C. S Forester isn’t a name I associate with crime fiction. I know him mainly in connection with naval and historical novels, in particular the Hornblower series. But it seemed at early in his career when he was struggling to make his name, he wrote a few crime novels that were darker than the usual fare presented to British readers in between the two world wars.
One of these was not discovered for seventy years but was published by Penguin Modern Classics in 2011 when they also reissued Payment Deferred (1926) and Plain Murder (1930). The Pursued, which he wrote in 1935, is a domestic drama entered on Marjorie, an ordinary housewife in a London suburb whose love for her husband Ted has degenerated so much she can barely tolerate him. Returning home one evening she discovers the babysitter, her young sister Dot, dead in the kitchen, her head inside the gas oven. The death is marked down as a suicide. But Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, a resolute and quick-witted woman, are not convinced. Dot they discover was pregnant yet she’d never hinted to anyone she was seeing a man. Then Marjorie’s four year old son makes an innocent remark that gets the two women thinking and soon convinces them that the loathsome Ted is a murderer. While Mrs Clair plots revenge Marjorie falls in love with George, a gentle and naive young man who is discovering passion for the first time in his life. Can Marjorie escape Ted’s domineering, abusive ways and escape to a new life with George?
In The Pursued the domestic drudgery of Marjorie’s everyday life is imagined in minute detail – the washing, cooking, shopping, – in contrast to the flash of bloody violence which happens in the final quarter of the novel. Forester gives us a fascinating piece of social history. It’s an era when independent career minded women like Marjorie’s spinster friends, are beginning to emerge, providing a sharp contrast to her own world of domestic duties and male dominance. Some of the narrative does sound a little dated – terms of endearment like dear and darling sound oddly unconvincing to our modern ears. But there are many reminders of the difficulties faced by women at this time – always under the scrutiny of neighbours alert to any signs of slipping standards, expected to have a hot lunch on the table every day even if money is short and expected to dress in a particular way befitting their age (no decent woman should be seen walking hatless down the street). More telling is that without independent means of income, Marjorie is trapped in her marriage to Ted however demanding and abusive he is. This is a novel whose impact is enhanced by Forester’s portrayal of a claustrophic world and sexual politics.
It’s a reasonable enough crime story (though you have to read it with a large suspension of disbelief) but works excellently as a piece of social history.