“Each age creates God in its own image and now God had become the supreme psychiatrist”
Set some time after the second world war, probably in the late 50s or early 60s, Visitors To The Crescent is a dark novel. Hocking presents a world of ordinary people, going about their small daily lives, but beneath the surface pleasantries, almost everyone is either unaware of their own, troubled psychology, or, too aware of it for comfort and making valiant attempts to keep the lights of their rationality on at all times, so they can be aware of the rustlings of things they might need to see in order to firmly restrain. There are also those who take joy only in their own propensity for violence and sociopathy.
There are three sets of central protagonists, and the main setting for the major groups is in West London
There are the residents of 10, Cedar Crescent, owned by Jessica Holt, a writer of books for children. She lives on one floor and lets out the other two floors. Paddy Brett is a bit of a louche, easy come, easy go good time girl. Edward Saneck, secretive and tortured, rents another floor, and also a basement which is used for storage. And Jessica and Edward have entered into a relationship which is on one level based on the fact that both of them are both lonely, private, and have different reasons for avoiding emotional intimacy. Sexual intimacy can be engaged in, emotional intimacy is off-limits
Saneck also connects with the second group of protagonists. He part shares ownership of an antique shop with George Vickers. Vickers, like Saneck, has other agendas. Vickers engages in rather shady activities with joy, whereas Saneck does so through some kind of hold exerted over him.
The time and place of the territory of the book is the Cold War. The subject matter is espionage and criminality. But this is not the world of fervent political beliefs, of hidden ideologies in high places. These are small players, who have been drawn into large games in the main by meaner motives.
Man is an experiment which has failed” the man was saying, “But he is determined to take everything with him when his appointed end comes; he is inventing weapons which will destroy not only himself….
A break-in at the antique shop brings the third group of players onto the scene – higher echelons of the police force than would be expected for such a small crime. Scotland Yard, in the guise of Superintendent Harper and Inspector MacLeish, rather than the local police station, leads the investigation.
The major ‘shadow’ which Harper, MacLeish and Vickers either struggle against, or willingly embrace, is a tendency to violence; even an acknowledged enjoyment in violence. Even some of the more minor players in Hocking’s book flicker with a barely hidden tendency towards savagery and brutality.
The man to whom he was talking was staring out of the window at the dishevelled garden. The garden had responded in a muddled, untidy way to the touch of spring but the face of the man belonged to winter: bloodless, the skin stretched transparent across the sharp cheekbones, the eyes bleak and the lips bleached, it was a face wintered to the bone
What unites Jessica and Saneck is that both of them, in different ways have tendencies more towards being the ones bullied and exploited, rather than the ones who exert the force of their personalities on others
Hocking’s book is far less focused on the thriller aspects of an espionage novel – her interest is in psychology; it is the interior which drives the external events, and, even when external events happen to her characters, how they respond, their feelings and thinkings, is where her attention lies.
But now, as the sun fell behind the tall buildings and the long city twilight set in, the choice ceased to present itself as a conflict between personal loyalties and duty to the state; the issues involved seemed deeper, denser, more fundamentally disturbing, and intellectual assertions failed to combat an old, primitive fear. While the lamps continue to burn, order and chaos are words without meaning, but when the lamps go out, chaos becomes a reality
I found this a thoroughly absorbing read, character and narrative worked well together.
If I have a criticism it is that despite what feels like psychological authenticity, she has focused on a group of characters who are all, in different ways, rather dissociated from open, human need for engagement. Each and every one of them has secrecy and a tendency to isolation in their natures. And Hocking herself rather writes these characters with a kind of cool observance. The result is that the reader (well this one) does not fully engage as if from the inside of the characters. It’s not that I didn’t care about them, it’s not that I didn’t believe in them, but I didn’t mesh with them, inhabit them. I didn’t walk in their shoes as if I were them.
I certainly want to read more Hocking; she is a fine writer, and I’m delighted, thanks to the publisher Bello, and a story below, that I now can.
I came across Mary Hocking, an author new to me, and this book, originally published in 1962, courtesy, as is often the case, of an enthusiastic blog post. In this case, it was HeavenAli who introduced me, and you can read her post here
And actually Ali has an inspiring blogging story to tell, as she explains in a post she made about Hocking, on Shiny New Books. That I can read Hocking at all is a tribute to the role bloggers can play, in sharing their enthusiasm for forgotten and out of print writers.
Stories like this, I think, may be an inspiration to us all when we might think, either, ‘what can I say that hasn’t already been said before?’ or, ‘well this book is out of print anyway so what is the point in championing something no one is going to be able to get hold of?’
As Ali’s story shows, publishers aren’t just looking for the latest blockbuster and the towering sales of populist writers. Those working in publishing are also, like us, passionate readers, and some will leap upon the evidence showing that small, niche, enthusiastic markets are there, and that enthusiastic readers of perhaps quiet, cult , half forgotten writers, can and will create more demand for the writer undeservedly lost and out of print
I have just squeaked this in to Ali’s Mary Hocking Week Challenge