Book Awards E-MAIL US

The Unquiet Night
Patricia Carlon
Soho Press
191 pp.

The Price of an Orphan
Patricia Carlon
Soho Press
191 pp.



The Mystery of the Neglected Master
The Price of an Orphan and The Unquiet Night

Australian mystery writer Patricia Carlon is finally getting the American attention she deserves, three decades after her novels first appeared.

I suppose it's not unusual for the American publishing industry to ignore a talented writer, particularly when the writer has never been published before. The uncertainties inherent in taking on an unpublished writer—are their works marketable? will they be the critic's darling and the public's No Name?—more than compensate for the moment's joy felt when discovering a real talent. But it's another matter altogether when the neglected writer has actually been published to much acclaim for decades in another English-speaking country—and in a genre that's immensely popular in America, at that.

Indeed, it's one of the publishing industry's odd mysteries that Patricia Carlon's superb psychological thrillers had to wait more than thirty years to be published in America. She has been compared—justifiably—to such masters of the genre as Alfred Hitchcock and Patricia Highsmith, and yet despite her having written more than fifty novels and being translated into seven languages, until Soho Press began publishing her work four years ago, she was entirely unknown to most Americans.

And it's hard to understand why, frankly. While her novels are set in her native Australia, they aren't overwhelmed by a sense of foreignness that closes them against American readers. She doesn't use impenetrable slang, for example, and her setting descriptions are more than adequate to bring a distant landscape to life. In fact, her storylines are not tied to her settings; they could easily be changed to American ones and the stories would lose only a sense of local color (wake up, Hollywood!). And even more importantly, Carlon uses plot devices that are familiar to any American reader who has seen her share of Hitchcock films.

This is especially obvious in Soho Press's latest Carlon title, The Unquiet Night.


The Unquiet Night (which Carlon wrote in 1965) opens—like Hitchcock's Rope—with a tight shot on a strangling victim. Mart, a nineteen-year-old man with a troubled past, has snapped suddenly under the weight of his date's ridicule when she discovers that he only wants to talk—and talk and talk.


She had said at first, "Well, you're a queer one, aren't you?" and tried to break across his talk, but he hadn't let her and after a while the red mouth had turned down. She had even started to hum, to sing half under her breath, the drone of it hiding the words, annoying him.

When he had told her to be quiet and listen she had retorted flatly, "Who says I got to? I didn't come to sit and freeze and listen to you. You're silly anyway."

He'd been angry then, and she'd grown angry in turn. She had called him silly again and told him he ought to be locked up and blind fury had taken over his actions. He'd wanted only to shut out the words: to stop the taunting, when he had caught her by her slim throat.


Of course, he regrets his action immediately, but it's too late. Now, it seems, he has a body to get rid of. So he drags the girl's body to the edge of a lake and rolls it into the water. After watching it disappear, he turns back to the woods and begins retracing his steps to his motor scooter. "Then," Carlon writes, "he saw them." A nine-year-old girl and her aunt have come to the reserve for a picnic, and while the girl is caught up in her playing, the woman is staring directly at Mart. After whispering Hello, he flees. But once he has a moment to reflect, he realizes that the woman will be able to identify him, once the girl's body is found and questions are asked. Unless, he tells himself as he begins a night-long hunt for the witness, she isn't able to talk.

Mart doesn't begin to approach Patricia Highsmith's brilliant psychopath, Tom Ripley, either in psychological complexity or perverse appeal. While Ripley ripples with a jealousy that finds its best expression in irony and mordant humor, Mart is defined mostly by rage and anger. And given his youth and lack of physical appeal, he's not to be found among Hitchcock's stable of villains either. Carlon does sketch out the other characters in The Unquiet Night surprisingly well given the book's speed and relative brevity, and we find ourselves caring quite a bit for people with whom we've suddenly been thrown without much preamble.

But the real star here is Carlon's skill at weaving an intricate plot around a single plot device: she gives her readers more information than any single character has in any given scene (or ultimately, in the novel as a whole), and then she sets up a series of coincidences and near misses to drive us crazy with anticipation. An example: a repairman gets worried when he sees his client hasn't taken in her milk delivery—so he takes it in for her...but doesn't hear her frantic (though muffled) cries for help. Then her boyfriend appears and becomes alarmed when he sees she hasn't fed her dog, and he starts to investigate...but then he notices she's taken the milk in, and he decides she's merely gone back to sleep. And then he leaves without hearing her (still frantic but fading) cries for help.

