MR BOWLING BUYS A NEWSPAPER by Donald Henderson (Hachette Yellowback; 216 pages; ₹399)
The dictionary definition of a serial killer is someone who murders more than three victims one at a time, typically following a characteristic, predictable behaviour pattern. In fiction, the term serial killer conjures up the image of a suave, glib man about town like Tom Ripley and Hannibal Lecter, or a solitary, unpleasant Silence of the Lambs sewing-dresses-from-victims-skins fiend. These killers are marked by an absence of a moral compass; they feel no guilt or remorse for their gruesome murders. But Donald Henderson’s Mr Bowling, a serial killer is neither one nor the other, neither fish nor fowl. What kind of serial killer is he?
Set in London during the bombings and blackouts of World War II, it begins with Mr Bowling going out to buy a newspaper. He reads through each page, then reads it again to make sure. There is no report of a missing man. He has gotten away with murder. Not his first though. That was his wife, he tells us. You see, they’d been stuck under the rubble from one of the Nazi bombings, and she’d started screaming, and he’d clapped his hand over her nose. But he vows: “I’ll never kill a woman again! Not on your life!” But, “all the same, he’d had to do it, it was a Heaven-sent chance.”
As a reader, you are left with the sense, he had to do it, but at least he won’t kill a woman again, which we now see as a redeeming feature. And then Henderson draws us further into Bowling’s psyche by showing us that he feels pity for his wife whom he killed. “…after those dreadful years, that dreadful woman, poor thing, whatever you do, don’t marry young.” It is this mangle of emotions — his despair at those dreadful years and his pity for the victim — that makes us somehow sympathise with him, and humanise him. Bowling murders from a place of despair, not from fear of discovery (Tom Ripley), and not from a ‘victim is a sub-human’ stance (Scandi noir).
Then he meets Alice, a vicar’s daughter, with whom he falls in love, quite desperately. Now of course, he doesn’t want to get caught. “The worst of being an amateur at crime, and particularly murder, he reflected with considerable anxiety, was that you hadn’t spent a lifetime studying the tricks of the trade…and now when you would almost sell your soul for life and liberty and new-found love, the most terrible crisis threatened.” Will she forgive him? Will the police catch him? Is redemption even possible for a serial killer?
A gentle and dry humour drives the story. Henderson makes us warm to Bowling in the very first chapter. Bowling tells us that he got into desperately lonely moods, moods which have been called suicidal, “had he not been a man incapable of committing suicide, for he had too much of a sense of humour for such a cold and deliberate act.”
There is none of the cold psychopath about him. He is public school educated, has a ready smile, but something about him puts people off—at least initially. But as we go deeper into his psyche, all that is attractive about him—his sense of humour, his rigorous self-analysis and a solid moral compass—comes to the fore.
We see how with the slow blooming of longing (for a comfortable life), which needs a modicum of money, Mr Bowling is led slowly and inexorably to his foul deeds. And, in his mind, it is murder, and that’s why he wants to get caught. This moral sense that what he is doing is wrong endears him to us.
He is quite unlike the sociopath and psychopath so prevalent in today’s crime fiction—someone who shows no remorse, who has no moral compass, and who is completely amoral. Mr Bowling plays fair with the police: leaves clues, doesn’t plan his murders, acts on the spur of the moment and conducts his murders quickly and silently—suffocation being his preferred way. A charwoman has to only walk faster, or the boarding house manager only has to open his door with a master-key, and all will be discovered. As for the victims, he is sure that at least one of them he is delivering from a miserable life.
Mr Bowling is quite unlike the sociopath and psychopath so prevalent in today’s crime fiction — someone who shows no remorse, who has no moral compass, and who is completely amoral. He plays fair with the police: leaves clues, doesn’t plan his murders, acts on the spur of the moment and conducts his murders quickly and silently—suffocation being his preferred way
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There are parallels between Bowling and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley: unplanned murders, charming minds, and skilled prose that makes readers root for them. But Ripley begins to kill, not because he enjoys it, but because the victims threaten his safety and very existence. Quite unlike Bowling who wants to get caught, at least up to the final part of the book.
It is a book you curl up with when you have the rest of the day free, and you read slowly, lingering over the turn of phrase, the pithy asides on human nature, and allow Henderson to take you by hand into the vivid, wry, and surprisingly attractive psyche of Mr Bowling.
The mark of Henderson’s deft touch is the taste he leaves in the reader’s mind—a time well spent in examining the human spirit in its full glory that spans from abject despair to sublime love. You come away with a renewed sense of hope in humanity, in love, and in redemption. No wonder it was Raymond Chandler’s favourite novel.
ASHES TO ASHES by Isabel Ostrander (Hachette Yellowback; 328 pages; ₹450)
Touted as the first domestic noir (written in 1919) and an inverted mystery (the killer’s identity is known at the beginning, and we read to find out how he is caught), Ashes to Ashes is the story of a psychopath husband, Norman Storm, who in a fit of jealousy murders his lovely and loving wife, Leila. After meeting with his lawyer who advises him not to throw away the last bit of his inheritance on a South American scheme, Norman storms out and sees his wife emerge from a building down the road. He is surprised because she never comes into New York City, and hadn’t mentioned it that morning. He goes home, and his close friend turns up and quizzes Leila about her morning jaunt in the city. She lies and says she was lunching with a friend. Jealousy rears up, and Norman suspects her of infidelity with her friend’s husband whose office is in that building. Thirty-six hours later, he confronts her, picks up his golf club and kills her with a blow.
Then comes his cover-up, which succeeds, and they bring in a verdict of accidental death. He moves to the city, and falls for another swindle. Loses all his money, then tries to recover it through another murder. But this time he has been too clever. But it is not the police but his well-meaning friends who pose the greatest danger to him.
This well-written psychological thriller traces the inexorable downfall of the serial killer. In contrast to Mr Bowling, Norman Storm is completely unlikeable — weak, impulsive, has overweening conceit, has no sense of humour, no remorse even when he discovers the true reason for his wife’s behaviour, has a pedestrian mind, and is only desperate to save his skin and flee to freedom with a bagful of money. Oh, and he falls for every Ponzi scheme known to man. In short, he has no redeeming qualities, and one wonders why solid, upright folks like his wife and best friend care for him and cannot see him for the psychopath he is.
The irony is that Norman is the epitome of what society values—a rich and respected father, big inheritance, good looking and charming, a gorgeous wife, a home on the golf course, public school education, membership in the best clubs and has a sinecure of a job. Inside, though, he is hollow. The more we discover of his psyche, the more its inhumanity disgusts us. Modern day domestic noirs have adopted versions of Norman. Quite a contrast to Mr Bowling: the more we view his thoughts, the more attractive he becomes in the solidity of his humanity.
Part of Hachette’s yellowjacket retro-revival reprints, Henderson and Ostrander have written well-crafted and gloriously immersive crime fiction.