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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

Echoes of Celandine

Derek Marlowe

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To purchase Echoes of Celandine

Title: Echoes of Celandine
Author: Derek Marlowe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1970
Length: 205 pages
Availability: Echoes of Celandine - US
Echoes of Celandine - UK
Echoes of Celandine - Canada
  • Also published as: The Disappearance
  • Filmed as The Disappearance in 1977, directed by Stuart Cooper, and starring Donald Sutherland

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Our Assessment:

A- : far-fetched but remarkable stylish thriller (if often ugly in its details)

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Daily Telegraph . 4/6/1970 4/6/1970 Iain Hamilton
The NY Times Book Rev. . 29/11/1970 .
Sunday Times . 21/6/1970 Edmund Crispin

  From the Reviews:
  • "The story abounds in horror, as casually acceptable as the imagery of violence of television. (...) But the peculiar quality is in the style. The unravelling of the plot is important, naturally, but not so urgent as to hurry the reader past the pleasures of Mr Marlowe's melancholy wit." - Iain Hamilton, Daily Telegraph

  • "To get into this thriller is to feel more and more like a man trying to walk through speeding cars from one side of an eight-lane highway to the other. The openings are needed. (...) The voice of the author, in short, is more powerful than that of Jay Mallory. It can be a very mannered voice, all top hat, white tie and tails -- dressed up, but with nowhere to go. Some of the affectations are as squeaky as chalk on a blackboard, but with them comes a compensating assurance of what can be done, and this is stylish in its way. Mr. Marlowe wastes nothing. He twists his material together." - The New York Times Book Review

  • "Interesting, if not entirely successful attempt to cosmeticise, with avant-garde literary treatment, the decline and fall of a cultured professional killer." - Edmund Crispin, Sunday Times

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Echoes of Celandine is narrated by Jay Mallory, a thirty-nine-year-old hit man who finds: "Age is beginning to claim its due" and who is apparently worn down by the demands of his profession, complaining: "next week, I have to erase another man; to tell you the truth I no longer have the heart for it". The timing of the new assignment is certainly bad, as he has taken a different sort of blow at the beginning of the novel: his wife of nearly ten years, Celandine (the shortened form of Celandine-Dora), has left him -- without so much as leaving a note. As we learn, theirs wasn't a particularly happy marriage, with Celandine having had numerous affairs; she had also been previously married and brought a young child into the marriage, but the boy tragically died in an accident two years earlier.
       Despite the difficulties in the marriage, her sudden absence nevertheless hits Jay hard, and 'echoes of Celandine' reverberate all around him. He's in no mood to go through with the job he's been hired to do -- but he has a problem: his employers paid him half his fee as an advance, and he had already spent the entire £3000 to go towards buying a brooch for Celandine (which she did not conveniently leave behind ...). They'd let him quit the job if he returned the money, but he doesn't have the means to do so; still, he's resolved not to go through with it and suffer the consequences (likely: his own death), and so he is evasive and tries to avoid his employer's efforts to lead him to get the job done. He has some time -- he's the hitman, so they allow him some freedom in the planning, and the hit is only meant to take place in eight days -- but they do keep close tabs on him, and arrange some of the groundwork, whether he wants it or not.
       He is told that the man he is supposed to kill is called Feather; Jay is shown a photograph, so he knows what he looks like. It soon becomes clear that 'Feather' is a nom-de-plume (yes, that's what Marlowe calls it, and yes that's just one example of the kind of wordplay in the novel), but eventually Jay learns his actual identity.
       Disturbingly, Jay finds all his efforts to avoid going through with the job bring him closer to it. He was supposed to have flown to Argyll, because that is where the intended victim was likely to be, but avoids that -- only to find that soon enough all things point and draw him to Argyll. The more he thinks about it and learns, the more he's bothered: "there's something wrong with the assignment, isn't there ?" he observes to one of his handlers.
       There are all sorts of warning signs, beginning with the fact that the intended target is identified by a pseudonym and the amount Jay is being paid, four times his usual fee -- at going market rates at the time, he notes: "you could kill a president for less". And while he's good at what he does, the target seems, if not out of his league, certainly not the kind of person someone like him would usually be hired to take care of. As he points out to his handler:

