Reviewed by Gill Davies
London in 1963, despite some remaining scars of wartime, is busy re-inventing itself with skyscrapers rising over bomb sites, American music and movies, trendy coffee bars, and new boutiques selling young fashions. In V.B. Grey’s novel, “The Sixties” is just around the corner and that turning point is the context for a story about family secrets, revenge, buried desires, and broken relationships.
Delia Maxwell is a very successful popular singer from an earlier generation (perhaps more Dusty Springfield than Alma Cogan) who is now trying to adapt to new fashions in music. Her success was the foundation of a recording company run by Peter Jenks who is still her manager and business partner. The company too has been changing from a family business that “used to sell wooden radio cabinets … Before that it was pianos. Now it’s transistors and portable record players”. As the novel opens, Delia Maxwell has gone missing just as she is about to sign a contract to make her first film in Hollywood and re-direct her career. This is completely out of character – she has always been single-minded and dedicated to her work. With little known about her private or earlier life, other than her rise to fame with the professional help of an older man, Peter fears that the press will get hold of the story and damage her reputation. So he employs a friend to try to find her. This is Frank Landry, like Peter a former air force pilot, who has spent some of the post-war period working in the last outposts of the empire, including Malaya. He has recently returned to England, is not yet employed and has no ties other than to a married woman back in Kuala Lumpur who broke off the relationship when she discovered she was pregnant.
While looking around Delia’s mews flat for clues about her disappearance, Frank meets Lily Brooks, a younger woman who has been helping Delia with secretarial duties. To him she represents the transformation of English society – with “cropped hair and black garb”, one of the “coffee-bar beatniks who liked to argue about existence while listening to Juliette Greco”. With her confidence and independence she also disturbs his preconceptions about women. It emerges that Lily was taken up by Delia after a stage-door encounter and that she has been steadily playing a bigger part in the older woman’s life and career. (Shades of All About Eve and Bette Davis’s famous line – “fasten your seat belts it’s going to be a bumpy night.”) As in that film, it slowly emerges that the ingenue Lily may not be all that she seems. Celeste, Delia’s oldest friend, is convinced that the girl has dark motives for working her way into Delia’s life. (And Celeste, too, is facing the challenge of a new world that will reject “Gowns by Celeste” in favour of Mary Quant.)
What follows is an increasingly strange and gripping psychological mystery in which the motives and feelings of all the characters become compromised in one way or another. Frank is haunted by his lost love affair but then – inevitably – falls in love with the unattainable Delia. There is a hint of Laura, a film noir whose detective falls in love with a missing woman. Grey, who is also an accomplished TV screen-writer, builds the tension very well, sustaining the mystery up to a satisfactory resolution. This is accompanied by a vivid picture of the entertainment business in the Sixties that includes a middle-aged Lothario of a film star, filming at Cinecitta in Rome, and details about the technical aspects of film direction that are fully integrated into the plot about a novice film actress.
The action of the novel takes place in 1963 but everyone concerned is haunted by the recent past. One of Delia’s hit records is “My Hidden Heart” and her war-time experience as a teenager is a mystery only slowly revealed over the course of the novel. And the novel’s title Tell Me How It Ends is also the title of another of her songs. The powerful pull of the past and in particular the shadow of World War 2 underpins the narrative: Frank and Peter’s war service as pilots; Frank’s prisoner of war experiences and his more recent work in Malaya with its hint of dubious “intelligence” work; Delia’s middle-European links to her former agent Conrad; Lily’s mysterious parentage. All the main characters have inherited secrets and shadows. On top of this, there is desire – love affairs past and present, concealed longings and thwarted hopes. We are transported into a period that looks very different from ours, where the characters’ speech, feelings and behaviour are fully embedded in their time.
It all makes for a gripping and powerful story. But it’s also an unusual one – and a very refreshing change, I think, from serial killers, contemporary domestic noir and novels with “Girl” in the title.
V. B. Grey, Tell Me How It Ends (Quercus, 2020). 978-1529405392, 357pp., hardback.
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