” …knowing in my heart that too much of my loss was unexplained for me to leave unasked the questions that still gnawed at me: Why did you reject me, Elizabeth? Why did you marry Gerald Couchman? Wherein did I offend? . . . My disgrace seemed a more malevolent working of fate which did not even deign to show its motive. ” (Ch.1, from Memoir of Edwin Strafford, p.131)
The present can never be rid of the past. This cannot be truer in Past Caring, which concerns with the past and its reverberations for the present. Much of the plot revolves around the recovery of a manuscript autobiography, written in 1950, of a forgotten English politician whose career came to an abrupt end in unexplained circumstances shortly after World War I. Edwin Strafford was the rising star in politics when he became home secretary at the age of 32. His career in a government that opposed female suffrage and his impending marriage to Elizabeth Latimer was incompatible. After discussing his plan with Elizabeth, Strafford submitted his resignation and went to meet her—only to be rejected by her in the most scathing terms. The reasons for her sudden reversal remained unknown to Strafford—until much later when he was alerted by a dubious piece of evidence forged to implicate him. Strafford’s memoir is, in full, inserted into the novel and provides the background of the mystery. It professes a lifelong bafflement as to why Elizabeth terminated their engagement.
He had been honest. He had volunteered the devious twists and turns of his fraudulent life. Perhaps for the very first time, he had told the truth. But the truth, as he would have been quick to point out, was outrageously unlike compared with the credible charade of a life which he had painstakingly constructed. (Ch.6, Postscripts, p.346)
In the novel’s current frame of 1977, an elderly wealthy South African businessman who lives in the mansion when Strafford lived out his life in obscurity as a British Consul on Madeira hires Martin Radford, a young, unemployed history graduate to investigate the life of Edwin Strafford. Is his fall the outcome of his youthful indiscretion or a calculated force of sabotage? Why had Elizabeth’s love abruptly turned to hatred? Who had turned her against Strafford?
Only my love for her saved her from the truth. My sacrifice for her sake was to let her believe the worst of me. However corrupt I knew Henry and his father to be, their disgrace was not worth Elizabeth’s desolation. (Ch.6, Postscripts, p.358)
Strafford’s questions soon become Martin’s. His investigation brings him to the Strafford house and Elizabeth. If Strafford’s disgrace is the careful orchestration of deception and manipulation, his death some forty years later is only part of a more insidious vendetta of revenge. The entire novel is pervaded with a sense of unease. The characters are well drawn and all have hidden motives. Not only are they bound by an entanglement of intrigue, misunderstanding and betrayal, they are all colored in shades of grey. They only come into full focus and shading at the end of the story.
Past Caring is a crime mystery where the crime is not the heart of the matter. It is more a tale about love and it’s sacrifice, honor, and dignity. It makes me think again whether sometimes the disclosure of the truth can do someone’s service.
501 pp. Delta Books. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]
Filed under: Books, Contemporary Literature, General Fiction, Literature, Mystery Tagged: | Books, Contemporary Literature, Historical Fiction, Literature, Mystery, Past Caring, Robert Goddard, Thriller