Welcome to Mary Hocking week. During the next week I hope some of us can celebrate the work of Mary Hocking who died too soon to see her work being made available again.
I am fortunate to own – in a variety of old paperback and hardback editions – all but one of Mary Hocking’s novels. Most of them are ex-library editions, two are first editions, and two are signed. The only one I didn’t have (but will continue to search for) is Visitors to the Crescent. Therefore it was that one I immediately purchased for my kindle upon the release of the first twelve Mary Hocking books to the catalogue of Bello books print on demand and ebooks. ( I have since purchased a few others – in case I decide to read them on kindle instead – other people do this sort of thing too don’t they?).
I have come to realise that not all Mary Hocking novels can be neatly pigeon-holed – although having read a large number there are characteristics I recognise. I am glad about this – a new Mary Hocking is always something of a discovery, thankfully she was fairly prolific. (I still have eight Mary Hocking to look forward to – what will I do when they’ve all been read?).
Visitors to the Crescent is a psychological thriller, and spy story with a difference – though presented with all the deftness of excellent characterisation, that I have come to expect from Mary Hocking. One of the lovely things I always find with Mary Hocking’s writing is that the reader always knows exactly where they are – whether that be Wartime London, the Sussex countryside of the 1990’s or an Iron curtain country during the Cold War. Visitors to the Crescent takes place in a small area of London some years after the Second World War, (I assumed about a decade). Visitors to the Crescent was Mary Hocking’s second published novel – and it seems as if her first two novels and another novel published in 1967 have an espionage theme which many readers might not expect from Mary Hocking.
“It was on a rather tremulous spring evening in April that the visitors first appeared in Cedar Crescent. Park Road East was a hustle of late-night shoppers, stamping cabbage leaves and brown paper into grimy pavements, trailing sawdust from butchers’ shops. Impatient drivers thumped horns in protest at the sluggish progress to the main Holland Park Avenue. Outside the cluttered antique shop, a man was dismantling a fruit stall, watched by an expectant dog and a couple of small children who were waiting an opportunity to steal apples. Park Road East was stridently alive; it would not be surprised at anything that might happen to it.
But Cedar Crescent was a different matter altogether. Here, life had stopped a long time ago. The road tunnelled off Park Road East, dark, quiet, stretching dustily and unromantically into another century. In spite of its name, it was quite straight and there were no trees, only the squat electric lamps which were of a very old design and gave a dim yellow light which created a permanent impression of fog. The tall, terraced houses had lost even the memory of their dignity; flights of stone steps led to open doors revealing halls with flaking wallpaper and giving out an odour suggestive of damp and decay. Many of the windows were uncurtained”
On the corner of Cedar Crescent close to Holland Park Road, a small antique shop is burgled. The burglary brings a surprising amount of police attention to the owners of the shop, Edward Saneck and George Vickers. Two senior policemen arrive in the crescent asking questions about Saneck (a Polish refugee) and his partner, they quickly link the burglary to a late night hit and run accident not far away. Only, what are two senior policemen from Scotland Yard doing concerning themselves with two such routine incidents? Both Saneck and Vickers seem wary of the police interest in them and their business.”
In the flat above the antique shop two very different women, inevitably become drawn into events surrounding the burglary. Jessica Holt is a shy children’s author, still recovering from having nursed her dying father. Jessica is conducting a relationship with Saneck, a man who left his wife and child behind him in his flight from Europe. Troublesome Paddy – younger, irreverent, suspicious of authority rents a room from Jessica, she spends her time with a bunch of unpleasant characters – one of whom is George Vickers. Jessica’s relationship with Saneck is fragile, each them seem lonely in need of the other, although we see little real affection between them. The relationships between Hocking’s characters – in all her novels – are generally complex – here Paddy seems destined for self-destruction, while Jessica seems lost.
When Jessica decides to have a little snoop around the antique shop – she scares herself silly blundering around the shop in the dark, but before leaving she does witness George Vickers hidden in the back – and what she sees frightens her even more. Jessica is one of several characters who need to work out where their loyalties and responsibilities lie. Jessica’s solicitor brother – a cold fish if ever there was – is horrified at his sister’s involvement with a case being investigated by Scotland Yard – he thinks she should disappear on holiday until it’s all over.
“As she stood in the dark, shrouded hall she could hear the noise of the party. She had never realized before how alien these people were to her. Vickers and Ames, in particular, jarred on her nerves. They must carry on their grotesque charade without her. She went to the front door and opened it. The night air flicked her face. She sat down on the step, leant against the door-post, and closed her eyes. She could hear the sounds of the city very clearly: a late-night bus cruising leisurely and unhindered down Park Road East, the pneumatic barrage of a scooter, jazz music played very loud in a house somewhere at the back, the rumble of an underground train away in the Shepherd’s Bush direction, hidden laughter nearby followed by the soft scamper of feet and a gently scolding West Indian voice calling to a child to come in. She was aware, as she had not been aware for a very long time, of the sounds of London all around her. She wondered why she had ever thought the Crescent so peaceful.”
Although I don’t think this is Mary Hocking’s best novel – it is still very good, definitely worth reading and with a lot to recommend it and as well written as ever. What Mary Hocking does do particularly well in this novel is to evoke an atmosphere of threat, the fear and uncertainty is palpable. I also like how Hocking seems to acknowledge the grey areas that exist in life – people aren’t always just good or bad – even when they do bad things – life, and the motivations of all people are more complex than that.