Source: Review copy
Publication: 4th February 2021 from Manilla Press
My thanks to the publisher for an advance copy for review.
Yesterday, I kissed my husband for the last time . . .
It’s the summer of 1959, and the well-trimmed lawns of Sunnylakes, California, wilt under the sun. At some point during the long, long afternoon, Joyce Haney, wife, mother, vanishes from her home, leaving behind two terrified children and a bloodstain on the kitchen floor.
While the Haney’s neighbours get busy organising search parties, it is Ruby Wright, the family’s ‘help’, who may hold the key to this unsettling mystery. Ruby knows more about the secrets behind Sunnylakes’ starched curtains than anyone, and it isn’t long before the detective in charge of the case wants her help. But what might it cost her to get involved? In these long hot summer afternoons, simmering with lies, mistrust and prejudice, it could only take one spark for this whole ‘perfect’ world to set alight . . .
It’s a while since I read a book that is quite so pitch perfect. The Long, Long Afternoon captures the mood and the feeling of 1950’s suburban America so well. Set in the last days of Eisenhower’s Presidency when the impact of the Supreme Court’s landmark desegregationruling in the 1954 case of Brown v. Board of Education was permeating America, the first significant civil rights bill since the end of Reconstruction was coming into effect.
We are transported to Sunnylakes, a pristine housing conurbation in Santa Monica, California, 1959. Crisp cotton curtains adorn the windows in pastel shades; everyone has the same wooden cladding to show they can afford it and all the women attend the Women’s Improvement Committee. It is not far from Stepford Wives territory although we quickly learn that not all the women think their lives are idyllic.
To look at Joyce Hayney you would think she had the perfect life – she is married to Frank with two young children living in a lovely house. Frank has a good job and doesn’t beat her. The fact that she is living on a combination of diet pills and tranquilisers however, suggests that not everything in her perfectly manicured garden is rosy.
Ruby Wright is the help and she works at a few houses in Sunnylakes. She’s hoping to make something of herself and wants to go to college to train as a teacher. That’s what she is saving for, but for women like Ruby, there;s always a nasty surprise waiting round the corner to take away your optimism and to seek to instil fear and ensure you remember your place.
Inga Vesper’s convincing novel is told predominantly from the perspective of Ruby and a Detective Blanke, with some first person narrative from Joyce Haney herself, in flashback form.
This morning, Ruby arrives at Joyce Haney’s house as usual to clean and finds Joyce’s elder daughter on the lawn. Of Joyce herself there is no trace but there is blood on the kitchen floor.
What we get from The Long, Long Afternoon is a beautifully observed study of how women are perceived at the time; of how little thought was given to their mental nourishment because the patriarchy was there to be served and a woman’s role was to do that in return for which they were well kept like pampered pets. The blatant racism and casual sexism shines through from the second that Ruby, as discoverer of the blood, is arrested simply because she’s black.
Detective Mick Blanke recognises a degree of injustice in this, perhaps because he has made some mistakes in his recent past and as a result he’s been sent to this suburban backwater. He also quite quickly realises that he’s never going to get these women to open up to him in the way that he would need in order to solve the case, so he recruits Ruby to help him, holding out the hope of a reward to encourage her. Being a man, though, he doesn’t listen that hard when she tries to tell him things that matter.
There is so much going on under the surface of this mystery that you sense the turbulent undertow even as the gentle breeze ripples the water of the swimming pools in every garden. Ruby is an excellent character. She is sharp, inquisitive and intuitive and she knows when someone is behaving as they shouldn’t. Even as she was exploited and sometimes physically abused by those who employ her, she recognised in Joyce something of a kindred spirit and while of course they could never openly have been friends, there was a connection there that makes her want to stand up for the missing Joyce.
In the oppressive heat of these LA summer days more than one chilling secret lies awaiting discovery. In this mystery, the sense of a building tension and suffocating atmosphere adds to the shocking stories that lie behind Joyce’s disappearance.
Verdict: Beautifully layered and redolent with tension and intrigue this novel is sharp, involving and beautifully written with such a precise understanding of the mores of the time that it positively crackles. I loved it.
Inga Vesper is a journalist and editor. She moved to the UK from Germany to work as a carer, before the urge to write and explore brought her to journalism. As a reporter, she covered the coroner’s court and was able to observe how family, neighbours and police react to a suspicious death. She holds a MSc in Climate Change Management from Birkbeck College. Inga has worked and lived in Syria and Tanzania, but always returned to London, because there’s no better place to find a good story than the top deck of a bus. When not writing she likes to walk, knit and drink copious amounts of tea with sage and honey.