THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN by Celia Fremlin
Faber & Faber; Reprint Edition, 6/7/17
CBTB Rating: 4.5/5
The Verdict: classic crime for fans of modern psychological suspense
Psychological thrillers, and domestic thrillers in particular, have had one long moment in the cultural spotlight: from GONE GIRL to THE GIRL ON THE TRAIN to BEHIND CLOSED DOORS and more, this trend doesn’t appear to be slowing down anytime soon. Psychological suspense might be all the rage right now, but it isn’t actually a new form of crime novel. Authors have been writing psychological and domestic thrillers for generations, and it’s amazing to see just how relevant and timeless some of these earlier suspense novels can feel in 2017. THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN by Celia Fremlin is the perfect example of a classic crime novel that seems a direct predecessor of today’s psychological suspense. Exploring the tensions of marriage and the demands of motherhood, THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN draws readers into a home, a marriage, and the mind of one woman, themes that translate seamlessly from the 1950’s to 2017.
Louise would give anything - anything - for a good night’s sleep. Forget the girls running errant in the garden and bothering the neighbours. Forget her husband who seems oblivious to it all. If the baby would just stop crying, everything would be fine.
Or would it? What if Louise’s growing fears about the family’s new lodger, who seems to share all of her husband’s interests, are real? What could she do, and would anyone even believe her? Maybe, if she could get just get some rest, she’d be able to think straight…
In a new edition of this lost classic, The Hours Before Dawn proves – scarily – as relevant to readers today as it was when Celia Fremlin first wrote it in the 1950s.
First things first: I have to give credit to author Peter Swanson (HER EVERY FEAR) for drawing my attention to Fremlin’s crime novel, which Peter has aptly labeled a “lost masterpiece.” Peter raved about this book to me in Oslo earlier this year, and I have to say, I can completely understand his enthusiasm for it. THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN is ageless in content, exploring the pressures of motherhood, the tensions of marriage, and the paranoia that can infect even the most “ordinary” mind under extreme stress. At the same time, Fremlin’s writing is rooted firmly in its time period—a quality that will attract readers of classic crime.
Personally, the element of this story that continues to fascinate me most of all is its over-arching timelessness. There are so many arguments to be made for why THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN is worth a crime reader’s time, but the strongest argument I can personally make centers around the almost uncanny ability of Fremlin to write a psychological thriller in the 1950’s that would later feel perfectly on-trend in 2017. Trends are cyclical, but sometimes I find readers and reviewers alike (myself included!) forget that, as a subgenre, the psychological thriller isn’t as brand-new as we might think. Psychological suspense - and domestic suspense in particular - are hot right now, and there are many incredibly talented authors pushing the boundaries of these subgenres in new and inventive ways every single day. That doesn’t negate the fact that there are also brilliant, twisty, and sophisticated psychological thrillers that have paved the way for today’s crop of suspense novels, and that are wholly deserving of a modern reader’s attention. ENDLESS NIGHT by Agatha Christie is one such example (and a personal favorite of mine), and THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN by Celia Fremlin is another.
When you parse out the elements that make THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN so appealing, the result is a layered and masterful suspense novel that hits all the right notes. THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN is undeniably affecting and thought-provoking; readers will be drawn into the mindset of a woman who is slowly but surely losing her mind under the societal and interpersonal pressures placed upon her as a mother and homemaker. Fremlin not only delivers a genuinely gripping glimpse into her main character’s mental state, but through this same character she also (perhaps not-so-subtly) comments on the enormous pressures and strains of motherhood. This book is also genuinely chilling and surprising; the twists and turns of this story, though slower-paced, can absolutely rival modern-day psychological thrillers in their cleverness and intensity. THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN builds steadily to a shocking and almost cinematic finale, and I loved watching Fremlin take her suspense novel from brooding to tense to all-out paranoia-inducing.
Whether or not you consider yourself a fan of classic crime fiction, THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN is worth a spot on your reading list. Granted, this book is slower-paced - but if you enjoy Agatha Christie, you’ll feel right at home in Fremlin’s world. Beyond simply reading this book for its plot (which is excellent!), readers who pick up THE HOURS BEFORE DAWN will be hooked on its pitch-perfect - and seemingly ageless - example of psychological suspense.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Dover Publications; Reprint edition (September 13, 2017)
Crime by the Book is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to Amazon.com. This in no way affects my opinion of the above book.