The Pursued by C S Forester

A long-lost crime novel, written by CS Forester in 1935, is a skilful and chilling analysis of obsession

The Sunday Times, 6 November 2011

CS Forester is best known for his adventure stories about Horatio Hornblower, a naval officer during the Napoleonic wars. But he also wrote crime fiction and The Pursued is being published for the first time, more than seven decades after the manuscript was lost.

The book is a tense psychological drama, set in the south London suburbs, which vividly reveals the limited horizons of Forester’s characters. Marjorie is married to Ted, a domestic bully, and much of her time is spent protecting her children from his temper. One evening, Marjorie returns from a rare evening out to find her pretty sister, Dot, dead on the floor, with her head in the gas oven. When a postmortem establishes that Dot was pregnant, it looks like a sad case of an unmarried woman who could not face the shame of her predicament, and her death is ruled a suicide. But Marjorie and her mother, Mrs Clair, begin to fear Dot was murdered and a chance remark from Marjorie’s young son confirms their suspicions.

In 1935, when the novel was written, women’s lives were still dominated by men. Forester’s portrait of an abusive marriage is brutally frank, explaining why neither Marjorie nor her mother even considers approaching the police. But mild Mrs Clair secretly steps out of role, plotting the death of the man she holds responsible for the murder of her younger daughter. She turns out to be a skilled manipulator, using her unworldly lodger to create a love triangle that will become the instrument of her vengeance.

Forester’s novel is about an obsession that gradually takes over a human being, and it is all the more chilling because the rest of the characters don’t even realise they are being manipulated. The disaster that ensues seems inevitable but it is horrifying when it arrives, and the final chapters chart the poignant relationship between Mrs Clair and her remaining daughter. Four decades after his death, Forester’s lost novel reveals him as a skilled practitioner of suburban noir.

Penguin Classics £14.99/ebook £14.99

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