Crime of Silence

by Patricia Carlon

Published by Soho Press

192 pages, 1998

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Resounding Silence

Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson


Crime of Silence, written in 1965, is a timely re-issue. As its title suggests, it's less about murder than it is about the behavior of people confronted with, tempted by, suspected of, or involved in wrongdoing. In short, it's about something that has been much in our news, if not in our hearts, during recent months: morality.

Patricia Carlon, an Australian writer whose crime and suspense novels are well known in England, was initially ignored by publishers in her homeland who preferred police procedurals. Crime of Silence has no cunning sleuths, and the police don't show up until near the book's end. Instead, from the opening sentence, the story is given over to cowards, murderers, victims, and manipulators -- in short, two families in the small Australian coastal town of Comboroo whose lives become linked through a spate of kidnappings.

The story opens as George Winton, a well-to-do businessman, is awoken by a disturbing phone call. Some months earlier, he and his wife Annie had quietly paid off the kidnappers of their 3-year-old daughter, following the abductors' demands that the Wintons avoid any police involvement. Another affluent Comboroo family had previously turned to the authorities for help, and their child was found dead. So the Wintons asked no questions, paid the ransom demand, and their child was returned. But the kidnappers remained unknown.

The call that begins the Wintons' nightmare anew comes from Evan Kiley, a local newspaper reporter. Kiley had come home late the night before and discovered his little son Robin missing. The babysitter was dead in the kitchen. There had been rumors, never anything the newspaper could pin down, about how the Winton kidnapping was resolved, and now Kiley is asking for -- even demanding -- information and help.

Reluctantly, the Wintons agree to meet with Kiley and his estranged wife Miriam. The distraught reporter pours out his story, "his voice low and rapid, as though all the events were being lived there again in front of his eyes." While not as wealthy as the Wintons, Kiley is the owner of family land that had become valuable because of government development plans. He assumes that the kidnappers have targeted his family because of their new wealth, and he blames the Wintons for leaving the child snatchers at large.

George Winton, beset by guilt, reluctantly agrees to help Kiley get his son back. As before, the kidnappers have warned Kiley not to involve the police, so together the two men take steps to prevent anyone from discovering the babysitter's death. Winton takes the Kileys into his home, and he even helps Evan Kiley convert some of his real estate assets to cash to pay the kidnappers.

But then things start to go terribly wrong. Winton realizes he has become far too involved in the Kileys' problems:

He didn't sleep and he knew the Kileys didn't, because in the silence of the house he could hear them whispering on and on and the sound was an irritation and he felt an urgent desire to go and knock on the wall dividing the spare room from theirs. Miriam Kiley had gone to her room as though by right, as though her parting and desertion of her husband had never happened at all. Lying awake smoking, blinking at the square of window where two stars showed, George thought of the Kiley marriage and the future and himself and Annie; particularly of Annie and what she would say when he told her what he had done.

In this tightly written novel, every sentence has a double meaning, though sometimes the empty spaces in the narrative -- which you will foolishly try to fill in -- are even more significant. Kiley is playing a game with Winton, but, you begin to suspect, he's not the only one being toyed with.

Crime of Silence is much like the dark books, called "psychologicals," that Georges Simenon wrote as counterpoint to his heartier police procedurals about French Inspector Jules Maigret. Carlon is perhaps even more effective than Simenon was with this type of story. She's able to evoke a cozy domesticity that is threatened, ripped, and smeared as the story spins out. Unnerving tales like this haven't been much in vogue in recent years, as nastiness and brutality have been seen as camp rather than chilling. If the pendulum is, indeed, swinging back to a fascination with human psychology and mores, Crime of Silence will set a high standard for writers and readers alike.   | January 1999


KAREN G. ANDERSON writes frequently about crime fiction for January Magazine.