The Catalyst by Josephine Bell (1966)

The Catalyst by Josephine Bell

6 stars (6/10 stars)

You know, if they weren’t so scatty, such an absolute hoot, I’d begin to think they were a bit sinister.”

I’ll tell you what I think. I think they’re first-class liars, one and all. And they hate each other.”

For thirty years, Hugh Wilmot has dreamed of Greece. He’s finally taking the trip, though the circumstances aren’t exactly what he imagined. His wife Florence and her sister Beatrice are ruining the holiday with their bickering, just as their incessant fights have destroyed his home life for so many years. In fact, their rivalry seems to flourish in the sun, with their travels providing a fresh audience for old grudges. Fellow holidaymakers can’t help feeling disturbed, as each member of the trio tells a different version of their relationship. Only one thing is clear: a Greek tragedy is playing out before their eyes.

The Catalyst is a deceptively simple story about how tangled human relationships can become. As this trio of disturbed personalities attach themselves to students Jennifer and Peter and, most fatefully, film star Rosamund Oakley, the presence of outsiders only seems to encourage their dysfunction. One ominous event follows another, each one drastically changing our understanding of what might be going on. It’s wonderfully atmospheric, as violent and deranged events invade a sun-baked landscape of beach outings and package tours. The only thing keeping this from being a masterpiece of suspense is the shallowness of the central characters.

The major problem is that Florence and Beatrice’s sibling rivalry is a little too realistic. Their screeching and yelling nearly overwhelms the narrative, causing the reader to share the exasperation of the other characters. Just when everything is going along nicely, here come Flo and Bee to ruin things. Even when they seem to be getting along, it’s only a matter of time until the next explosion. It becomes exhausting very quickly, to the reader as well as to Jennifer, Peter, and Rosamund.

Hugh and the women had each confided the weakness of the others and had described actions and motives that cancelled one another out. This was disturbing. It made communication vague, unreliable. It was impossible to take any fact or group of facts as a prime cause of their close-knit troubles. Because it was impossible to guess, far less to know, what was fact and what fiction. A fiction moreover born and bred in an abnormal mind. Then whose?

Hugh, Florence, and Beatrice are not, on the whole, likable or sympathetic characters—all three reveal their stories to near-strangers with an unseemly eagerness, desperate to get their version of events out before one of the others beats them to it.

“She must have been very pretty as a girl,” said Rosamund, kindly. “I know exactly what you mean. Lots of admirers and very few friends.”

She was thinking of her own youth. Beatrice understood this and the thought that her famous acquaintance was comparing herself with her despised and hated sister exasperated her.

“Pretty, yes,” she said acidly. “The kind that doesn’t last, I’m afraid.”

There was no possible answer to this and Rosamund made none.

Their accounts are so different on the surface, yet it’s possible to imagine a scenario in which all three versions are true at the same time. Hugh, hating both women, even as he is bound to them by guilt and obligation. Florence, whose now-faded prettiness has brought her nothing real, not even her marriage. And Beatrice, whose intelligence and ability is being wasted by her determination to hold onto victimhood as tightly as she can.

The Catalyst by Josephine BellThere’s not much room for the other characters, with these three sucking all the oxygen out of the room. The only other character who gets much definition is Rosamund, whose kind nature is very different than one might expect from an aging movie queen. The sweet but suggestible Rosamund is in the habit of taking “economical” vacations to decompress before a new role. While Rosamund’s personality seems inoffensive, her status is powerful. The idea that a beautiful actress is taking an interest in Hugh (whatever the nature of that interest might be) destabilizes the delicate balance between Hugh, his wife, and her sister. As the story unfolds, more of Rosamund’s motives are revealed as well, adding undercurrents to a character who otherwise seems a little too good to be true.

The Wilmots, Rosamund, and the young couple Jennifer and Peter are not traveling together, but they keep running into each other as they wander the well-trodden tourist routes from Delphi to Rhodes to Crete. The Catalyst is effective as both a travelogue and an advertisement for the joys of staying at home. Greece may be full of wonders, but first and foremost it is full of people. Two frightening incidents result from Hugh, Florence, and Beatrice being smashed by crowds; it remains ambiguous until the denouement whether these are simple accidents of overcrowding, or whether a malevolent person is taking advantage of the crowds to strike unseen. The fact that so many others are always around makes it impossible for the Wilmots to hide their enmity even as it adds to the confusion that surrounds them.

The plot of The Catalyst is breathtakingly suspenseful and ambiguous. Even when tensions finally erupt, the reader is kept guessing until the very end. If only the people involved were worth all of this drama. Hugh is a textbook midlife crisis, while Florence and Beatrice remain insistently one-note. The fascination of the plot (which, to be fair, is considerable) comes entirely from trying to figure out what is going to happen next; it doesn’t matter at all who it happens to. As is often the case with Josephine Bell, she gets things just right enough to make you wish she’d been able to nail the rest.


The Catalyst is out of print, with a few reasonably priced used copies available.

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