The Night Following
By Morag Joss Delacorte Press, 352 pp., $25
Morag Joss has been compared with the high priestesses of British crime fiction: P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, and Minette Walters. "The Night Following," her latest and perhaps her best, not only travels the same elegantly dark path of those writers, but tears into territory totally unbeholden to genre conventions.
But it's not completely uncharted. Rendell created the alias Barbara Vine in order to get past crime readers' expectations, though you can usually count on an unsavory death or two to haunt her protagonists' lives.
Joss, too, begins with a bang, a hit-and-run accident in the English countryside to be precise. The driver had just spilled her groceries, discovered a condom wrapper in her husband's car, and, distracted by it all, run into a woman on a bicycle who seemingly came out of nowhere.
As crime novels go, it's a rather pedestrian death, as is the "leafy, cream-carpeted, cul-de-sac life" of the protagonist. But there's nothing pedestrian about the way that Joss describes the quiet desperation of the dead or the living in this book. The unidentified protagonist says "I think I could upturn my face so it resembled the mask expected of reasonable women entering this supposedly balanced and amiable chapter of middle age."
The widower, Arthur, writes letters of bewildered bereavement to his dead wife, Ruth, in which unspoken bits of unhappiness during their marriage trickle out, blending with sincere statements about his love and loss.
He also begins reading a novel that his wife was working on in her writers' group. She was killed coming back from meeting with her friends, carrying with her what might have been the completion of the book. Joss alternates perspectives among the widower's letters and Ruth's novel, along with the main first-person account of the driver.
All of the characters begin confronting ghosts in their own way, Ruth in her writing, the driver in her remembrances of an alcoholic mother, Arthur in his musings about the new order of things. Lives change in an instant, sometimes for the most random of reasons. Dreams are lost in the pursuit of the mundane.
Men don't come across particularly well in any of the three narratives. The protagonist has been cheated upon. The men in Ruth's novels are cads, which leaves one to wonder how satisfied she was with Arthur's stereotypically British inability to live an emotional life. He's shocked by the sexuality in Ruth's book and writes to his dead wife, "It's not going to get any closer to the bone, is it?"
Joss renders the dark side of drabness superbly with a telling detail here - Ruth's discarded gardening gloves having hardened into "casts of her tired, curved hands" - a touching inarticulateness there. Their lives might be boring, but Joss gives such depth to their despair that it's impossible not to root for these outsiders, no matter what their sins and shortcomings. That's something these characters share with those in her other two stand-alone books, "Half Broken Things" and "Puccini's Ghosts."
While it never occurs to the main character to tell the police what she did, her remorse leads her to obsess over Arthur. The shape that the obsession takes gives the book its juice, but it's Joss's Gothic stylings that maintain its Rendellian standing. Here's how she describes the desertion of the adulterer, an anesthetist, after he's confronted, rather dramatically, with his affair: "Though his eyes were red, his face was again smooth, fixed with a look of aloof regret that I imagined he used for the relatives of dead patients . . . that rueful, authoritative half-smile avowed that his part in any such death would always be blameless."
You go, girl - even if you did just kill somebody.
Ed Siegel is a freelance writer. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.