I seem to be on a roll with Bloomsbury Group books lately – but this sounded so intriguing and as if it might be a little darker than the other two volumes I’ve read, so I decided this was the next to read. Again, a lovely cover, with a very clever design revealing One-ear the Cougar. My only disappointment was the fact that I read that the original book featured illustrations by Edward Gorey. Unfortunately, the Bloomsbury edition only has one illustration as a frontispiece – bearing the wonderful legend “In an idyllic, peaceful island setting two charming children on a summer holiday conspire to execute the perfect murder – and get away with it.”
The book tells the tale of Barnaby Gaunt, a ten-year old orphan, who is travelling to a Canadian island to spend the summer with his Uncle. We meet him on the ferry to the island where he and another child, Christie, are causing havoc on board. Christie has also been sent to the island for the summer, by her mother, and she is staying with the wonderfully named Goat Lady. On arrival, the children encounter the local Mountie, Sergeant Albert Coulter, and soon set about causing havoc on the lovely island. The arrival of the slightly skewed Uncle, who is determined to kill Barnaby for his fortune, forces the children into drastic action – who will succeed in killing who?
This is a beautifully written book with a fantastic supporting cast of characters: Mr. and Mrs. Brooks, who run the island’s shop, have never recovered from the loss of their son in the War, and take Barnaby in as a kind of substitute; Lady Syddyns and Miss Proudfoot are the island’s two venerable old dames, one quiet and a lover of gardening, the other forceful and taking no nonsense; Mr Duncan the farmer and his poor, downtrodden daughter Agnes; Mr. and Mrs. Rice-Hope, the vicar and his wife; the lovely Goat-lady who mothers the children very effectively.
This is quite a dark tale; one which on the surface could be considered quite shocking. The subject of murder is discussed quite casually, and no obvious moral judgements are passed by the author on the actions of the various characters. However, there are hidden depths here – the book is set after the war, and there are no children on the island as all the young people (with the exception of Albert Coulter) were killed in the fighting. The sadness of those who lost their loved ones is portrayed very movingly through Mr. and Mrs. Brooks. In a dramatic dream sequence, Albert recalls the effect of man’s inhumanity to his fellow-man and the anti-war sentiment runs throughout the book. The character of Uncle Sylvester is the most disturbing – at first somewhat cartoon-like, he soon becomes revealed as an evil piece of work, reading de Sade and mentally torturing Barnaby in a really unpleasant way. It came as no surprise to find he had made his way successfully through the War but had obviously been perceived by his colleagues as something of a psychopath.
Although superficially a macabre little tale, this novel actually packs quite a punch with its sub-plots. There is an underlying theme of loneliness – all of the characters, in one way or another, are suffering from this. Barnaby, through lack of family; Christie has an absent father and an overworked mother; Sergeant Coulter has no family, is somewhat isolated from the rest of the Village owing to having survived the War and he nurses a hopeless romantic passion; the Brooks couple have lost their son; Miss Proudfoot loses her pet; Lady Syddyns is a widow; the Goat-Lady’s son is away most of the year; Agnes Duncan through the iron control of her father who basically uses her as slave labour; and so on. Even One-ear the Cougar lives in isolation and unhappiness, and his interior monologues are surprisingly effective.
The book also makes a strong point about things not being as they seem. The children are basically good, their bad behaviour stemming from their environment and circumstances, and once they are in stable, loving surroundings they blossom and change. The metaphor of the statues in the New York museum so beloved of Sergeant Coulter, which turn out to be fake, is another case in point. And Uncle Sylvester is the prime example – fooling the islanders with his acting and convincing them that he is a good man, only concerned for the safety of his poor nephew, when his behaviour is revealed to be quite appalling. He is already a mass murdered by the time he comes to the island and presumably represents the madness of a War that would allow such a man to thrive. Even One-ear has hidden depths and is not what he is seen to be by the islanders and children. Fortunately, the book ends very satisfactorily, with justice being meted out as necessary, and the fact that I slightly guessed who would kill who didn’t spoil things at all!
I loved this book – the quality of the plotting, writing and the storyline were wonderful on their own, and it was very much an unputdownable read. But the different levels added so much and got quite a few messages across without getting in the way of the entertainment. I believe a rather sensational film of the book was made, which I haven’t seen and I’m not sure I would want to now – if it didn’t contain the subtle messages about life and the human condition, it wouldn’t be doing this marvellous book justice!