A read from the 1980s this week – Peter Dickinson’s The Last Houseparty. I was a big fan of his works for children, in particular the Changes trilogy, set in an England that had gone backwards, when the machines were smashed and the population took up the lives of medieval peasants, with only a handful of children somehow immune, and able to remember a time when there were machines.
I found echoes of this in The Last Houseparty, which flits between eras, from 1937, when the eponymous houseparty took place, an encounter in the North African desert in 1941, up to the early 1980s (the mention of Laker Airways dates this). In the present day, the young daughter of Lady Snailwood’s secretary is an adult, showing visitors round the house, which is falling apart, the famous mechanical clock and its rotating figures now still. In the past, the two Quintain cousins have been invited by their aunt Zena to entertain at her political salon. Zena was meddling in affairs of state, and seems to be trying to settle the Middle East, but the talk is largely of how to prevent the coming war.
During the weekend, a number of terrible things happen, initially only mentioned obliquely in the present day, so that the reader has to act as detective, slowly revealing more and more of the picture, but the truth is only made clear in the final paragraph. This left a rather bitter taste, and I wanted to like this more. It is perhaps more of a literary novel than crime fiction, despite the crime. The author has obviously carried out extensive research into clock workings, cars of the 1930s, and croquet, amongst other things, but somehow the characters never quite spring to life. One for the “interesting but tastes have changed” pile.