Tuesday, 11 May 1999

C.S. Forester: Payment Deferred (1926)

Edition: Penguin, 1955
Review number: 247

Most crime novels are about the process of detection. Payment Deferred the novel which made Forester's name, is about the effect that a crime has on the unsuspected criminal.

The Marble family are sinking into debt; their miserable suburban lower middle class existence is about to reach the point when it will have to be exchanged for something even worse, as credit is no longer extended to them, and threats of legal action are being made. If those threats materialise, they will lead to Mr Marble's position in the local high street bank being lost, and the family will be ruined. Salvation suddenly appears in the guise of an Australian cousin, coming to England after the death of his parents. He has made his fortune, and he knows no one in England; suddenly, Mr Marble is tempted to murder (with the potassium cyanide kept for his hobby of photography), when he sees the vast amount of cash being carried by the young man.

Burying the young man in the back garden, Marble becomes gradually destroyed psychologically, like Macbeth, by paranoid fantasies that his crime will be discovered. Occasionally, these fears drive him to acts he would not normally be capable of: a brilliant coup on the foreign exchanges to provide the money to buy his rented house so he can prevent the garden falling into another's hands, for example. Generally, they fuel his drink habit and lead to depression, sleeplessness and so on.

There are no strong characters in Payment Deferred; it is a study in weakness. There is no one with whom the reader would want to identify. By this avoidance of the heroic, Forester creates more believable characters than he ever did in his later career. The novel is a tragedy in the sense of Greek drama: Marble's one act of hubris brings a punishment from within himself (it is a long time before even his family start to suspect what has happened), as though haunted by Orestes' Furies. Payment Deferred may well be Forester's best work, though it is certainly not pleasant reading.

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