Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Died on a Rainy Sunday

Joan Aiken (1924-2994) was the daughter of poet Conrad Aiken and the sister of author Jane Aiken Hodge. After working for the United Nations Information Centre in London, Aiken joined the magazine Argosy and began learning the trade of professional writing. She authored shorts for the likes of Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine and Vogue. As a novelist, Aiken wrote over 100 novels in genres such as mystery, supernatural fiction, and children's literature. She won the Edgar Allen Poe Award for her novel Night Fall in 1972. 

I've managed to collect a few of Aiken's books, but never ventured beyond the covers until now. I decided to sample her bibliography by reading the 1961 mystery-suspense title Died on a Rainy Sunday. The book was originally published by Dell and later reprinted in 1982 by Chivers Press' Black Dagger Crime Series as a hardcover. 

British married couple Jane and Tom Roland have just moved into a brand new house in the quiet English countryside. The two have two children and have maxed out their budget and finances. Things are looking dour. But, Jane, a veteran of the script-writing business, receives a call from an old colleague. They want to hire her to produce a documentary script on British porcelain (sounds dreadful) in London. The problem is that it's a 9-5 job which requires Jane to commute round-trip by train. With Tom working as an architect, who will watch the couple's two little children? Enter the mysterious Myfanwy McGregor. 

Mrs. McGregor and her little daughter Susan accept a babysitting gig to watch the couple's two children during the day. However, Mrs. McGregor makes it very clear that she will leave the two children alone in the house if Jane is one second late. Along with this bizarre motherly behavior, Mrs. McGregor also has a weird diet, provokes Jane and Tom's daughter into a trance-like paranoia, and seems to hide an ulterior motive. What the heck is happening in this British Hell House?

At just under 130 pages, Joan Aiken's mystery-suspense novel is a tight page-turner that orchestrates an eerie vibe while maintaining a traditional romantic intrigue. Jane's affection for a neighbor takes center stage along with the slow erosion of her marriage to Tom. The mystery is unveiled with 30 pages to go, making the long chase scene a really effective climax. While Aiken isn't as good as Elisabeth Sanxay Holding, this novel reminded me of her writing, specifically a 1955 short called “The Strange Children”, which is also a creepy babysitting tale. If you like that sort of thing, then this is an easy recommendation.

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