Audrey Erskine Lindop (1920-86) was once a popular author of romantic, historical and crime-inflected fiction. I Start Counting was one of her last but seems to be the one she is best known for today. This may be because it was turned into a decent movie starring Jenny Agutter but also because it might still seem a little controversial. The narrator is fourteen-year old Wynne and she is currently at a remand home for some unspecified crime. She then starts to tell us just how she got there …
I submit this book & film review for Todd Mason’s Tuesday’s Overlooked Film meme at Sweet Freedom; and Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge.
“If only I hadn’t old Corry those lies …”
Wynne provides us with a family tree early on to explain her unusual domestic situation. Having lost her mother and father very early on, she has been brought up by her paternal grandfather and his twice-widowed daughter, Lucy, who already had a son, George, from her first marriage, and a pair of twins (Len and Nellie) from her second. They used to live at a house at Collins Wood in Dalston, but had to move as the street is being levelled to make place for more modern dwellings. She loved being there and had a huge crush on George, who being so much older than the other children acted as a surrogate father and brother. She now thinks she is in love with him, and he (being twenty years older) has understandably taken a step back as she enters adolescence (the title by the way is a reference to her habit, when scared or stressed, to start counting until she calms down).
Mum squeaked, “Len! Have you been drinking?”
“Of course not,” said Granddad bitterly. “He’s been playing the harmonica at the neck of that bottle for the last half hour.”
Wynne is a Catholic (the only one in the family, inherited from her late mother) and is trying to square her conflicting emotions with her religious upbringing while also spending most of her time being egged on with her often annoying best friend Corrine, mainly bragging about their non-existent adventures involving sex and boys. She also has to put up with the strange behaviour of the frequently drunk Len and the selfish antics of Nellie (who want to be an actress and now wishes to be known as ‘Helene’). Then Wynne’s complex emotional family life really gets tangled when she starts to suspect that her beloved George may be the Dalston strangler, responsible (so far) for the murder of four young women all around the area where they used to live.
“Is he telling me?” I thought weakly. “Is he telling me it’s him?”
Wynne’s feelings about George, mixed up with her burgeoning sexuality and an often claustrophobic situation with her family (he mother is highly ineffectual, panics over any problem and has no control over the twins) lead to a sense of jealousy about the secrets that George seems to be keeping from her. Why did he hide the jumper she knitted for him at their old house? And is he still pining for Claire, his fiancée who died in an accident a decade earlier – are the murders linked to this event? Wynne lies to her friend Corinne about her relations with George and this leads to his arrest. But is he really the guilty party – or has be been lying to cover up for somebody else in the family?
“I went down on my knees and tried to pray – but I found myself gabbling senselessly. Perhaps it wasn’t blood …”
Lindop seems to have been determined to write a bit of a shocker, packing the book with references to sex and drugs and a fair amount of swearing too, though this is all pretty unconvincing. Having set up a potentially very intriguing central character – one haunted by a sense of abandonment following the death of her mother – she is however depicted as being actually very straightforward and actually rather dull, despite the frequently hysterical life at home a strangler who is getting ever-nearer and sexual pangs for her ‘brother’ – a melange that simply fails to gel convincingly. It doesn’t help that the protagonists are mostly caricatures (most notably the mother) and that treatment is overly prolix – for instance, one flashback starting in the middle of a tense confrontation on page 149 doesn’t conclude until page 161, at which point the original scene then continues into another chapter. This makes for an overly long book (my hardback runs to well over 300 pages), all limping to an ending that is meant to surprise but which only achieves this by coming completely out of left-field, ultimately leaving this reader feeling highly dissatisfied. The film version however works much, much better.
“In the world of the nightmare, a little blood adds colour!” – original film poster strapline
Jenny Agutter is utterly charming as the schoolgirl in jeopardy in this movie, which benefits enormously from smart and restrained direction by David Greene, who doesn’t skirt the sexual aspects of the story but handles them with intelligence and tact. There is also a very strong screenplay by Richard Harris, a veteran of stage and the small screen, who sensibly prepares viewers of the ‘surprise’ reveal at the end and sensibly prunes the book right back (Nelly is cut completely, as is the flashback structure and the digressions into the past). He also makes the characters feel much more substantial and credible, which is particularly notable in the case of the mother, who is made much more down-to-earth, especially as played by Madge Ryan. In the equivocal role of the main suspect, Bryan Marshall does extremely well, while his scenes with the doting Wynne are played with just the right mixture of love, regret and unease (the scene in which she finally declares her physical longing for him, only to me met by a slap is especially well judged). But this is Agutter’s film all the way – she is in every scene and entrancing throughout and also very convincing despite being actually 17 when the film was shot. I just wish it were available on DVD …
John Grant reviewed the film in full detail over at his Noirish blog, pointing out that one of the differences between the book and the film is the meaning of the title, which now refers to the basement of the old house Wynne used to live in.
DVD Availability: Nothing yet though it is available illegally online in a barely acceptable version. It deserves better.
Director: David Greene
Producer: Stanley R. Jaffe
Screenplay: Richard Harris
Cinematography: Alex Thomson
Art Direction: Brian Eatwell
Music: Basil Kirchin
Cast: Jenny Agutter (Wynne), Bryan Marshall (George), Clare Sutcliffe (Corinne), Gregory Phillips (Len), Lana Morris (Leonie), Billy Russell (Granddad), Madge Ryan (Mother) Simon Ward (bus conductor)
I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challenge in the ‘religion’ category: