I chose to read A Hank of Hair following Margot of Confessions of a Mystery Novelist inclusion in her wonderful ‘In The Spotlight’ post back in September 2014 because I was intrigued by the fact that this book is concerned with an obsession, but not any common garden obsession, our protagonist has become obsessed by a hank of hair.
Mr Gilbert Hand tells the events leading up to this unusual tale in his own words after the event, a device that has the consequence of making the reader feel as if they have been taken into his confidence and after all there is a lot to sympathise about with him. Gilbert’s wife died at sea in a boat accident and until her untimely death he hadn’t realised how much he loved her. Having inherited her money he leaves his job and moves to London with no real aim, with time on his hands he spends many hours at the British Museum researching their Japanese prints. To make his daily trips to the museum easier he moves into a local hotel. The room he inhabits has a davenport, an antique desk, and within its drawers he finds a hank of hair wrapped in some green silk. Having handled the hair he determines to find its owner which leads to a weird, yet compelling series of events leading to much darker places than you’d expect.
This is a concise book compromising of only 125 pages of the small paperback size that used to exist back when this book was first published in 1964, my copy has red edged pages which only adds to the feeling that this book promises something quite extraordinary.
A Hank of Hair is populated by strange people, made stranger perhaps because of the way our narrator paints them, seemingly morphing into different characters, maybe to fit the tale he tells us? Surely not? After all he seems genuine, from the beginning he doesn’t hide the contempt he feels for Mrs Sinclair but uses her to gain information about the other occupants of the hotel both past and present. Most convincingly he confesses to his fascination with the hair but later on strongly resists returning it to Mr Doyle, who asserts he is the owner of this strange object, going to great lengths to persuade himself, and us, that something awful happened to the person whose head it was originally attached to. In fact his obsession with the hair is soon overtaken by that he has for the mysterious Mr Doyle. By the end of the story, it becomes apparent why.
Charlotte Jay was an Australian author of nine crime books under this name, A Hank of Hair being the latest. It was the travel she undertook with her husband, an Oriental specialist which led her around the world which explains why the descriptions of London seem so realistic, even though they depict a time firmly in the past.
This was an intriguing read as I tend to assume that an unreliable narrator was a more recent device and yet this is one of the more skilful examples I have ever read.
For more insight into this book I strongly suggest read Margot’s fascinating post here