Review of Closed at Dusk

Originally published in June 2004.
Book 20 in my first 52 books challenge.

Author: Monica Dickens
Year published: 1990
Where got: Bookstore (sale)
Genre: Thriller, mystery

I was going to read Umberto Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum as this week’s book, but I’m too busy right now to read such a long and dense text in only one week. Instead I have switched to another mystery that is shorter and less demanding.

I’ve read several of Monica Dickens’ children’s books and the autobiographical book One Pair of Feet, about her experiences as a nursing student during World War 2. It will be interesting to see how I like her adult fiction.

The story:
This is not a mystery as I first thought it was, but a thriller, or perhaps it might be called an insider mystery, as the reader knows who the villain is nearly the whole time. In this particular edition, the blurb cleverly gives a hint, but I at least didn’t catch on to it until I reached the chapter where the villain’s identity is revealed, and then I turned to the blurb and went “a-ha!”

Through the first chapters of the book we are gradually introduced to a family, some who live at a mansion called The Sanctuary, the rest coming there often to spend time with the family. The gardens are open to the public, because, as with many of Britain’s old landed families, they can’t afford to keep the gardens in shape without the entry fees from the public. When mysterious, apparently supernatural events start taking place, no one is sure what is happening and The Sanctuary seems posed to turn into a haunted house.

The technical points:
The story is quite well written, and the twists well worked out. It starts rather slowly, with a bit of underlying menace that is introduced through a nervous child who gets scared of the smallest things.

Unfortunately the character development is not quite as good as it should be. None of the victims in the story are really drawn as sympathetic characters. They are, in fact, rather colourless - not unsympathetic, just bland. They are so harmless and normal that you almost feel as if they deserve to be shaken up a bit, but only almost.

The villain, or should I say villainess, is the most strongly drawn character, and you do almost feel sorry for her, even if her revenge scheme is rather on the extreme side. But of course she is insane, so it no wonder. There were times when I wanted to reach out and stop her, help her to forget about her crazy scheme and get on with her life. She does become less sympathetic as the story draws nearer to the end and her scheming becomes more extreme.

This was not what I expected – I had been expecting a mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie, and this thriller element was quite unexpected, but not unpleasantly so. Dickens gives the villainess real reasons and motives and shows us her innermost feelings and thoughts, enabling us to feel sorry for her, instead of simply portraying her as an unsympathetic, rampaging madwoman like many writers would have.

A good psycho thriller, where the villain is actually shown as a real person rather than the pure evil some authors might have been tempted to write. 3 stars.

P.S. There’s nothing like a case of the flu to keep you indoors and reading when the weather is sunny and warm. At least I’ve finished the book of the week a couple of days ahead of schedule.


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