Lauren Owen grew up in the suitably Gothic gatehouse of Escrick Park, an 18th-century mansion in Yorkshire, which had been converted to a girls’ boarding school. Her dad worked there, and she spent the holidays exploring the house and grounds and pondering the lives of the people who used to live there. With an MA in Victorian Literature, and the remembered sleepless nights from reading Robert Swindell’s scary Room 13, she set about writing the deliciously macabre The Quick (Vintage, £7.99), in which a shadowy aristocratic secret society, Dickensian urchins and a heroic maiden in peril rampage through the foggy, gaslit streets of Victorian London. Eithne Farry
‘It is so difficult to make a neat job of killing people with whom one is not on friendly terms.’ Such is the view of Louis Mazzini, antihero of Kind Hearts and Coronets (1949). In spite of this impediment, Louis murders his way through six members of the D’Ascoyne family (all played by Alec Guinness) to inherit a dukedom.
Louis is a terrible man, of course. Not only a murderer, he’s also a cad – stringing along childhood sweetheart Sibella whilst courting the virtuous Edith.
He does have a wonderful work ethic, however. He adopts an impressive array of disguises and hobbies in his quest, mastering swimming, archery, photography, and shooting. Louis dreams big. The title he longs for is far off, but he gets out there and makes things happen. At first he works in a shop, pushed around by arrogant customer Ascoyne D’Ascoyne. Louis gets his revenge, though. Striking a blow for ill-used retail workers everywhere, he drowns D’Ascoyne, beginning an ambitious project of mass homicide.
Louis also has wonderful sang-froid. He begins the film waiting to be hanged, but it would take more than this unpleasant situation to shake his composure. When Sibella visits him in jail (having masterminded his conviction for murder), she explains that she couldn’t bear her last sight of him to be the look of hatred he had sent her in the courtroom. ‘In view of the fact that your evidence had put the rope around my neck, you could hardly expect a glance of warm affection,’ Louis replies. I first saw the film during my adolescence, and I always envied Louis’s superb self-control. If only I could treat my own teenage misfortunes with so much ironic detachment.
The final lesson I took away from Kind Hearts and Coronets was the risky seductiveness of putting pen to paper. Louis gets a last-minute reprieve from the gallows, only to leave his written confession behind him in his jail cell. We’ve had Louis’s cool, ironic narrative voice with us all the way through the film – making asides, hinting at what’s to come, more or less running the show. Now this source of Louis’s control will be his undoing. It’s a good lesson for everyone – particularly authors. Use your words very carefully.