By Hugh Fleetwood (Stein and Day; 1973)
An intriguing exercise in psychological horror that tells a predictable story yet constantly keeps the reader on edge. It contains a hint of the macabre naturalism of Patricia Highsmith mixed with the narrative trickery of Robert Bloch.
Hugh Fleetwood, an Englishman based in Rome, has written quite a few eccentric thrillers over the years, the best known being 1976’s THE ORDER OF DEATH (made into the cult Harvey Keitel/Johnny Rotten movie CORRUPT). THE GIRL WHO PASSED FOR NORMAL was Fleetwood’s second or third novel, written when the author was still in his twenties, and is a fairly impressive accomplishment. The narrative is compelling, the characterizations uniformly solid and the psychology extremely well delineated–even if the whole thing is ultimately a fairly conventional account of deception and murder.
Barbara, a widowed dancer, travels to Rome to tutor the slightly retarded twenty-year-old Catherine. The latter is the daughter of Mary Emerson, a dour, domineering American emigre. Mary wants Barbara to teach Catherine to dance in an effort to help the girl “pass for normal.”
Mary and Catherine have a decidedly tempestuous relationship, which is further aggravated by Barbara’s intrusion. But then Barbara’s boyfriend David goes missing and Catherine comes to believe her mother killed him. Barbara, however, suspects the real truth of the matter is far less cut and dried.
As you might guess, another murder is in store, as is a climactic twist, though it’s not terribly unexpected (the title kinda gives it away). What’s interesting is the tricky way Fleetwood structures his novel: he begins with the disappearance of David then flashes back to Barbara getting the assignment to tutor Catherine, refraining from revealing the particulars of Barbara and David’s relationship until around the halfway point.
I imagine many will charge Fleetwood with jerking his readers around, but I say his structural daring adds a menacingly off-kilter angle to an otherwise conventional thriller. As the back cover of the paperback edition makes clear, “The reader senses it in the first few pages: Something is wrong.”
Another notable facet is Hugh Fleetwood’s disturbingly insightful grasp of aberrant psychology. It’s what really elevates this book above most psycho thrillers, and kept me turning the pages. All the characters are disturbed in some fashion, none more so than the apparently well-adjusted protagonist Barbara, whose innate neediness overflows as the story advances, and gets her into all manner of trouble.