Tainted love


L E Usher<em> Quartet, 197pp, £10</em>

ISBN 0704381214

Mary Miss McCloskey, an Australian bookseller living in London, decides to kill her closest friend, Edmund, an English author and heir to an impressive literary name. Using her detailed knowledge of murderesses in history, McCloskey begins to slowly poison him.

L E Usher weaves Mary's obsession with killing Edmund around memories of her childhood in Australia, dwelling particularly on her mother. The past is denoted in a reduced typeface, which seems apologetic, as if conscious of taking up too much space (or the reader's time). These passages are rather self-indulgent, and they stall the plot. Even Mary's morbid interest in murder, although fascinating, is often an unwelcome deviation. But it becomes clear that this background knowledge is integral to the novel, as the past collides with the present, courtesy of some careful structuring.

In the second, more assured half of the book, there are some great touches and peculiar observations. The idea of the window display for dead authors is darkly comic. The sex scenes, set in the mundane surroundings above the bookshop, are oddly beguiling, as Mary derives further pleasure from her ailing victim. Usher successfully creates a macabre atmosphere, and the existence of the characters becomes quite unsettling. This rather self-conscious first novel does require patience at the beginning. Despite our complicity in Mary's plan to murder Edmund, the book doesn't grip like it should: her intentions seem meaningless and motiveless. But, later on, it is precisely the cold, detached way in which she pontificates on the finer details of her crime that rouse our interest.

Usher is at her best when writing about death, whether it be the possibility of Edmund's, or at Eliza's funeral, where Mary studies the corpse in an open coffin, bitchily noticing how Eliza's looks have been improved. By this point, dying has become as commonplace as making the tea, something that Mary and Edmund do often. Miss is as much about an overactive imagination, born out of a dull existence, as it is a meditation on death and its implications for the living.

This article first appeared in the 05 June 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Driving back to happiness