Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. One of the themes that comes up quite often in crime fiction, especially in novels of psychological suspense, is obsession. And that makes sense. Obsession can certainly lead people to do things that most of us would consider strange or even frightening. It can twist people’s thinking and it can lead to murder, too. To see how this theme works in a crime novel, let’s turn today’s spotlight on Charlotte Jay’s A Hank of Hair.
Gilbert Hand is a junior partner in a small bookselling/publishing firm. When his wife Rachel tragically dies in a shipboard drowning incident, he is left bereft. He admits that their marriage wasn’t a passionate love story, but they’d had ten peaceful and good years together. Partly at the suggestion of his doctor, Hand makes a major change in his life. He sells the home he and Rachel shared and moves to a quiet, respectable hotel in London.
Hand settles into his room and begins to explore it. That’s when he discovers that the davenport he’ll be using has a storage area with something hidden inside. It turns out to be a bundle of silk wrapped around a long coil of dark hair. Immediately he’s curious about how it got there, so he starts to ask some questions. He soon finds out that the last occupant of the room was a man named Freddie Doyle and begins to wonder about the man and ask around about him.
At about the same time, Doyle returns to the hotel, saying he ‘left something behind.’ The hotel’s owners won’t let him into what is now Hand’s room for privacy reasons, so he takes a different approach. One day Hand returns to his room and sees Doyle and one of the hotel staff looking through his things. Now Hand is sure that Doyle did leave the coil of hair behind, and that he may have killed its owner. He refuses to give it back, ordering both to leave. When Doyle’s girlfriend Gladys Wilson comes to visit him, though, Hand has to change his thinking, as Gladys is most certainly alive and well.
Hand now becomes obsessed with Doyle and begins to believe there’s a macabre sort of chess game going on between them. He determines to ‘win’ by taking Doyle’s girlfriend. Then, the body of a young woman is found in a well. Hand is convinced that it was her hair that he found in his room, and that Doyle killed her. He tries to tell the police of his concerns, but his story isn’t a logical one. The police find all sorts of contradictions in it, although they do listen to what he has to say. Not long afterwards, Gladys disappears. Sure that she is in grave danger, Hand goes looking for her, hoping to save her. For him, the world has been reduced to winning over Doyle.
This novel explores obsession in several ways. At one level, there is Hand’s obsession with Doyle. In fact, it becomes so strong that he’s not always sure where he leaves off and Doyle begins. At the same time he finds Doyle both repulsive and irresistible, if I can put it that way. There’s also the hair fetish element. From the moment he finds the coil of hair, Hand is obsessed with it and for a time, he wants to keep it as much because of his fascination with it as anything else. And certainly Doyle is obsessed with having that hank of hair back.
At another level, we see obsession in Hand’s thoughts about Rachel. Although she has died by the time the story begins, she figures into it several times. Hand is not always honest about his fixation (or possibly not aware of it), but he is obsessed with her drowning. For instance, he spends his share of time at St. James’ Park, where there is a lake:
‘I don’t need to explain to you, do I, the fascination of water?’
He dreams of Rachel’s death, too.
Another important element in this novel is the plot point of the unreliable narrator. The more obsessed and fixated Hand becomes, the more difficult it is to decide whether he’s telling the truth, telling what he actually believes to be the truth, or simply telling what he imagines. This becomes especially apparent as he begins to identify more and more with Doyle and that man’s obsessions. And since the story is told from Hand’s perspective, and using the first person, it’s not always easy to see what is actually true and what is simply Hand’s perception. In the end, the reader does learn the truth about the dead body and about the hair that Hand found in his room, but it’s also obvious that Hand tells the story as he wants it to be.
We see that as different characters are introduced. Not many of them are painted particularly sympathetically, and that adds atmosphere to the story. What’s more, some of the characters who seem pleasant enough at the beginning seem to become less and less so as the novel continues. Is it because they were never sympathetic to begin with, or is it because of Hand’s way of thinking about them?
The story is told in flashback, and from the first line, readers infer that Hand is telling what happened to someone:
‘I’m not going to give explanations and make excuses. I’ll tell you what happened, and you can draw your own conclusions.’
Throughout the story, there are occasional pauses where Hand makes a side comment to the person listening to what happened. Readers who prefer stories that are told in straight chronological order will notice this. At the end of the novel, we can infer who that person is, and the last scene of the story ties it to the beginning.
One other thing is of note about this novel. The edition I read comes out at 113 pages, not counting a short, informative Afterward. Readers who prefer short introductions to an author’s work and would like to try Jay’s writing will be pleased at this.
A Hank of Hair is an atmospheric psychological story of suspense with a London setting. It features an unreliable narrator and an exploration of obsession in some of its many forms. But what’s your view? Have you read A Hank of Hair? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 8 September/Tuesday 9 September – Dead Simple – Peter James
Monday 15 September/Tuesday 16 September – A Beautiful Place to Die – Malla Nunn
Monday 22 September/Tuesday 23 September – Bangkok 8 – John Burdett