Billed as the original psychological thriller, winning the 1960 Edgar Award for best mystery novel, The Hours Before Dawn was Celia Fremlin’s debut. First published in 1958, it is of its time in some ways but had me guessing throughout.
Louise Henderson can’t understand why her baby son, Michael, won’t stop crying. All through the night he keeps her awake to the point that she can’t remember the last time she had a full night’s sleep. She never had this problem with either of her daughters and wonders what on earth could be wrong with her son. Husband Mark complains about the noise, reminding Louise that he never wanted a third child rather than offering to help. In fact, the only element of this novel that dates it particularly is this pre-feminist attitude that shows Louise struggling to cope because parenting is entirely her own responsibility.
It was thoughtful of Mark to switch off the alarm so that Louise should have an extra hour’s sleep after such a night. It was thoughtful of him, too, to get his own breakfast and to bring her a cup of tea when he left for work at half past eight. The only trouble was that by half past eight the girls also should have had their breakfast; should, indeed, have been almost ready for school instead of lying peacefully in their beds reading comics. Thus it happened that Louise was able to produce only the thinnest pretence of gratitude for all these attentions; and as she leapt out of bed and dashed into the girls’ room, leaving her tea half slopped into its saucer, she knew very well that Mark’s feelings must have been hurt.
And if this isn’t enough, she has their new lodger to deal with. Miss Brandon seems to be an incredibly organised and efficient schoolteacher. She never complains about the noise and yet there’s something odd about her. Both Louise and Mark agree that there is something familiar about her, though they can’t imagine where they might have come across her before. And a friend later tells Louise that Miss Brandon asked for her address, even before the advert had been posted to let the room. But why would Miss Brandon be interested in Louise and her family?
Fremlin writes in such a way that the reader (and Louise) can never quite decide if there is really something going on or if Louise is slowly going mad through lack of sleep. She falls asleep during the day, has dreamlike moments when she’s unsure whether she is awake or asleep. It doesn’t help that Mark assumes her worries over Miss Brandon are down to jealousy. And he doesn’t help either by spending hours upstairs in Miss Brandon’s room, apparently discussing Ancient Greek and other intellectual subjects that Louise has no interest in (I spent much of my time reading this novel trying to work out if Mark was just spectacularly useless or actually a terrible person).
Fremlin slowly increases the tension as Louise becomes more convinced of the guilt of Miss Brandon, even as she struggles to work out what she could possibly want from the Hendersons. The ending, when it came, was not a surprise but was very satisfying.