Friday, November 16, 2012

Possessed by the Past: The Victorian Album (1973), by Evelyn Berckman


Evelyn Berckman (1900-1978) is another one of those oddly forgotten "women's suspense" authors who emerged in the 1950s and whose talent flowered in the 1960s and 1970s.  One would think that Berckman's writing inspired the great modern British Crime Queen Ruth Rendell, but that's just conjecture on my part.  What's not conjecture on my part is that Berckman was a very good genre writer!  Even Jacques Barzun, who tended to be rather dismissive of so-called "women's suspense" novels, was a great fan of Berckman's work.

no past is dead...
even if the people are
One of Berckman's later novels, The Victorian Album (1973), is also one of her most interesting.  Admirers of Ruth Rendell's complex, multi-layered "Barbara Vine" psychological suspense masterpieces like A Dark Adapted Eye (1986) and Asta's Book (1993) should be highly intrigued indeed when they open The Victorian Album.

Like a lot of suspense novels from this era, The Victorian Album has a plot that centers on a woman buying a house.  Or in this case, two women, an aunt and a niece, leasing the first floor (that's second floor if you're American) of an old Victorian villa in Clapham.

The "spinster" aunt, Lorna Teasdale, is the narrator of the novel.  Christabel Warne is Lorna's charming niece.

Both women come from a genteel background; however, this being the early 1970s, both have salaried employment.  Lorna, who fell upon hard times earlier in life, is a seamstress and Christabel ("Chris") an interior decorator.  Lorna raised Chris after Chris' parents were killed in a car accident, scrimping and saving to give her niece a posh education.

a real Victorian album, of a happy family
see The Age of Uncertainty
The Victorian villa is owned by the rather reserved and unfriendly--"common" in the eyes of Miss Teasdale--Mrs. Rumbold, who lives with her daughter on the ground floor (that's first floor if you're an American).  Lorna won't be taking on another job for some weeks, so has time on her hands. 

After the spiteful Mrs. Rumbold lets slip that there once was a murder done in the house, naturally Lorna goes snooping in the moldering attics of the old building and finds...a Victorian photograph album.

Seeking to find out more about the people in the album Lorna does further snooping--I mean, searching--and finds decaying letters and a daily journal.  Slowly she puts together the pieces of a forgotten murder mystery.

Yet, unrealized by Lorna, past mayhem may be producing an "echo" in the present....

One can immediately see resemblances to Ruth Rendell's Asta's Book (also Shelly Smith's classic An Afternoon to Kill) double storylines, a powerfully evoked sense of place, psychological acuity, research into the past.

Berckman's recreation of a fascinating Victorian murder mystery is well done indeed, quite suspenseful in its own right:

I remembered the Victorian attitude toward lunacy, the casual way in which they let it live in the bosom of the family.  I remembered the wealthy respectable Mr. Kent getting child after child upon his hopelessly insane wife; I remembered Mary Lamb knifing her mother to death in the  kitchen, with no remembrance of it afterward....

But the reader should be gripped by what's going on in the present too!  The Victorian Album is an engrossing and suspenseful book, the product of a top-level crime genre writer working at the height of her powers.


  1. Well here is another one I HAVE to have! New author for me. I love vintage mysteries so. Thanks for a great review!

  2. I'm ordering this book right now, huge Rendell/Vine fan that I am. Thanks!

  3. Peggy and Vincennes ( ;) )

    Glad you enjoyed the review. I do like this one, it definitely reminded me of a Rendell/Vine. I like anything domestic, Victorian and criminous!

  4. This book is so amazing and should be better known than it is. It succeeds at the most difficult task a ghost story can have-- leaving the reader unsure whether or not there ever actually was a literal ghost. Without giving anything away, I don't think there ever was. This isn't a spoiler but a theory; other readers may get something completely different out of it.

    1. Hi Maia, it's an eerie book which stays with you afterward. I agree it should be better known.