Escaping into a world of books
Most of us are always on the look-out for a means of escape from this crazy old world or from our personal trials and tribulations.
We pack kids and kit into the car and head off for the beach hoping that a change of schedule and some sand and surf will bring us peace of mind. (It’s called a getaway for a reason.) Some cast aside the jailhouse garb and leg-irons of their daily lives by flopping down on the sofa every evening and flicking on the television. The more creative break out of their prison-pent stress by gardening, taking a twilight stroll through the neighborhood or calling a friend.
And some of us make our escape through books.
Those pass keys of print and ink are most often my way of leaving behind, however temporarily, the penitentiary that duty, work and obligation can sometimes become. A quarter hour on the back deck, a quick lunch at the island table in the kitchen, a few minutes at the coffee shop when I can close my laptop and cease work: put a book in my hand during these mini-breaks, and for a few minutes I’m free as a bird.
Most recently, it was a novel that unlocked my cell door and gave me those wings to fly away.
Simon Brett is British, the author of more than 100 books, including many mysteries, and I confess I’ve never heard of him. For whatever reason, his book “Waste of a Life” (Severn House, 2023, 192 pages), snagged my attention at the public library, and home we came.
“Waste of a Life” is the third in Brett’s “decluttering mysteries” — I’ve never heard of those either — and here we meet Ellen Curtis, proprietor and sole employee of SpaceWoman. “My services,” Ellen tells readers, “are called on when the amount of clutter people have accumulated gets out of hand,” and one of the people who meet these qualifications is an old gentleman and recluse, Cedric Waites. Reluctantly, he agrees to allow Ellen help him sort through his possessions and detritus, and to arrange for some repairs to his heating system and other appliances. Though they never become fast friends, the retiring Cedric seems to enjoy Ellen’s company.
And then one day she arrives to find him dead in his bedroom. Though his death at first seems natural, authorities later conclude that someone probably poisoned Cedric. A suspect herself, Ellen has reason to try and hunt down the killer, and we join her in this search.
Several features of this story attracted me. First, only Cedric dies. In some of the thrillers and suspense novels I’ve read — I’m thinking in particular of the Jack Reacher series — by the end of the story a platoon or more of corpses litter the pages. “Waste of a Life” kept me engaged without walking me through an abattoir.
Next, much of Brett’s novel has less to do with Cedric’s murder than with Ellen’s life. She is a middle-aged widow who loved her husband, but in this story begins to find another man attractive. Having hit some major snags in their own careers, Ellen’s twenty-something children, Juliet — she calls herself Jools — and Ben, return to live with her for an unspecified time. The eccentric Dodge, a friend of Ben’s, works at times with Ellen carting junk out of people’s houses and is also a suspect in the murder. Ellen’s eccentric, annoying, self-centered mother, Fleur, acts like that bit of sand in a mollusk whose irritation produces a pear. A rival declutter spreads lies online about Ellen and becomes tangled up in the mystery. In other words, Ellen’s life is as cluttered up, albeit with human beings, as the homes of some of her clients.
Literature also plays a part in this plot. Both Cedric and retired teacher Mim Gilbraith possess book collections which the characters frequently discuss and which have some bearing on Cedric’s murder. As a much younger woman, Mim played the bohemian in London’s literary scene, and so brings some of the poets of that post-World War II scene into the story. Because of my affinity for books about books, this feature brought an unexpected delight.
Finally, though several people are suspects in Cedric’s murder, Brett gives us a quick clue near the beginning of the book as to the killer’s likely identity. Because I am usually terrible at solving literary mysteries, I felt enormous satisfaction at correctly guessing the murderer in this whodunit before reaching the denouement.
One note: in the second paragraph above, “prison-pent” is a term I read long ago in Thomas Wolfe’s introductory remarks to “Look Homeward, Angel,” where he wrote, “Which of us has not remained forever prison-pent?” Congratulations to any reader who recognized in my own sentence that echo of one of our great writers.
Wolfe’s quote brings us back to my prison metaphor. Is he correct? Are we forever locked away inside ourselves? I think not. We have ways of breaking those locks, and one of them comes with a book.
As journalist and filmmaker Nora Ephron once wrote, “Reading is escape, and the opposite of escape; it’s a way to make contact with reality after a day of making things up, and it’s a way of making contact with someone else’s imagination after a day that’s all too real.”