Murder Room author Deborah Valentine uncovers what might look like a ‘cosy crime’ writer for the acute, uncompromising reader of human nature she was, even anticipating the chill delights of Scandi Noir long before it made its groundbreaking appearance. In many ways, Margaret Yorke was a woman, and a crime writer, ahead of her time.
In 1999, Margaret Yorke received the CWA Cartier Diamond Dagger Award for lifetime achievement –and indeed she achieved a good deal. Her first book, Summer Flight, was published in 1957 and her last, Cause for Concern, in 2001, with over forty books and a number of short stories in between. Over the years her style matured formidably, and so did her knowledge of human nature. She was as sharp an observer as Miss Marple herself.
Yorke was not an urban creature. Living in a Buckinghamshire village, her love and understanding of country life is there in her stories. Her spare, un-frilly prose well suits the bleak circumstances of her characters. Her people are not chess pieces to be moved about for plot’s sake, or to create an Agatha Christie-like puzzle: they are real people. By deftly interweaving their lives, she cranks up an atmosphere of potential danger.
Her books were optioned for film, but never made. What a loss. Summer Flight could have been turned into one of those The 39 Steps-style black and white classics so beloved of the Golden Age of Crime. A fugitive on the run disrupts not only the lives of his respectable family, but the entire village. I would not call Yorke a cosy writer, but she swerved close to a Midsomer Murders ambiance here.It can be read now as warm depiction of a bygone era, but at the time of writing it was current, demonstrating the attitudes of post-war Britain. Certain social mores were still valued.
The conflicting loyalties of the family as the fugitive secretly manipulates each member, playing one off against another, forces each to decide how far they will go to protect those they love. Even the ‘villain’ shows himself afflicted by loyalties that threaten his successful escape. Despite his sociopathic ways, he is written sympathetically. This man is not good, but he is not completely without feeling, and is doing his best within the limited scope of his morality.
Less sympathetic is the villain in The Scent of Fear, which won the 1982 Martin Beck Award from the Swedish Academy of Detection. This is an utterly chilling book in the Scandi-crime vein of Wallander, long before his advent.
An elderly lady reclusive more from circumstances than choice, lives in a great gothic pile on the edge of a village. A new bypass has made trips to the shops arduous, and her world has shrunk. It is a heart-rending portrait. Her lonely predicament, with friends and family outlived, adds poignancy to a creeping unease. When a troubled youth, unbeknown to her, takes up residence in her home, and food and money disappear, she fears she is going senile.
Yorke really gets into the head of this young man: a murderer, thief and pyromaniac. We are taken methodically through his horribly skewed logic. And when they finally confront, isolated together in a Christmas snowstorm, who is the most afraid – the violent youth or the little old lady? Yorke chronicles their growing relationship believably.
Published in 1987, there is actually plenty of fury about in No Fury. This drama (picture-perfect for the BBC) about a newly married couple is a recognisable portrait of suburban commuter life, dramatised by the differences between the country girl and the city boy she marries –and a past he neglects to reveal even when given the opportunity. Love is there . . . but intimacy? That is another issue, and a defining one. The truth may not be simple, but certainly in this case it should have been told. However, in keeping with human nature, the sensible thing is not done. The husband’s philosophy of ‘Do right and fear no man, don’t write and fear no woman’ turns out to be badly flawed when his obsessive former lover moves into their idyllic village and befriends his wife. The story dwells on the characters’ inner lives and is devastatingly incisive. Who is the real villain here? Who the most self-deceiving? That is up to the reader to decide.
In keeping with the deception theme, a year later York wrote Deceiving Mirror. It delves into the selfish machinations of a chilly, controlling woman without feeling even for her young daughter, and focused only on the image of tragic young widow she cultivates, and in arranging her own comfort. Having ingratiated herself as the big fish in the pond of village life, when her long-lost sister comes to stay, let’s just say the mirror cracks rather badly. On screen this is a role Nicole Kidman, in cold, calculating mode, could sink her teeth into.
Yorke’s books centre round the ever-changing countryside and the values of those who inhabit it. For all the evils in this world – and Yorke does not spare us these – there can be kindness as well, all held in a delicate balance.
Admittedly there are some very old-fashioned notions espoused. It’s something of a head-scratcher that Yorke, who (post-divorce when divorce was frowned upon) embarked on a successful career as a writer and Oxford University librarian, so often seems to promote the idea that a good marriage is a woman’s cure-all. But this ideal reflects the times these books are set in and, in that sense, are quite accurate.
It’s too bad Yorke and Hitchcock never collaborated. What skin-prickling cinema he could have conceived from any one of these stories.