“People never recognize sin in themselves, do they? We are always innocent in our own eyes.”
Lancelot Jones is way off course. Not only has his plane been forced to land in the middle of the desert due to mechanical difficulties, but it’s the wrong desert altogether. The landscape seems utterly desolate. The building in the distance must be a mirage; this is the last place in the world anyone would choose to build a home.
The lady of the house, Alva Hine, is happy to welcome a stranded traveler. Over the course of the afternoon, this seemingly harmless old woman tells Lancelot the story of her life. “It is all so long ago now,” she tells him. “It cannot matter.” It may be the last story he ever hears.
An Afternoon to Kill is a brilliant meditation on the art of storytelling. Alva’s tale does not unfold as a straightforward monologue; rather, she fields interruptions and objections from her listener and designs her narrative to keep him listening even against his own better judgment.
Alva tells the story of a dysfunctional Victorian family straight out of the most bloodcurdling sensation novel. Lancelot, who is terribly young and earnest, with no appetite for fiction, listens with great condescension. These poor Victorians, seething with complexes yet too innocent to realize it. Alva’s reaction is only the first of many surprises Lancelot will receive this afternoon.
“I don’t think you quite understand,” said Lancelot Jones kindly.
“But I do,” she said cheerfully. “You think I do not realize that I was in love with my own father; yet that is exactly what I have been at some pains to describe to you, my dear young man, in the simplest language possible, so that you could not fail to understand. It was a tragedy, and from it came tragedy. There is no need to veil ones meaning behind the timeless antics of Greek mythology.”
They are an ordinary middle-class family, until all at once they are not. From this moment forward, the entire family will be plunged into a maelstrom of love, hate, and violence, one which will drive Alva to the ends of the earth.
Although the events Alva relates are far from ordinary, her experiences as an awkward teenager trying to navigate family life, society, and dating despite being woefully ill-equipped for any of it are universal. However, a nasty little undercurrent runs beneath it all. Perhaps these are not just the typical calamities of adolescence, but rather the unheeded signals of disasters to come.
I have already said that I was self-conscious and gauche, and it pleased her to seek out all my sore little spots of unconfidence and call my attention to them in public as dulcetly as one could imagine. At the end of an afternoon’s tea party I would feel as full of pin-pricks as a dressmaker’s dummy and not half so handsome or useful.
Her account is so compelling because it is a collaborative effort between speaker, listener, and reader—The Princess Bride, but make it crime. Lancelot is never afraid to challenge Alva, questioning why she took a certain course of action or pressing for more detail on a point she is trying to gloss over. He is determined to solve the mystery before the end, and she is just as determined that he will not have the satisfaction. Many of his interjections are intelligent. Others reflect his own prejudice, which Alva delights in deflating. Lancelot is disgusted, for instance, by the sight of Alva’s Arab servant handling food unhygienically, only to learn that the man picked up those habits while training in the best kitchens of Europe. He is eager to impose modern standards upon nineteenth-century people, but his questions also require Alva to examine her own assumptions. Separated as they are by age and gender, the two are so different that neither can take anything for granted. There are several different kinds of stories being told here, and it’s up to the reader to sort it all out.
The sinister atmosphere of Alva’s story begins to pervade the modern-day narrative as well. Lancelot has come down in the wrong place, in the middle of nowhere. Not even his pilot knows where he’s wandered off to. Periodically, Lancelot grows bored or apprehensive and tries to leave. At these times, it’s clear that Alva is adjusting the way she tells the story in order to keep him engaged (and, of course, Shelley Smith is doing the same for the reader). Lancelot, and the reader, cannot help wondering: is Alva simply lonely, or does she have some other reason for keeping him there? Is he even free to leave at all?
An Afternoon to Kill is a masterclass in how to craft a compelling mystery. Stories are never really passively consumed—books are always a conversation between the author and the reader, built upon unspoken assumptions on both sides. Alva’s account is fascinating, yet the way the tale is shaped by its audience, and the way the audience is shaped by the tale, is the real story here.
All in all, I would say this was a great read, with what I would describe as a delicious ending.
Smith writes crisply and with a light touch, and the novel is as admirably brief as it is dense and sly. Each of her two tales concludes with a firm snap that, like all good endings, combines a note of surprise with the clear knell of inevitability.
In An Afternoon to Kill (1953) she explores the talent and skill involved in storytelling and makes a sound argument for it not only being a true art but also a powerful tool.
An Afternoon to Kill is available as an ebook from Lume Books