The Catalyst (Josephine Bell)

  • By Josephine Bell
  • First published: UK: Hodder & Stoughton, 1966; US: Macmillan, 1967

Three ghastly people go on holiday to Greece, and spend almost 200 pages bickering and trying to murder each other.

The Catalyst is a crime novel in the manner of Patricia Highsmith: a study of failed marriages and sibling rivalry in the Mediterranean. Hugh and Florence Wilmot are unhappily married, while her sister Beatrice was once in love with him. “So much hatred, jealousy, fear, disgust in one quite ordinary, respectable urban family,” an observer reflects.

One of the party has a suspicious mishap at Delos; another is wounded on Rhodes. The sisters quarrel bitterly in the theatre at Epidaurus, every note magnified by its extraordinary acoustics, and broadcast to the tourists, to Hugh’s embarrassment. Meanwhile, he is infatuated with an actress, the fair Rosamund – a modern Helen of Troy, an elusive beauty who unintentionally inspires violence. Then one of the three falls to their death at the Temple of Athena Lindia…

This is a modernised tragedy, lacking the sublimity of Aeschylus or Sophocles, but as sour and mordant as the Euripides of Orestes. The Wilmots might seem petty against the glory that was Greece; none of the three are remotely heroic in the classical sense; but they are each brought low by hamartia – a tragic flaw leading to their downfall and destruction.

“Jealousy, envy, ruined life – where did they apply the most easily? To Florence, with her faded beauty and barrenness and nervous breakdown? To Beatrice, the intelligent deprived sister? Or to Hugh, attractive, despondent, disappointed Hugh, lover of Greece, but beset almost beyond endurance by family problems he was incapable of resolving.”

The characters wound and sting each other like scorpions, until all three are spent – two dead, one insane – while a young couple look on in horror. (They are musicians – a modern Chorus.) Bell compels interest throughout, while a clever twist towards the end took me by surprise. This is not Bell’s most enjoyable novel, but it may be one of her best.

The detective fan might, however, prefer to visit Greece in the company of Mrs. Bradley or Nigel Strangeways.

Other reviews: Dead Yesterday

Contemporary reviews

The Guardian (Francis Iles, 18 November 1966): The Catalyst is Josephine Bell’s best for a long time if not her best ever; certainly it is her most serious. The Greek scene is lovingly described, and the three main characters, on holiday from England, are drawn with great care and complete authenticity. As befits its setting this is an ironical tragedy, in the true Greek tradition, and it is worthy of serious consideration.

2 thoughts on “The Catalyst (Josephine Bell)

  1. Best, but not most enjoyable, is an excellent way to describe The Catalyst. In terms of suspense, plotting, and setting/atmosphere, the book is superb. But the three central characters, as well-drawn as they are, are unbearable to spend time with.

    Liked by 1 person

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