…but, thankfully for three men called Mike, Steve, and Dan, it is not the same idea as the title of Rohan O’Grady’s novel republished in the latest batch from the unutterably wonderful Bloomsbury Group. I can’t believe how little I’ve been heralding the return of this series, and I promise to Do Better. First stop, Let’s Kill Uncle.
On the face of it, this is an unusual choice for inclusion. The rest of the books have been in the first half of the twentieth century, more or less, and funny in an insouciant and harmless way. Let’s Kill Uncle was published in 1963, and is rather more sinister than anything else Bloomsbury have published in this series. There are large dollops of humour too, but you’re unlikely to find the following sentence in Miss Hargreaves or Henrietta’s War: “Maudie and I never had a family,” said Uncle sadly, “although we wanted one. So you see, Barnaby is doubly precious to me. I adore children.”
He did indeed. Several little girls to whom he had taken a fancy had vanished into thin air.But I’m getting ahead of myself. O’Grady’s novel is about an orphan called Barnaby Gaunt (wouldn’t Dickens be proud of that name?) who is sent for a holiday to a beautiful Canadian island. He’s renowned as a bit of a trouble-maker, and the gentle couple who take him in don’t quite know how to respond. They lost their son in the war, and Barnaby is a supposed substitute – but doesn’t live up to this image. He is disobedient and mischievous, although not a mean-spirited child… there are reasons for his behaviour, which will become apparent.
And there is Christie. She is the only other child on the island, and equally wild in spirits, though rather more inclined to obedience in front of adults. Their escapades together could have been the stuff of Enid Blyton (with perhaps a little edge) – except the fable-esque anxieties about smugglers become a much more real, and thus more chilling, threat from a murderous uncle. For Barnaby is due to inherit ten million dollars, and Uncle doesn’t want that happen. Uncle is a seriously twisted character – very psychologically manipulative (he beats Barnaby for being good, for instance, or tells him he may go to bed, but continually calls him back with idle comments) and with a history of many murders – but the exterior of a placid, harmless man. So, when Uncle turns up on the island, Barnaby and Christie resolve to take the only logical path: kill Uncle first.
The plan goes into action – whether they succeed or not I won’t tell you, but suffice to say there are all manner of adventures along the way. This is such a difficult novel to categorise. It’s not really like the other Bloomsbury Group novels I’ve read – it’s not cosy, it’s not really a novel to be loved and cherished; it’s too chilling for that. Uncle is simply too evil. But neither is it a ‘scary book’ – there are flashes of humour (‘The children loved the little church; it was such a pleasant, peaceful spot in which to plan a murder’) and a light-heartedness to the children’s activities which was at odds with their murderous plans. When I read in the blurb that Donna Tartt had called Let’s Kill Uncle a ‘dark, whimsical, startling book’, I was a little confused. Surely those words clash a bit when placed together? And I’m still not sure that there is much whimsy in the novel, unless you describe any scene without blood as whimsical – but it’s certainly the lightest dark book I’ve ever read. Or possibly the darkest light book.
So, there you go! Perhaps not what I expected from the Bloomsbury Group series, but certainly a good read – both dark and light, a strange and clever mixture. And not a little unnerving…
I haven’t seen the 1966 film, but found the trailer on YouTube – it seems to be quite a loose adaptation. For those who share my fear of s***ers, don’t watch the last ten seconds of the clip:
Books to get Stuck into:
The Vet’s Daughter by Barbara Comyns – I chose this one because it’s got another depiction of an evil parent-figure. Alice’s dad is like Uncle, in that they are all the more chilling for not being exaggerated. The portrait in The Vet’s Daughter is far more unsettling and brilliantly drawn, but the similarities are there…
Miss Ranskill Comes Home by Barbara Euphan Todd – not really much of a link, but I struggling to find similar books – the link here is an island!!