Page 45 Review by Stephen
On Friday November 17th 2017 a woman's body was discovered in Surrey woodland by a couple who were walking their dog.
This we are shown in a newspaper clipping on the very first page.
It will not impact immediately upon disgraced and perpetually disgruntled London art dealer Cassandra Darke, her estranged family or her increasingly far fewer friends, for they are all, each one of them, obliviously unconnected.
For the moment.
A gripping, warmly and flavourfully rendered master-class in behavioural self-justification, plot precision, dramatic irony and visually delicious comicbook craft, this comes courtesy of entertainer Posy Simmonds MBE, the creator of British classics TAMARA DREWE, GEMMA BOVERY, LITERARY LIFE and MRS WEBER'S OMNIBUS. And this, her first new work in a decade, is another belter, with the most exquisite and varied tableaux.
Set in the run-up to two London Christmases - and flashing back to a year's crucial events before either - the pages glow in the December snow, with store-front window displays luring in bag-burdened shoppers, all clad in scarves or clutching their collars closed.
One of those is Cassandra Darke, decked out in a boiler suit, thick boots and Trapper Hat, though she was only in search of macaroons from Piccadilly's Burlington Arcade, on a brief break from the gallery which she manages for her ex-husband. He's been semi-retired for a while now, with Alzheimer's. Cassandra agreed to return even though Freddie had run off with her stepsister Margot - hence the divorce - because she'd got over him (and it) almost immediately. Still, things aren't so serene when it comes to Margot, the sons they had together, and especially not their daughter Nikki. That... became personal last year.
Things aren't so serene, either, once Cassandra spots Jane McMullen - wife of a deceased sculptor whose works Cassandra has traded in - crossing the road on the way to the gallery. Jane had been pestering her all day with emails and phone calls (so far evaded) after a dinner during which an art collector and his wife had cut Cassandra cold then spent all evening muttering in Jane McMullen's ear. And Cassandra knows exactly what that's all about: her "jiggery-pokery", as she puts it, has finally been rumbled.
We'll return to the plot twice more, but I love the contrast between the two women, both of a certain age. Stocky Cassandra's tightly dressed like a Giles character, grimacing away, her sour, disapproving mouth with its pressed, thin lips forming a central beak beneath glasses worn so as to signify a disdain of their own. Jane on the other hand is hat-free with long, jumbled grey tresses which her quarry refers to as a "rats' nest", her dress, jumper and loose woollen overcoat all flowing more freely: lots of comfortable, more natural textiles.
And then we're treated to pedestrian congestion, a crowd-scene which perfectly portrays the nightmarishly crammed and cramped London high street Christmas shopping phenomenon, all in aid of the great god Mammon. It's lovely and peaceful at Page 45, I promise, where we're on hand to help you with recommendations and - [Snip! That's enough - ed.]
I remember when Comics Laureate Hannah Berry was drawing her own exceptional, packed crowd scenes towards the climax of her wicked media, socio-political and pop-culture satire LIVESTOCK, and the sheer masochism, as she saw it, of doing so. Blow up the final page of interior art accompanying that review for one of those crowd scenes and oh dear, there's me, bottom left, beaming with enrapt adulation!
My point is, look at this full-page Posy Simmonds accomplishment, with its vanishing-point perspective, and its detail which only diminishes as the human eye can take in no more! At the flock's front, instead, it's almost as if the human flood is upon you, about to sweep you away down the street when actually you desperately need to get to the fourth shop ahead on the left-hand side.
Back to the plot and, as she predicts of herself, Cassandra comes a-cropper, busted for selling two collectors the same numbered cast. Fast-forward a year to December 2017 and although she avoided a jail sentence, the disgraced gallery has closed, she's been forced to sell her second home in France to pay for the damages and legal fees, jettison her driver and housekeeper / cook, and been reduced from nipping down to The Wolsey for eggs Benedict to eating ready meals alone, taking public transport and walking her own dog.
Still, on the whole, she is contentedly self-contained. Until, that is, her ex-husband's Memorial is announced. Cassandra didn't attend the funeral for multiple reasons that Simmonds is so astute in understanding - Posy's very good at getting into people's heads - but she is tempted into attending the Memorial, albeit covertly, watching from the gallery above the main congregation. Once more the social observation flows freely - one of the wealthy, for example, has a "glue-do" of hairspray - but mostly Cassandra is left to reflect and it is here where we begin to learn her true heart.
