• U.S.

Books: Death Comes With Dessert

4 minute read
Margaret Carlson


by Muriel Spark

Houghton Mifflin; 192 pages; $18.95

If Muriel Spark were a car, she would be getting about 50 miles to the gallon. The author of one of the most elegant short novels of the century, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, wastes not a word in this, her 19th, novel. With brief snatches of conversation, 10 characters at a London dinner party are introduced with such clarity that the reader knows who would be a bore to sit next to and who will drink too much.

This dinner, with its plump pheasant, understated Bordeaux and unobtrusive help from the Top-One School of Butlers, has been planned to the last detail by the city’s most charming couple, American painter Hurley Reed and his companion, Chris Donovan. One guest, a genealogist who resists the temptation to find distinguished ancestors for rich people, is so obliging at parties that he can be put “next to a tree and he will talk to it.” Another, a television-documen tary producer, temporarily quiets the victim of a recent crime with her theory that all human beings exist psychologically in a certain era; she claims an 18th century sensibility. The robbers left behind a guitar and a painting by the contemporary artist Francis Bacon, she explains, because they were “history-blocked” somewhere before the 20th century. The host, a Roman Catholic, makes a persuasive case against marriage and, in the event marriage has already taken place, for automatic annulment: love creates such a state of mental imbalance, he argues, that the vows are “like confessions obtained under torture.”

But the civilized life is all veneer, as thin as chintz wallpaper and easier to strip. Consider Margaret Murchie, who is the guest of honor along with her new husband, William Damien, heir to an Australian fortune. Margaret has been linked to three mysterious deaths. She was the last person to see alive her grandmother, her schoolteacher and a nun at the convent where she went to atone for the death of the first two. Now she would be happy to dispatch her wealthy mother-in-law, Hilda Damien, who is expected for dessert.

A fork clatters to the floor when Ernst Untzinger clumsily tries to touch the hand of the overly handsome waiter Luke, a graduate student who may be having affairs with both Ernst and Ernst’s wife. Luke hires himself out for parties so that he can supply guest lists to a ring of thieves who prefer to pull off their heists when no one is home. Hilda Damien, the self-made millionaire whose healthy glow gives her the look of “a mild sunset,” is unavoidably detained and never shows up for dessert. About the time the creme brulee is served, Hilda is being smothered to death by burglars who thought she would be dining out.

Dread of aging and death, whether by illness or murder, hovers over many of Spark’s characters, but that does not make the author glum. Unlike Margaret, who is criticized by her husband for liking “art to have an exalted message whereas if there was anything he hated in art, as in life, it was a sermon,” Spark seems to believe that the only sensible way to consider serious questions — religion and guilt, insanity and illumination, free will and destiny — is with lightly lethal humor.

Margaret, given to icky sweetness, vacuous sentiments and pre-Raphaelite poses in velvet dresses with flapping sleeves, would be comic if she had not apparently turned murderous along the way. The reader is left to ponder when she lost her innocence. Was it when she schemed to meet her rich husband in the produce section of Marks & Spencer’s (“Those grapefruits look a little bruised,” she warned her prey)? Or when she asked her demented uncle if he could see his way clear to drown her new mother-in-law in a pond?

There is no proof that proximity to the earlier deaths was anything but bad timing on her part, but the burden of association may have turned her into a person capable of violence. The robbers, of course, make any evil design on her part unnecessary, and we are left to wonder about her moral culpability. Does she feel guilty as only the innocent can? It’s a slippery slope out there, and there’s no one better to chronicle the slide than Muriel Spark.

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com