Again and again, Carlon brings her characters to the brink of figuring out the mystery or saving someone's life, but they lack that one critical piece of information that we ourselves have, and so we're hurtled into the next character's near miss. The wonder of it all, of course, is that Carlon can use such a simple device in so many different ways without our growing weary of it. Indeed, the tension toward the novel's end is almost unbearable; like Hitchcock, she isn't unwilling to cause her characters pain in the name of suspense. Yes, it's sadistic to enjoy watching a novelist torture her characters at such length, but I dare you to read 160 pages of The Unquiet Night and set it down with the final thirty left unread.

This is, quite simply, about as good as the genre gets.


The Price of an Orphan, which Soho Press has now released in paperback after last year's hardcover American debut (thirty-five years after Carlon wrote it), is almost exactly the same length as The Unquiet Night, but it moves at a decidedly more leisurely pace that makes it feel longer and a bit more substantive—at some expense to that breathless quality you expect in a thriller, of course. Ironically, the two novels share a jarring detail: they both have nine-year-old children at their center. But The Price of an Orphan's nine year old does indeed witness his book's murder, and he can actually fight back against the murderer should they try to silence him—but only if he can get someone to listen to him.

Johnnie has been taken in by a young, childless couple as a foster child, but it's turned out to be a mismatched pairing. While the Stuarts live on a farm in the outback, Johnnie prefers the city, and their disagreements and misunderstandings escalate as Johnnie begins to tell elaborate lies as a way of rebelling. Inevitably, when he tries to tell the Stuarts about the woman in the bright red dress being murdered near the farm's series of caves, nobody believes him—no matter how many believable details he offers. (Unfortunately, he's missing the most crucial detail—the murderer's identity; he'd seen the murderer from a distance and can only identify their clothes.) Then, when the murderer offers to drive Johnnie back to his father in the city by a roundabout tour through the outback, Johnnie's hopes (and ours) seem dashed. The tension builds appreciably at this point, of course, and Carlon plays up particularly well the deliciously frustrating problem of being a small, seemingly helpless child trying to outsmart a tough adult who has successfully cut you off from everyone else and is devilishly talented at explaining away your rare chances to shout murderer.

Carlon invests more time in building up the psychological complexities of The Price of an Orphan's central characters than she does in The Unquiet Night, which makes critics in search of substantive themes happy and has the added benefit of making the book feel significant to readers who want their books to be more than guilty pleasures. The caves, for instance, might bring the Marabar Caves to mind among readers who know their E.M. Forster. Like A Passage to India's famous caves, Carlon's have strong metaphorical implications: diminishing the individual's significance in the face of nature's grand, subtly dangerous show on the one hand and on the other symbolizing the dangerous pitfalls that lie before anyone exploring their repressed subconscious. (The Stuarts, after all, have no children of their own; in time, they don't even sleep close enough to touch in bed, which hints at far darker repressions.)

But for all that, The Price of an Orphan remains, at heart, simply a stunningly strong piece of suspenseful writing. Indeed, the final pages of The Price of an Orphan are brilliantly managed, with enough tension to make readers crush a drinking glass in their fist, even though all the tension hinges on implied action; in reality, everyone is caught up in that dead-silent tension Hitchcock uses so well when suspicion on one side and the unsatisfied desire to scream on the other render characters mute. (The final scene in Hitchcock's Notorious comes most readily to mind here, but these final pages often feel shockingly close to the used car dealership scene in Hitchcock's Psycho.) The Unquiet Night may be a better novel of suspense overall, if only because its plot is so taut and the tension so beautifully maintained. But The Price of an Orphan works through another rhythm altogether, and its accumulated suspense, handled so masterfully in the finale, is riveting.

Happily, Soho Press hasn't finished with Carlon—they will next publish her Hush, It's a Game (one of Carlon's more promising titles) and expect to publish at least two more—and they merit accolades for bringing this superb writer's mysteries to Americans. Hopefully, she'll finally get the attention she deserves.

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted August 1, 2000



About the Author

Patricia Carlon was born in Wagga Wagga in 1927.  She now lives in Sydney.  Her suspense novels, which were first published in Australia in the 1960s, have now been published in seven counties.  The Soho release of Who Are You, Linda Condrick? is its first U.S. publication.



Graphic Design by D.A. Frostick 
Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999-2005
riverrun enterprises, inc.