For yes, she is mean-spirited and mercenary enough to swindle art collectors, but only the investors: the Speculators whom she despises for their "ignorance, vulgarity and itchy palms". This is what I meant about Posy being a master of the way we justify our less laudable thoughts and deeds. Cassandra also dismissively refuses to give to the freezing homeless ("that's the job of the Government... charities... to get them off the street"), and as to those charities themselves, while still a dealer she once berated Jane McMullen for donating her deceased husband's work to their auctions: "... but don't you understand? ... it lowers Ken's market price! It hurts your pocket - and MINE."
However, in spite of the stream of self-justifications, she's not self-delusional. During the eulogy to her ex-husband's Memorial's eulogy, she observes of her stepsister whom she acknowledges was always the kinder one, the comforter...
"The paean to Margot rolls on. So many virtues! None of which I possess. If I'd been the widow today he'd be pushed to find a fitting cliché. "They broke the mould" (thank God); "Larger than life" (obese); "Blessed with a wonderful imagination" (Liar. Utter crook.)"
In her own words she's "old and fat" and actively contemplates suicide in forensic detail, by freezing to death in her now derelict garden, so as to avoid her ex-husband's Alzheimer's, and the hoists, ramps and grab bars she would need during her slow, lingering death in any twilight home.
It's when Cassandra gets home that the shocker occurs, when the true plot finally reveals itself. The alarm to her front door doesn't bleat (so isn't set), there are granite chips from the garden which she crunches on down the hall, as well as inside the back door to the garden which is, thankfully, locked. Immediately she suspects burglary and tears round the house but nothing is missing. Then, with relief, she imagines it must be her weekly cleaner, nipping outside for a cigarette and dragging the gravel in on her shoes... except that she hadn't noticed until now. Then a more paranoid explanation kicks in - one involving Nikki, her ex-husband's daughter who in 2016 had begged her for lodgings in the separate basement flat, and money to finance her art projects. As I have intimated, that didn't end well.
Perhaps Nikki had returned with copied keys? So Cassandra tentatively journeys downstairs. Nothing seems out of place since it was cleaned up a year ago. But there's a grubby towel in the bathroom bin... and, under it, lies a glove, a gun and several rounds of ammunition.
I've seen Posy Simmonds described best by Antony Quinn, thus: "Posy Simminds is the laureate of English middle-class muddle, a peerless observer of their romantic confusions, emotional insecurities and professional vicissitudes. She gets to the heart of them more incisively and wittily than any number of her contemporaries..."
By contemporaries, Quinn was referring to Posy's prose counterparts (Posy is overwhelmingly read by prose readers who don't imagine or often acknowledge that they're reading comics!), and he is 100% on the money. To this I would only add that Simmonds here also excels her peers in television in terms of the behavioural and crime-driven, evidential logic. This is immaculate.
As we flash back to those crucial events of 2016 involving Nikki, her imaginative, crusading art projects, a pivotal hen night and its multiple repercussions, then flow consequently back to the present, every element laid early on comes into play, from text messages sent to the wrong mobile phone (sent erroneously but not accidentally, and that is so key!) to Cassandra Darke's initial, privileged and self-serving dismissal of charities, and the homeless, her contempt for Nikki's specific staged social media campaign, yet also Darke's renowned skills when it comes to analysing clues as to a painting's provenance, its origin and so authorship.
That the gun (and other vital items) had, we discover, come into her hands through such complex, convoluted and unorthodox ownership - along with her own previous conviction for crime - means that this could not play itself out in anything close to an easy conclusion by calling the police. It does so instead through such deviousness and daring that only a woman who has outgrown self-interest and caution for her own physical safety could muster. Even her own physical weight, of which she is self-conscious, pulls its own here.
Let us say nothing of her dog.
Yes, you will see and come to understand Nikki's side of things in full, and I warn you that it grows pretty grim when men become involved.
We may begin in posh Piccadilly and cosy Chelsea, in the sort of society for which a funeral is not enough and a Memorial must be held too, but that body was found in Surrey.