Five years and I'm given bank managers, barbers and shoe-salesmen. Today, here, I'm assigned a millionaire, no less, who can't even decide where he wants to live. Who do you seriously want killed -- him or me ?
       There's nothing about all this that smells right to him -- but things conspire so that he can't walk away like he'd like to, even as he repeatedly tries to make a clean (or other) break. For one, there's his sudden suspicion that Celandine's disappearance may not have been a voluntary one, and he's still desperate enough to find her that he feels compelled to do some follow-through. Inexorably, he's drawn into a world where he finds a mounting number of connections to his life, past and present, -- often tinged with the siren-call of the echoes of Celandine ... -- and he can't avoid trying to get to the bottom of things. But it's a deep abyss he's exploring .....
       The plot of Echoes of Celandine reveals an intricate net of connections, making for a revenge-thriller that might be implausible but certainly serves up some very good twists and surprises.
       Jay notes that among his qualities -- not least for his profession, if not his relationships with women -- is that: "I have no emotion. At least not on the surface", but it's not just him: the novel is full of ultra-controlled characters and cold passion; among the disturbing scenes is one of Jay roughing up the wife of the man he is to kill, in trying to get information out of her, and her unblinking reaction and the dialogue between them. Worse is the description -- both in content and how it is calmly related -- his intended target gives Jay of a film he made involving Jay's previous girlfriend (who is also thrown into this complex mix of a plot). This tension between restrained emotion and, in particular, horribly violent acts gives the novel much of its power (though readers may well be put off by these characters; it's hard to imagine, fifty years later, that any contemporary author would even attempt to present some of the scenes and characters as Marlowe does).
       The thriller-plot and the way the story unfolds is solid, if far-fetched, but the real appeal of Echoes of Celandine lies in its writing, Marlowe indulging in style in a way that many might find drips much too much with excess but lends the whole thing a wonderfully strange air. Jay is a word-man, and clearly takes great pleasure in how he expresses himself. Words and wordplay abound -- with the novel's opening scene already mentioning Celandine's left-behind books, a half-finished crossword puzzle, and the observation: "No more abstractions, a Scrabble board perhaps is required to assess the reality". At one point he describes himself: "I am my own anagram, an out-of-date riddle, a labyrinth hewn out my own desire to be free, uncomplicated" -- while then someone who has followed his life and career closely sizes him up as: "A little overweight, a little out of date, a little overdrawn".
       Jay has developed: "a remarkable talent for remembering details", and he quotes from some of the poems Celandine liked, but Marlowe wisely avoids making him too bookish -- while still mixing in a good deal of literary mentions; so, for example, after quoting an aphorism Jay observes:
It as said, written or sung by someone called Cioran (the sex is indeterminate_ who may well have been a mysogynist, a mass-murderer or even non-existent.
       (The aphorism he quotes is, indeed, by E.M.Cioran.)
       Jay's narrative voice -- controlled, sharp, and educated-casual -- contrasts very nicely with much of the (often dirty) action (and, not least, his profession), but beyond that is pleasing in its peculiarity -- such as a neighbor described as having: "that air of reassurance one finds only in professional pianists, borzois and knole-sofas".
       There's an ugliness to parts of this novel, particularly involving the treatment of women, that might no longer be found palatable, but it's also mostly in keeping with Marlowe's studied contrast between tone and action. And, for all his control and lack of passion, Jay's obsession with Celandine -- and the situation he finds himself -- also finally bring him to the cracking point, an appropriate conclusion to the novel.
       It's an odd, unusual, and disturbing piece of work, but Echoes of Celandine is also quite a remarkable novel. If not entirely successful, it's still a very impressive work, both simply as 'thriller' as well as as novel.

- M.A.Orthofer, 28 June 2021

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Reviews: The Disappearance - the movie: Other books by Derek Marlowe under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       British writer Derek Marlowe lived 1938 to 1996.

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© 2021 the complete review

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