I START COUNTING (1966) by Audrey Erskine Lindop

LindopAudrey 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.”

Lindop-CountingWynne 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_I-Start-Counting_fontanaLindop 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 I-Start-Counting_posterinto 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:

023-Vintage-Silver-Counting

***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5 for the film)

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This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Audrey Erskine Lindop, England, Tuesday's Overlooked Film and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

76 Responses to I START COUNTING (1966) by Audrey Erskine Lindop

  1. That does sound as though it’s got the seeds of a potentially fascinating story, Sergio. It may not have played out in the most effective way, but the premise sounds interesting. The film sounds like a solid view, too.

  2. tracybham says:

    Both book and film sound interesting, although I sometimes don’t like to read about young teenagers in such situations. Just squeamish. Author is totally new to me.

  3. realthog says:

    Many thanks for the nod, Sergio. Lindop’s an interesting novelist, of whose books I’ve read several. I remember enjoying her The Singer Not the Song (1953) very much indeed, and likewise her The Way to the Lantern (1961). Her later works seem lesser than her earlier ones: I’ve always wondered if she might have been yet another victim of the 1960s druggie culture: very sad if so.

    Wikipedia used to have a pretty good article about her and her work, but I see that they’ve scrapped this in favor of an uninformative stub. Idiotic: whether or not one likes her work (and many don’t), she was a significant contributor to the popular culture of the 1950s and 1960s, at least in the UK.

  4. Bev Hankins says:

    I have to say, Sergio, that I don’t think this sounds like something in my line. As Tracy mentions, I’m not that fond of stories of this nature about teens–probably the only way I’d pick i up is for an “out of my comfort zone” category for a challenge. 😉

  5. kinneret says:

    Well written review, Sergio. You are a very thoughtful reviewer! Since I am writing something in a similar genre, I’m noting your criticisms here with interest. I’m also a huge Jenny Agutter fan so I’m excited to hear about this movie. I need to visit your blog more and look at your top mystery favorites. Wondering what you thought of either Gone Girl or Hyde, which I read recently by Daniel Levine. I got pretty pissed off half way through Gone Girl since I felt unduly manipulated by the author and didn’t feel everything hung together very well. However, after doing a considerable analysis of narcissistic personality disorder, he may have characterized the ?protagonist with fair accuracy.

    • Thanks very much Kinneret – I wasn’t all that keen on Gione Girl (I rlogged about it here), which I thought worked best as an exercise in genre but fascinated to hear that it may not have been as daft as I thought! Best of luck with your project 🙂

    • Todd Mason says:

      Well, she might’ve been accurate. But it still feels manipulative in too obvious a way.

      • Which I think is fine – in genre fiction. If you try to take it seriously, that’s when you realise that the lack of plausibility is a major handicap!

        • Todd Mason says:

          We shall have to disagree. I don’t see any fiction as escaping genre and the galumphing author squeezing the characters or situations (or both) into something rather witless won’t fly for me in any context. I like my surfiction plausible, much less anything else…you know, in its surreal way.

          • BUT CONTEXT IS EVVVERRRYYYYHTING 🙂 …. What flies in one genre won’t always go in another, right? I love Golden Age detective stories because they are not plausible and realistic. If, on the other hand, I think Patricia Highsmith hasn;t nailed the psychology of her characters, I think the books fall apart (for me).

          • Todd Mason says:

            Still not quite agreeing. This might well be part of the reason that, for example, you love the De Palma films that drive me up a wall. Even the most confectionary of golden-age mysteries can, and the better ones do, have aspects which ground them in some sort of truth about humanity…Christie, for example, usually good for this.

          • We are not going to agree – or rather, let me put it thusly: I read early Ellery Queen for the amazing plots and the verve of the duels with the reader. I read Stout primarily for the humour and the characterisation. I read Carr for humour, plots and Gothic atmosphere – that a bit of stray reality of rddeper characterisation might creep in is a bonus, but if not, that is not the reason I would read them, not ever. I really Like THe ABC Murders and the sympathetic portrayal of the stooge makes a difference, but it is the plot I remember with fondness, not Christie’s characterisation (with very few exceptions). That’s just me. I like Zola but don’t read him for the jokes. Wodehouse on the other hand … 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            Yes, either actively lying about how people act or similarly shirking responsibility when one is making noises about being a more profound work than what one delivers are bad signs…Richard Bach territory. So…context will only take you so far…but I, too, won’t demand everything of my writers. But those who can deliver everything, at least some of the time (Avram Davidson, Jorge Luis Borges, Kate Wilhelm, Highsmith when she isn’t busy with a hobbyhorse) are the ones I keep coming back to.

          • Thanks chum. That also reminds me, I need to read that Wilhelm you recommended – been on the TBR too long!

      • kinneret says:

        Yes, I agree. Manipulative and manipulated. The ending was also a mess. I read that she had trouble finishing it and the editor had to make it up or help her. So why was it such a hit, just marketing?

        • I think the themes that it tapped into – that sense of really not knowing or understanding your partner, the institution of marriage, the US culture wars, and of course the impact that the wordwide economic depression has had on people’s lives, was tied up and sold very well within a murder mystery with a twist that genre fans will have seen coming but which many ‘civilian’ readers would have been surprised by. It’s not a serious book in my view but it looks at serious themes … which seems a very banal way of trying to explain away such a huge phenomenon but there you, oversimplification is the curse of our times 🙂

          • kinneret says:

            Yes, I think those themes were some of the best aspects of the book. They could have delved deeper though (if it had been a deeper book). For example, the abandoned mall, such an intriguing idea but it was quickly dropped.

