I don’t know for sure where I first heard of Grieve for the Past (1963) by Stanton Forbes, but I’m willing to believe it was John’s enthusiastic write-up at Pretty Sinister. And I can well see the reasons for his enthusiasm: when you’ve read as widely in the genre as he has, something a little out of the ordinary is bound to appeal.
The core plot here sees 15 year-old Ramona Shaw living out a baking hot summer in Wichita, in one of the years “part way in between the depression and World War II”. Surrounded by a coterie of familiar friends, neighbours, and family, Ramona’s status quo is disrupted by the appearance of the handsome 24 year-old Maurice Stone, who moves into a nearby house that has a reputation for being haunted. Immediately drawn to this older man, Ramona inveigles her way into Maurice’s life by helping him find a job and arranging to meet him (alone) to watch the Fourth of July fireworks together — an appointment he misses. When it transpires that the reclusive, worry-prone elderly Mrs. Kirsten and her son Herschel were murdered during the fireworks display, suspicion naturally points its finger in many directions…eventually coming to rest on the interloper Maurice Stone.
I say the “core” plot because Grieve for the Past isn’t really a murder mystery per se. The real focus of the book is Ramona’s own emotional awakening, her learning to see certain things with other than a child’s eyes, and the consequences of the decisions she and others make in the context of the wider community. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the theme of Othering and The Outsider looms large, with Maurice and Ramona both made to feel as if they are unwelcome in the lives they inhabit, albeit from differing perspectives and from different ends:
This was the way everybody treated me, as if they were saying inside, Isn’t that nice? The child has ambition. She’ll learn, of course. She’ll find out. She’ll find out that wanting is not getting.
Plot fiend that I am, Grieve for the Past should not work for me. It falls somewhere between the domestic suspense of Margaret Millar on which I gorged as a young man discovering the uncanny shivers of the 1950s and the coming-of-age hard-edged tweeness of To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) and other, less hackneyed, examples. A lot of time is spent on Ramona trying to understand the relationships that she observes without ever really understanding. When attraction seems to spring up between Maurice and a local teacher, Ramona’s jealousy will feel all-too-familiar to those of us who have had romantic intentions quashed in the past. Equally, see the behaviour of the various boys burgeoning on manhood — as well as a few predatory men — who surround her, and her own feelings towards them: at once drawn to them and yet finding them oddly repellent. She is baffled by the attitudes of her friends Genevieve and Caroline Coleman, who welcome the attention of boys they don’t necessarily like — or at least claim not to — just as she is confounded by the various filial and financial arrangements of the adults on her street. Ramona is an outsider, about to find herself very much on the inside of something terrible.
Read as a story of crime and detection, this is a complete bust. Just over halfway through, Ramona makes a list of seventeen suspects and, despite several conversations with the sheriff and others, makes very little headway in investigation these people until the killer unmasks themself to her in a way that ends up oddly unresolved. Don’t pick this up expecting clever clues, or the canny realisation of how kids can detect what adults cannot which drives the best of Enid Blyton’s Five Find-Outers books or genre classic Home Sweet Homicide (1944) by Craig Rice. What Forbes — a nom de plume for Deloris Stanton — has written is far more about the effect of violent crime in an otherwise dull environment, the human emotions evoked as a result, and the frank confusion — felt by all of us fighting through the hormone-infested waters of our teenage years — that Ramona is warring with while also trying, and at times failing, to find space and time for these larger world concerns.
What hurt most was that sometimes I felt beautiful. It didn’t seem fair that I should feel beautiful and not be beautiful.
Taken on its own terms, Grieve for the Past is quietly magnificent, and I’m as surprised as anyone to find me, of all people, saying that. I wouldn’t want to read too much of this sort of thing in my lifetime, but the sense of community, of cohesion, and of questing impatience Ramona feels while eager to break out of what is essentially a protective shell is nothing new in this type of story, but somehow Forbes makes the air shimmer in the heat, the wheat chafe at your legs as you cross the fields, and the frustrations that surround Big Life Events feel so rich and important that you really embed yourself in this community and the happiness of the people comprising it. That Ramona is keen to be a writer, and her family seem to have a horror of her “imagination” and thus try to keep events from her, only adds to the hazy nature of these recollections, and gives this a sense of…if not exactly unreliable narration, at least something closer to the fallibility of memory that would have enriched Five Little Pigs (1942) by Agatha Christie no end.
I’ll keep this relatively short today, since don’t want to over-analyse this. It stands out as an unexpectedly joyous left-turn in my reading so far this year despite, or perhaps on account of, being not even slightly the sort of thing I was expecting nor would normally choose to read. I picked it up suspecting that it contained a mystery — and the scene of the murder itself is ghoulish enough for most, but the cover claim of “a secret more terrifying than a double axe murder” is the hoggiest of washes — and ended up reading something that reminded me so piquantly of the terrors and tribulations of one’s late teenage years that it rocked me back on my heels at times. There’s enough of the aching itch that seems to predominate that time of life, the desire to be treated like an adult and to be aware of what adults do and know and say, only to perhaps realise that you’ve wanted too much and it’s now too late to back out of what you’ve encountered, to make you heavy with recognition.
I couldn’t even begin to think who I’d recommend this book to, but if you’re willing to stick with it, I’m prepared to say that you’ll find something very special within. The only problem is a finding a damn copy…