Old fashioned crime

Sarah Waters is a brilliant writer. It's a while since I reviewed her eerie story The little stranger which I thoroughly enjoyed. The paying guests also doesn't disappoint. In fact I think it's even better than Little stranger.

Strongly inspired by some classic murder cases of the '20's and '30's (Rattenbury and Stoner and Thompson and Bywaters), and some great crime writing from the same period, most notably F. Tennyson Jesse (who was in turn inspired by the Thompson / Bywaters case), Paying guests centres around Frances Wray and her mother. Living alone in a large house following the deaths of all the men in the family, Frances is forced to let out rooms to make ends meet. A suffragette by inclination, Frances and her mother are curiously helpless after Frances' brothers are killed in the First World War, and her impecunious father dies shortly afterwards. Frances is forced to step up, and become the "man" of the house. The decision to have lodgers though is to have devastating consequences when the unhappily married Barbers move in, and Frances and Mrs. Barber fall in love....

Waters brilliantly plays with perceptions. In many ways this is the story of Thompson and Bywaters told from a feminist and lesbian perspective. It's both a social commentary and a gripping read, with Waters ratcheting up the tension superbly. For anyone with some knowledge of the real life cases (I am a bit of an aficionado of true crime of that period) it forces you to re-examine your own reactions, and also wonder what the reaction would have been of those living at that time - it's notable for example that when it is revealed that Mr. Barber had been having an affair, the mistress takes most of the blame.

It often struck me while reading this that although many of the attitudes seem old-fashioned, many have not substantially changed in the almost-a-century since this novel was set. A challenging, gripping read, Waters as ever dazzles with The paying guests.


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