“You dreadful creature. You killed her, but I suppose you know that.”
A bride-to-be is happily preparing for her wedding, until she receives an anonymous letter. “I’ve been waiting for this,” it reads. “If you don’t call off the wedding, I will.” But this bride is tougher than the letter-writer imagines. She has only one night to discover the identity of her enemy, save her marriage…and possibly her life.
Letter of Intent is an unusual suspense novel that gains its power from its mystery. I began reading without any knowledge of what it was about, and was riveted until the last page. The story revolves around a female character so brilliant and inscrutable that it is impossible to guess what she might do next. At the same time, however, she lacks any sort of humor or charm that might make a reader wish to revisit her adventures. As a result, Letter of Intent is a dish best served cold, with as little prior information as possible.
That makes it a bit awkward to review, but we’ll give it a shot. Following the enigmatic prologue, the reader is introduced to Celia Brett. At least, she will become Celia Brett. She begins as an awkward teenage housemaid who slowly starts to realize how artificial the barrier is between herself and her employers, how easily the difference might be bridged. As Celia tries to better herself, it is unclear whether the reader ought to be rooting for her or not. Is she the unnamed bride from the prologue, or the one who writes the letter? Which one is the heroine and which is the villain? The answer will not be revealed until the sensational climax.
Celia eventually lands a position as housekeeper to the elderly Mr. Tomlinson. She is hired by his chic, intimidating niece, Mrs. Cannon, rather against the old man’s will. In fact, Mrs. Cannon seems to make a lot of decisions on her uncle’s behalf that the sickly Mr. Tomlinson is powerless to resist. It soon becomes clear that something is going on in this house, all of it driven by the tantalizing prospect of an inheritance.
She was like a child who, discovering Christmas, starts to wonder. How many days? How many, indeed? Mr. Tomlinson began to seem to her like an hourglass with an obstacle in the middle, preventing the final flow.
There are two main themes running throughout the book. One is the question of what constitutes a crime. Most mysteries involve crimes of action. This one largely concerns failure to act. What Letter of Intent suggests is that it may be possible to commit a crime purely through bad intentions. There’s no need to do anything overt. All one has to do is provide the right kind of atmosphere for the victim to destroy themselves. Is this murder? How much responsibility do the victims themselves bear?
The other major theme of Letter of Intent is the challenge of upward mobility. In theory, social mobility is prized in the United States. When Celia tries to improve her position, however, she encounters resistance from all sides. Her employers appreciate the way she works to improve her manners and wardrobe, until she becomes too successful at it, blurring the line between the upper classes and their “inferiors.” In night school, she meets a clerk trying to work his way up in the world. Celia convinces him that she is a cut above him socially, but the relationship is fraught with danger. She knows that he would be enraged to discover she is only a servant trying to better herself through education and marriage, even though he is attempting exactly the same thing himself.
In fact, everyone Celia meets is uncomfortable with the idea of a person whose social background cannot be instantly placed. They pay lip service to the American dream while feeling deeply threatened by its implications.
[Celia] knew all about Cinderella, and had been to see My Fair Lady, but she had also become acquainted with the mores of the magic circle into which she was finally beginning to winnow her way. It was acceptable to be a multiple divorcee, or to enter into a liaison without benefit of divorce if this were done with sufficient dash. Feckless heirs who were openly known to have the last piece of Faberge in and out of hock were regarded with indulgence and sympathy—in fact, vied for. Triumph over origin was given its enthusiastic due: “He’s an assistant producer now, if you please, and when you think that his father was a steam presser that’s rather marvelous, isn’t it?” but these plaudits were rendered among the insiders, like the handshake of a secret society. “Only in America” was carefully left unsaid, lest the accent should come out wrong.
What these people would never forgive was a feeling of having been made fools of—not only to themselves but, far worse, to each other.
Celia isn’t afraid of being murdered. She’s afraid of being laughed at. So is everyone else, but that only makes her danger more acute, as she becomes convinced that “the world seemed to contain nothing but enemies.”
Letter of Intent is a thriller as coolly precise as its central character. Far from being a standard woman-in-peril plot, here the woman is the peril; Celia is so competent and unflappable that, when she is threatened, you’re not afraid for her, you’re afraid for them. The novel is absolutely unputdownable, with an electrifying climax, even if there’s something a bit clinical about the whole enterprise. While I’m not sure Celia’s world is a place I’ll be tempted to revisit, I’m glad to have experienced it.
First published in 1971, this hauntingly interesting novel is very much in the Ruth Rendell/Barbara Vine mode.
Letter of Intent is out of print with used copies available.