Le Fanu, J Sheridan - 'Wylder's Hand'
WYLDER'S HAND is an early psychological thriller of the 19th Century, one of a series of classic crime novels reprinted by Atlantic Books earlier this year.
The narrator, lawyer Charles De Cresseron, is invited to Brandon Hall by his friend Mark Wylder. Mark Wylder is about to enter into a marriage of convenience with the orphaned Dorcas Brandon to unite two claims to the same estate, and wants De Cresseron to help advise on the legal aspects of this marriage. Dorcas is beautiful but somewhat languid, and has no real affection for Mark Wylder, nor him for her. Mark Wylder has rather more interest in former flame Rachel Hall, Dorcas' unmarried cousin, living in genteel poverty in a small cottage a few miles away. When her brother, former Navy man Stanley Hall comes to visit, Mark Wylder is uncomfortable and it is clear that Stanley Hall has some sort of hold over Wylder, in the form of potential blackmail material that he would like to use to manipulate him away from marrying Dorcas. Tensions build behind the polite facade of dinners at the hall with the narrator, the Halls and Dorcas and her family. Then one night Mark Wylder vanishes without a trace, save for a series of letters signed by him sent from London and Europe.
This disappearance doesn't unduly upset Dorcas Brandon, who had pretty much decided to break off the engagement by this point, due to the lack of affection on both sides, but proves to have dire effects for Mark Wylder's brother, the virtuous but gullible local vicar. Before his disappearance Mark Wylder had promised to help the vicar pay off relatively modest debts from his student days. But without this assistance, the vicar falls into the clutches of devious lawyer Jos Larkin, who doesn't have his client's best interests at heart. Stanley and Rachel clearly have some knowledge about Mark Wylder's disappearance; Rachel struggles with guilt, whilst Stanley is thoroughly self-interested and takes the opportunity to woo Dorcas Brandon. Larkin has some inkling that there is something fishy about Mark Wylder's disappearance, but prefers to keep quiet and bide his time, so he can make as much money as possible out of the situation.
WYLDER'S HAND is not really a whodunnit - we find out the identity of the victim and the perpetrator early on in the novel, if not the exact nature of the crime - the novel focuses more on depicting the psychological aftermath of crime on the perpetrators, and the ripple effects outwards on the victim's family and friends. The length of the novel (approximately 500 pages) gives Le Fanu plenty of scope to develop the fine detail of the characters and their privileged milieu, but can occasionally make the plot seem to unfold a touch slowly. Few of the male characters are depicted favourably: Mark Wylder, is calculating with a brutal streak and Stanley Lake is an alternatively wheedling and aggressive utterly selfish bully, not above being violent to his sister. The characterisation of the lawyer Larkin is particularly interesting as he is cast as an alternative villain of the piece, all the more sinister for operating largely within the letter if not the spirit of the law to carry out his bad deeds. Despite Rachel's complicity with her wicked brother, she is drawn more sympathetically than Dorcas, who seems to enjoy imagining herself as doomed by family heredity to the role of tragic heroine.
WYLDER'S HAND contains all the elements of the classic gothic thriller - aristocracy, feuding families, property, beautiful women, dastardly men, insanity and murder, with a possible supernatural element at work. But more significantly it is an early and rather remarkable precursor to the psychological thrillers of Ruth Rendell and others, and would make an ideal fireside read for the festive season.
Laura Root, England
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