One warm summer, a little boy and a little girl come to a remote Canadian island for their holidays. Initially things don’t look promising. The orphaned Barnaby Gaunt, who has spent his life shuttling from boarding school to boarding school, is a foul-mouthed little heathen; while Christie McNab, who lives with her single mother in the city, is sullen, prim and spoiled. The children hate each other on first sight, of course. But, as time passes, the peace of the island and the gentleness of the inhabitants soften their spirits. There are all sorts of wonderful adventures for two children to enjoy in this paradise. In fact, there’s only one tiny, teeny dark cloud on the horizon. Barnaby’s uncle is due on the island any day now. And Barnaby knows perfectly well that his uncle is planning to kill him.
The children settle on the only possible plan. They must murder Uncle before Uncle can murder Barnaby, thereby laying his evil (hairy-palmed, pawlike) hands upon Barnaby’s ten-million-dollar trust fund. But how are they to go about this? Pooling their wit, their creativity and their implacable logic, the two children set about planning the perfect murder. But they find themselves up against a very dangerous foe, who can assume so charming a manner in front of adults that the children will never be believed. And Barnaby and Christie do wish that someone would believe them. They are rapidly growing fond of the island: of the superb cooking of the goat-lady, Mrs Nielsen, with whom Christie is staying; of poor, sweet, simple Desmond who they have taken under their wing; of One-Ear, the wild cougar, who has grumpily submitted to being their unwilling pet; and, above all, of sublime, noble, splendid Sergeant Coulter, the Mountie, who both children adore with a passion. It’s so wonderful a place that it’s hard to believe that anything could be wrong here; but it is, desperately wrong, and as the children enter into a game of life-or-death with the wickedly knowing Uncle, they know that time is running out.
This is an extraordinary book, which cheerfully demolishes any attempt to stick it in a particular box. It’s written like a typical gung-ho children’s adventure novel, in which two plucky kids explore an island, make friends with the local policemen and melt hearts despite their naughty escapades. But there’s a seriously sinister side floating underneath. We are given enough hints about Uncle to know that he’s a thoroughly evil person and yet O’Grady drops them in with such a casual air that you sometimes have to read a sentence twice to absorb the full horror of its implication (‘”I adore children” [Uncle said]. He did indeed. Several little girls to whom he had taken a fancy had vanished into thin air.’) And one’s never quite sure whether O’Grady means us to take her more preternatural hints seriously, or whether Uncle’s animalistic qualities are simply the result of his monstrousness.
It’s a dark, dark book and rendered all the more unsettling because it bounds along in such a tally-ho kind of way, all pranks and picnics. Occasionally we glimpse other dark themes through the lines, such as Sergeant Coulter’s grim existence as being the only ‘island boy’ to come home alive from the War, and his doomed, lovelorn feelings for a certain lady. I couldn’t with any certainty tell you what age group it’s aimed at. Could it be for older children, who like their fiction spiced with a bit of bloodthirsty darkness? Or is it for adults who fancy a nostalgic romp with teeth? Goodness knows. I wonder what people made of it when it first came out in 1963? (There was, inevitably, a Hollywood adaptation in 1966.)
This is one of the books published in ‘The Bloomsbury Group’ series, which is a selection of unjustly little-known books from the first half of the twentieth century that have been brought back into print, all with these fabulously designed covers. I have my eye on several more on the list, many of which came to my attention through the Stuck In A Book blog: Miss Hargreaves and Mrs Tim of the Regiment, to name just two. For now, bear Let’s Kill Uncle in mind if you want something unconventionally cosy-chilling for the Christmas season: essentially a cross between The Famous Five (minus three) and Psycho…