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ARTHUR LA BERN
Nightmare


click to enlarge

Pan, London, 1977
(price: 60p; 160 pages)
first published 1975 by WH Allen


The blurb on the back:

Roland John Raine QC had reached breaking point. His wife had run off with a big-time gangster and his daughter was playing ministering angel to the East End dossers.
He swallowed a bottleful of barbiturates and half a pint of whisky and he didn't want to wake up ... ever.
When he came to in the mental ward, the heavy mob were tying the last knot on his strait-jacket.
The nightmare had started.
Then someone killed his wife's lover and the nightmare went on and on...


opening lines:
The last sounds he heard before losing consciousness were the yakking of ducks, the honking of geese and the
roucoulement of pigeons in St James's Park, the boom of Big Ben and the more distant but shriller rendition of time from a bugle on the square of Birdcage Walk barracks.


Arthur La Bern was for three decades a reliably solid writer, responsible most famously for Goodbye Piccadilly, Farewell Leicester Square, the novel on which Alfred Hitchcock's last classic movie, Frenzy, was based, but also for the books behind a clutch of British cinematic melodramas: It Always Rains On Sunday, Night Darkens The Streets (filmed as Good Time Girl, Freedom To Die and Dead Man's Evidence. Here's an extract from the biographical note at the beginning of the book:

Arthur La Bern claims to be a Gallic Cockney, having been born in London of French parents. He worked as a journalist for a number of newspapers including the Evening Standard, the Evening News, the Daily Mirror and the Daily Mail. During the Second World War he was war correspondent for the Evening Standard and flew with the Fleet Air Arm in the Pacific. He has also been a crime reporter, and has written biographies of George Joseph Smith, the Brides in the Bath murderer, and of Haigh, the Acid Bath murderer, as well as a biographical novel about General Booth, Hallelujah!

Nightmare is, as far as I can tell, one of his very last pieces, and was never filmed, probably because even in the depressing days of the 1970s it would have been a bit miserable for a movie. The central theme is the abuse of the civil rights of psychiatric patients, as evidenced by our protagonist, a QC who's hit the bottle and finally decided - quite rationally - that there is no reason for him to continue living. Unfortunately, he doesn't succeed in his efforts to kill himself and thereby finds himself trapped in a system from which he can't easily escape:

Attempted suicide was no longer a crime... Yet under the 1959 [Mental Health] Act the man or woman who attempted suicide and failed could be locked up as a potential danger to himself or herself. No welfare state could be more concerned about the individual's welfare than that. (p.34)

The only way out is to be released into the care of his next-of-kin. Who happens to be his wife, whose desertion of him was the original cause of his despair.

It's a neat, if downbeat, situation, but unfortunately La Bern doesn't have quite the nerve to go through with it and halfway through we veer off into a crime story that's decidedly less interesting than the British Cuckoo's Nest for which we'd been hoping. And the tension's destroyed by the highly co-operative and supportive stance taken by the police force, which is both disappointing and unconvincing - this is, after all, supposed to be the QC who got off one of London's most notorious gangsters; hard to believe that the police wouldn't bear some sort of grudge.

All a bit of a waste, really. Nice cover, though.


ARTISTIC MERIT: 3/5
ENTERTAINMENT VALUE:
3/5
HIPNESS QUOTIENT:
2/5


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