There’s not much written these days about Phyllis Paul (1903-73). She published twelve novels in over a 30+ year period. Most of them can be classified as “thrillers”, although there are enough supernatural overtones to put them in the supernatural category. My interest in her began when I read a comparison of her writings to R R Ryan. Mark Valentine of Wormwoodiana has a very high opinion of her work, which piqued my curiosity.
Echo of Guilt has a very dense, literate style. This is not an easy novel to read, which makes me wonder why it was marketed in the US as a Gothic romance (note the Lancer Guild cover which has the generic woman standing in front of a dark mansion). It’s more of a tragedy enacted over a 50-year period, with two prominently British families whose fate is intertwined. There’s also a lot in this book about the Roman Catholic Church in 20th century England (although no Holy Grail conspiracies).
The novel begins by introducing Ms. Alice Hawke. Ms. Hawke has a bit of a problem. Her son has joined the Catholic Church and wants to become a priest. However, he’s wild-spirited and the church has doubts about him. She visits a prominent English Catholic layman, Dr. Rodney, and tries to get him to intercede for her son.
This is where the book starts to become interesting. Dr. Rodney, and his family, is the major focus of the novel. As the book describes him:
He had not been accepted for the religious life; but in his youth his soul had been bound to the ethos of the monk;he had been taught by monks and prejudices of monks had made their iron impress.
Eventually, Dr. Rodney’s wife passes away and he is forced to care for his children alone. At the halfway point, Ms Hawke is murdered. The culprit is never found, but her renegade priestly son, Lewis, is sent to stay with Dr. Rodney’s family by the church (figuring the exposure to the esteemed layman will do him some good).
Now the book turns up the thriller volume. Lewis tells Dr. Rodney one day that a strange man was seen leaving the house after the death of his mother. He also tells the good doctor that the stranger looked a lot like Dr. Rodney. And where was he on the day of the death?
From Dr. Rodney’s actions, you’re never quite sure if he was the killer or not. He tries to retrace his movements for the day, talking to everyone he knows,trying to get a witness to his whereabouts on the day of the murder. He even tries to get a prominent protestant scholar to vouch for him. But he never can quite be sure.
And then Dr. Rodney disappears off the face of the earth.
After some chapters discussing the effects of his vanishing on his family, the novel advances thirty years. The children of the both families have grown and moved on with their lives. Most of Ms. Hawke’s children are active in the Catholic church. The book closes with a long meeting between several of her children where Lewis, now a prominent Catholic priest, expounds on his theory as to what happened to Dr. Rodney.
But we never really do find out. Even as the book closes. Dammit.
The overall feel of Echo of Guilt is moody. It has been said that Phyllis Paul’s books are filled with doomed characters. The reader is filled with a sense of dread from page one. Which doesn’t make it an easy read. Still, Paul is a very literate writer and I’m disappointed she’s not better known today.