thriller with more than a touch of paranoia about it. The protagonist and narrator, Compton, is a writer, though his writing doesn't play much of a part in the story. We begin in Italy, with the death of an elderly lady at Pompeii and a mysterious message on a wreath. Compton starts to wonder if she was murdered.
When he gets back to England, he starts to investigate, but a sequence of strange events occur, and soon he begins to doubt his own sanity. And he's not the only one. I don't want to say too much about the storyline that unfolds, for fear of spoilers, but it's certainly tantalising. I think that - as is so often the case with Woolrich's novels - the build-up is much more impressive than the finale, but it's definitely a book that I was glad to read.
Bingham had some interesting ideas, and although his execution of them was variable in terms of quality, there is something 'different' about his work that sets it apart from the ordinary run of crime fiction. Unfortunately, this novel was his last major success. His subsequent work was mixed, but on the whole rather less impressive. I'm not quite sure why he struggled to sustain his standards. Possibly it was because he didn't always make the most of his ideas, or explore the full potential of his characters. There are hints of this weakness even in a generally successful book like A Fragment of Fear, especially with the rather rushed and unsatisfactory last few pages. But I think it's a pity that his work is so rarely discussed nowadays. He is well worth reading.