#733: Minor Felonies – The Way to Sattin Shore (1983) by Philippa Pearce

For one week only, Minor Felonies is going a little bit Domestic Suspense…

The Way to Sattin Shore (1983) isn’t the sort of book that would ordinarily crop up on my radar where juvenile mysteries are concerned. It only came to my attention through a comment left on a post elsewhere on this blog — apologies, recommender, I have tried to search the comments and cannot find you! — and when I stumbled upon it recently I figured that for the serendipity alone it was worth a shot. And while I’m not exactly disappointed that I read it, I have to say that it’s very much not in the style of what I would seek out…though, for all manner of reasons, that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

My interest in juvenile mysteries generally falls at the point where the sleuths themselves are callow versions of the detectives who so captivate me elsewhere: independent, crusading, bordering on the brainiac, perhaps able to exploit some nepotism — Ken Holt’s reporter father, Jupiter Jones’ easy access to materials — in order to pursue their ends. Sattin Shore presents both a very different protagonist and a very different milieu with Catharine ‘Kate’ Tranter and the familial setting that holds her fast throughout. Indeed, one of the most successful elements of this book is how naturally Pearce paints the home life of Kate, her older brothers Lenny and Ran, her mother, and her grandmother in whose house they all live…and, actually, I found myself wishing that a little more of this naturalism could be found in the mysteries I’ve read elsewhere, because it’s rather delightful.

Which is not to say ‘twee’ in the least: while there are no pyrotechnics within the family group, things are also far from ideal: throughout, a sense of reluctance regarding Granny Randall persists — we open with Kate, home from school trying to creep past the “beam of darkness” represented by the open door to Granny’s room — and Kate’s mother is at once a patient woman who has raised three children and an exhausted adult who is on the verge of said patience slipping while also maintaining the facade:

“Ran is in the wrong. But you were very silly, Kate.” That was all. Mrs. Tranter’s way had never been to question, wonder, discuss. Kate was left to the privacy of her feelings.

Pearce is also good at the slow heartbreak of Kate’s relationship with eldest Ran splintering apart as their difference in ages and interests begins to make itself felt — see his calm response to her tears early on, where before he would have sought to console her, and then her delight when he’s making pancakes, or agrees to go on a bicycle ride with her. A sense of being alien to each other, and yet desperately wanting to not be, persists with the lightest of touches here and there, just a nudge to keep that ball rolling until such time as the reasons start to come out.

“Ball…?”

If anything, the care given to the various relationships in the narrative — Kate and her school friend Anna, Kate and her cat Syrup, Mrs. Tranter and Granny Randall, plus others that emerge as more characters enter the plot — mangle the precise focus of this, and leave me wondering quite what it’s supposed to be. Not that everything has to fit a single genre box neatly, but there’s too much character to call it a straight mystery, and too much mystery to recommend it as a novel about being young and feeling out of place, and too little narrative closure to provide the reassuring answers that typically mark out books of this type. Indeed, come the end and the various ramifications of the plot threads that emerge, any reader old enough to appreciate what’s happened will surely be left with a lot of questions about what just went down…

But, to that Domestic Suspense.

You’ll notice that the Tranter menage does not contain a father, and this is because — Kate has discovered prior to the book starting — Fred Tranter died on the day Kate herself was born and is buried in the nearby churchyard. She likes, at times, to visit his grave and is shocked when, a few days after Granny Randall receives a mysterious letter, the gravestone disappears. Since the topic of her father has never really been up for discussion in the household, Kate decides to find out herself what’s going on. And some of what she discovers — duhn, duhn, duuuuuhn — will cause reverberations she, and the family at large, might not be ready for.

It’s an interesting idea, but it develops v-e-r-y-s-l-o-w-l-y, a factor not helped by Kate herself not really being an active investigator in the classic style: generally, she asks people a question and then sits there while they happily hold forth at great length on the precise thing she wants to know, or she happens to overhear a conversation in sufficient detail that equally answers the questions she has to that point. Or she runs into people who already know everything, and they tell her stuff unprompted. One could, and perhaps should, argue that such an approach has about it a more naturalistic air where investigation by a younger person is concerned, and the small matter of actual detection plots for younger readers being out of vogue for quite some time when this was published, but if it’s naturalism Pearce was going for, it all falls in a very convenient manner. Sure, detective plots are themselves inherently false, but that’s part of the fun: you sign up to fiction because real life doesn’t quite provide the necessary ingredients to be thrilling on its own.

“…ball?”

However, the sense of the unspoken being a thing that is both desirable and frightening is well-worked. It gets a little ‘New York socialite terrorised in an abandoned apartment building’ at times (“She looked, and her eyes met other eyes, through the shadowy gap of the door. Too dark to see the face properly; but she knew it was there, because the eyes looked at her.”), but there’s a palpable sense of things adults know and seek to keep from children for their own good. Plus, and it’s a big plus, you rarely go more then three pages without Pearce writing a truly arresting sentence or communicating a piquant idea with almost incandescently brilliant ease:

But, through the deepening dusk, footsteps were coming to the house, converging on it from different directions, coming home.

All of which, in many ways, makes the eventual resolutions rather difficult to take. Sure, Pearce isn’t exhibiting some sort of morality play, and we’re obviously not in a corner of the Mystery genre that’s too concerned with the status quo, but if you’re going to use words like “importunate” in your prose, you’re clearly expecting your audience to be capable of paying attention to thing like the frankly awful presentation of a marriage or the small mater of an Anthony Berkeley-esque final development played with a face so straight that there’s almost something noble intended in the sourness it invokes. “[T]hings often do connect. They fit together. In the end, everything has to make sense” a character says at one point, which would be a delicious irony for some authors, but I get the impression Pearce means this, as everything else herein, sincerely.

If you’ve read this, you might feel I’ve missed the point, but then I’d be curious as to what you feel the point of it all is. For all its wonderful prose and the effortless way Pearce captures the delighted and frustrating air of old childhood, the themes that touch on more grown up concerns give contrary implications that leave a stuttering hole at the core of the narrative. I certainly wouldn’t say I’m sorry I read it, but I don’t know who I’d recommend it to — older kids and adults will have waaaaay too many questions about the moral and emotional matters raised, and younger kids probably wouldn’t pick up on all that and so the neatly imbricated layers of emotional resonance would be wasted on them. In the end, it’s probably more Anthony Berkeley than anyone else: experimental, not entirely successful, and likely to frustrate as much as it delights.

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