Committal Chamber by Russell Braddon (Pan, 1966-68)
“The most revolting and terrifying crime I’ve encountered in fiction” – The Scotsman
“Strong, horrid and engrossing” - The Observer
“Little left to the imagination” – Books and Bookmen
“Sharply written, with a ghastly twist” - Sheffield Morning Telegraph
The story behind my getting this book is that I first bought it new in Woolworths in 1968, but, at that time, I was mainly reading Doc Savage and short stories, and must have found it too mature to get further than the first chapter. In recent years I finally gave it away unread... then decided I’d made a mistake. Finally I found it again in a Camborne shop and was startled to see it was by Braddon, author of The Year of the Angry Rabbit (which everyone here will know was filmed as Night of the Lepus). I still had no idea what an engrossing book it was, but now have no hesitation recommending it as another instant Vault Classic.
The committal chamber is the room where coffins arrive, after they disappear through the black curtains in the crematorium, after the funeral service. The black drapes are a deliberate piece of theatre, intended to conceal the reality of the chamber from the mourners, who believe that the late lamented’s body is now immediately being consumed in the flames of a fiery furnace. In fact, the coffin arrives at the chamber and is deposited on a trolley, where the lid is loosened (or the coffin will explode). And there it might rest for some hours, possibly providing a makeshift bench for Tony, Edwin or Ivor to sit astride, while enjoying their tea break. It’s a pretty good job, tranquil, and not too strenuous, and young Tony and his two older companions get along pretty well together.
Until the day that the shower is installed.
The shower is Ivor’s idea. It gets pretty hot in the chamber from the furnaces, and it’s sweaty and dusty work. But when Ivor appears naked for the first time, the others are startled. Under his shapeless overalls, his body seems untouched by the years, youthful and vigorous.
The effect on young Tony is traumatic. Until now, he’s liked Ivor, but suddenly he seems possessed by envy and hatred. The effect on Edwin, who was Ivor’s C.O. in the war, is almost equally startling.
These lives of the three men and of the older mens’ wives, are all subtly or dramatically affected. It is very clear that from the moment of Ivor’s naked and completely uninhibited emergence from the shower, they will never work peacefully together again.
Aware of Tony’s hostility, Ivor at first tries to ease the tension, then becomes more threatening. Edwin knows that Ivor can be dangerous if pushed. In the War he’d singlehandedly taken out an enemy machine gun post, killing all eleven soldiers manning it with grenade, gun and bayonet.
Then Ivor points out to Tony that if anyone wanted to commit a murder, then the committal chamber would make it very easy. The usual problem with a murder is getting rid of a body afterwards. Here, that problem didn’t exist. In fact, why even bother murdering someone? Why not just drug them and put them in a coffin? In the morning, there’d be a few more ashes to put into the urns, and who’d know the difference.
After a while, it becomes less and less certain who’s going to kill whom. But when we get to the crime, it is absolutely horrible and the tension almost unbearable. If you’d ever wondered what one of those sadistic Pan stories would be like at novel length, this book provides an answer. And then when it’s all over, the tension starts cranking up again!
This is a real mother of a book. I don't care if you read Guy N Smith or Arthur Machen - you'll appreciate this one.
I'm pretty sure you won't be disappointed, John. I've been pretty lucky with my finds recently, and there was an odd feeling of something "meant to be" when I found this one again after not seeing it for years, just after I'd started reading seriously again. This one works because of the strongly drawn characters; and although Braddon's Australian, it could be set in any British town in the Sixties. Hope you enjoy it!
I finally, finally, read this book through in pretty much one sitting this weekend. Highly recommended for anyone who thinks novels should be around the 200 page mark, have plenty going on, contain the kind of Birkinesque prose that describes most if not all of the characters in the most disparaging way possible, and have a slam-bang finale where at least one character goes completely mad.
As Calenture has mentioned above, most of the action takes place in the part of the crematorium where the ovens are located and our three main character are the men whose job it is to burn the corpses that come through. Classy stuff - snappy and well written - I thought it was great.
I read it in a sitting too, John - many years ago on the train from Euston to Liverpool. I actually included it in my Book of Lists list of horror novels not generally perceived as such.
i think we can safely add another Braddon to that list: The Inseparables is the story of Erich Strauss, a young medical student who drops acid prior to a pilgrimage to Dachau on Christmas Day, 1968. it's a harrowing ghost story (of sorts) and by far one of the 'best' novels i read last year.
From the first, I set myself against "literature"; the story was the thing, and no amount of style could persuade me to select a story that lacked genuine, unadulterated horror. For those who wanted something high-brow there was plenty.