          • Yes, I agree completely – the ideas are there but it just isnt a deep enough book.

  6. JJ says:

    It’s a shame the book peters out so tamely, as it sounds like a great idea and a very intriguing setup – dammit, don’t these editors ever earn their money?! A completely new one to me, though it’s disappointing to learn that the film doesn’t currently enjoy any love; shall put it on my list and hope for that to change. Many thanks, Sergio, sounds like another forgotten gem.

  7. Colin says:

    All new to me. I’m afraid that book does come across as something of a chore and therefore not one I’ll be rushing to check out.

  8. The book was a hit with French critics*, winning the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière in 1967. It is now one of the most obscure books to have won the award, being completely forgotten and having never been reprinted since. Sic transit… I own another of Lindop’s books, I Thank a Fool (she apparently loved first-person titles) which was made into a film starring Susan Hayward and Peter Finch who both grace the cover of my copy. Has anyone read it or seen the movie?

    * Maurice-Bernard Endrèbe and Michel Lebrun, who reviewed mysteries for the French edition of AHMM, were fairly skeptical of the book but then they were skeptical of anything written by a woman (people complaining about sexism in the mystery fandom should take a look at the French crime scene at the time – it make the American and British ones look positively inclusive in comparison)

    • Thanks very much for this great info Xavier (and was very glad to see from FB that you were OK). I previously compared the book and film version of I Thanks a Fool here and once again I found the film preferable, and very heavily re-written too.

    • Todd Mason says:

      But how could a French critical body be pompously clueless? Hope there’s some rectification in recent years…

      • Being white and male used to be so much easier – shame it was at everybody else’s expense thjough …

        • Todd Mason says:

          It always helped to be wealthy. You barely counted as white and male if otherwise, in so many contexts. As I recently noted to some friends, by as late as 1955 (as “Evan Hunter” might agree), Italian-Americans weren’t so very white, and by 1965 or later if Klan sorts were making the judgment. Yours for the Grandsons of Italy, and maybe there’s a reason the folks opted for the most WASP name they could concoct for me…

        • Race was never an issue with French critics – Chester Himes won the GPLP in 1958 which may be the first time ever a black writer won a major crime fiction award. Gender, on the other hand…

          For those wanting to know more about the prize, Wikipedia has the complete list of winners. As you can see the international prize is relatively more balanced genderwise than the French prize, reflecting the dearth and marginal status of local female crime writers. You’ll also notice the presence, especially in later years, of books and writers that are not associated with the genre in their native lands – the French have a very broad understanding of crime fiction.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    I have been unfamiliar with the author’s work…is there a Lindop you’d recommend first? Sounds a bit like what’s happened to Richard Neely over the years…so much attempt to be shocking and so thoroughly of their time that rather good work at times, not least THE WALTER SYNDROME, is lostish…

  10. Now you’re talking Sergio: I haven’t seen or read this in many years, but both came my way when I was about the age of the girl in the book, and I was mesmerized by both – I thought they were heart-stoppingly good, and I plainly thought the depiction of the teenager was very convincing. I suspect that back then it would have been in my top 10 list for books and films – I liked it that much.

    I rarely met anyone else who had heard of or seen it, and hadn’t thought of it in years, what a nice reminder. I suspect I would feel the same as you if I read it again – I do have it on my shelf, but don’t want to spoil the memory. But what a shame the film isn’t around: I would watch it again. I remember that they did a good job in making the solution work – but didn’t they soften the ending, or have I misremembered?

    • Thanks very much Moira. Can’t comment on how I might have felt 30 years ago (at least I hope so … I’d hate to think I hadn’t changed that much 🙂 ) Well, the ending is basically the same (avoiding spoilers) in that the same person is found dead in the basement and the killer (who is more clearly signposted much earlier) is the same but we get a stronger sense of resolution and at least some sense of where Wynne will go next in her life. And I’m glad they dumped a big chunk of the religious aspect!

  11. Patti Abbott says:

    Another film and author I have not heard of but wish I could see. Jenny Agutter is wonderful in CALL THE MIDWIVES so I can imagine she was here too. I am constantly reminded here of all the British films I have missed out on.

    • Thanks Patti. Always been a bit mad about Augutter – but then THE RAILWAY CHILDREN struck a chord with me as a kid and I probably saw WALKABOUT much too young. I START COUNTING is easy to watch on youTube if you fancy a gander.

      • Todd Mason says:

        Seeing WALKABOUT while about the protag’s age is probably, on balance, healthier than first exposure later…I certainly was happified thus, and by THE LITTLE GIRL WHO LIVES DOWN THE LANE similarly. ROMEO AND JULIET for that matter…the Agutter (and Foster) media crushes were certainly strong in young adolescent me.

  12. I haven’t read the book, but I saw the film when it was screened by a student society, and liked it a lot. Jenny Agutter was great, and Bryan Marshall very under-rated throughout his career

  13. Sergio, I was completely in the dark about book and author, film and actors, till I read your fine review. I got a good sense of both book and film. I’m not familiar with Jenny Agutter and, of course, her films.

    • Thanks Prashant – well, I was mad about her as a kid (I still think she’s a terrific actress – great in CALL THE MIDWIFE). But if you haven;t seen the 1970 version of THE RAILWAY CHILDREN then you really should. She’s also great in AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON, but that’s a whole different kettle of filmmaking!

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