Title: Death is a Red Rose
Author: Dorothy Eden
Published: 1970, Ace Books
October TBR Challenge theme: Paranormal or romantic suspense
Does this fit the theme? Hell, no. I have read some romantic suspense lately, but since it’s October I thought this might be a good time to clean out some of my backload of Gothics.
Summer before last (so, the summer of 2014, when neither of my children had yet started school but kindergarten for the eldest was looming over me like a storm cloud of hormones and sentimentality, threatening rain and tears every time I thought these are his last months of real freedom and babyhood) I went on a gothic-novel binge. I’m sure a psychiatrist could unearth a lot from that statement. Anyway, September rolled around and I got frantically busy, and then moved on to other things, leaving me with twelve or fifteen paperback Gothic romances still in the stacks.
Reading these does nothing to reduce the crowding on my shelves, because I can’t bear to get rid of them. I’d actually like to find some way to frame them, because the covers are amazing. But at least I can shift them out of the TBR column.
The book opens with an elderly lady named Arabia Bolton. You know the gently eccentric, meddling old ladies of Small Town romances? Arabia is their polar opposite. She’s had a long, eventful life; alludes to past lovers, including a sheikh; lies and exaggerates; manipulates people into arguments when she gets bored; and keeps secrets, including some pretty dark ones. I can’t say I liked Arabia, exactly, but she’d definitely be interesting to know.
She misses someone called Lucy, so she places an ad saying she has a ground floor flat, but it’s only available to someone named Lucy Cressida. (She has other tenants, as well, but when the book opens she’s feeling bored with them). The heroine, Cressida Barclay, is actually named Cressida Lucy, and she needs a place to live (and a job) because she’s had a fight with her insufferable fiance, Tom. I can’t do justice to him, so I’ll quote a bit:
“Oh no. We’re only engaged. We’re going to be married on the twelfth of June in 1957.”
“A long-term plan?” Jeremy put down his glass and picked up a pipe. “Do you mid if I smoke?”
“Not in the least.” Pipe smoke, drifting fragrantly about, would add to this pleasant illusory sensation. “Tom’s very cautious,” she said.
“I gather he must be. How old is he?”
“Thirty, but I’m only twenty-two. He says twenty-four is a better age for me to marry, and by that time, of course, he’ll have paid for the house and furniture. We bought a bedroom suite the other day.” (p. 16)
The whole engagement to Tom sounds so stifling I almost asphyxiated every time the book mentioned him. I mean, it all sounds very safe, but when I was twenty-two I don’t think I wanted that much safety. Or that much furniture.
The pipe-smoking Jeremy, by the way, is the ground-floor (basement, that is) tenant in Arabia’s house. You can tell he’s the hero because he argues with Cressida, and helps her solve the mystery of what happened to Lucy. but he doesn’t actually profess his love until the ending. There are hints he finds Cressida attractive, but they’re mostly buried in affectionate arguments.
The other people in the house are a violin player named Vincent Moretti; a widow named Mrs. Stanhope who has something wrong with her throat and can’t talk; Mrs. Stanhope’s fifteen year old son, Dawson, who is obsessed with chemistry and murders; Miss Glory, a plain and plainspoken woman whom Moretti flirts with; Arabia herself; and above all else, Arabia’s deceased daughter Lucy, whose room has been left untouched because Arabia claims it makes her feel as if Lucy isn’t dead, but merely late getting home from her last dance.
The whole thing is divinely morbid and creepy, and [highlight for SPOILER] as it turns out, Lucy wasn’t really Arabia’s daughter, and isn’t really dead. Far from being an innocent girl who died tragically, Lucy is a murderer, and she’s still in the house.
So basically this was perfect Halloween reading. It had that vaguely-familiar feeling that all 70s Gothics do once you’ve read a few of them, but this was memorable both for being well-written and for genuinely giving me the creeps at a few points.