A book that takes place in your hometown
A Deadly Deception
Margaret Thompson Davis
I found this challenge harder than I expected I would. It turns out there are very few fiction books set in my hometown of Bearsden, which is a suburb just outside Glasgow. The most famous book - if Google is to be believed - is one about 'family and incest', which I was certainly in no hurry to read. Luckily for me, however, my mother was on hand to save the day. I'm visiting my parents in Bearsden at the moment for the summer holidays, and she suggested we check the local library to see if they had any books set in Bearsden. As well as the aforementioned 'family and incest' book, she found Margaret Thomson Davis's A Deadly Deception.
It wasn't the kind of book I would generally choose to read - I wouldn't have given it a second glance if not for this challenge, let alone continued to the end. The book made me angry and I found it infuriating to have to read about a bunch of unlikable characters making horrible mistakes. However, having left ten days between finishing the book and writing this review, I've realised that the revolting characters and bad decisions is what makes the book worth reading.
The book follows pensioner, Mabel Smith, who becomes a phone sex worker in order to supplement her pension and shop at Marks and Spencer. Each to their own, I guess. She creates an intimate, over-the-phone relationship with thirty-nine-year-old John - who believes she is a young, curvaceous, blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty. This would be fine apart from the fact that neither Mabel nor John seem to understand the boundaries that sex workers need to set up and clients need to respect. Sex workers provide a service - a fake fantasy that the client pays them to enact. As a phone sex worker, Mabel was wrong to natter about her own personal life to her client. She had no reason to believe that he wasn't a complete psycho (which he, of course, turned out to be) and in this sort of situation especially, it is unsafe to mix work with pleasure. Even if she initially gave him the benefit of the doubt, a risky decision in itself, once it became clear that John wasn't going to stop requesting that they meet in person, that should have sent clear warning bells that this man was at best emotionally dependent on her and at worst a dangerous criminal. At which point, the sensible thing for Mabel to have done would be to end the transaction and block his number from calling her.
John, her client, is just as bad. Even if we ignore the fact that he's evil, why would he assume that the random woman who he'd called on a sex line was telling him the truth about anything? It was purely a coincidence that she was so incapable of understanding her job that she gave away true information that allowed him to track her location down to the exact apartment block. For all he knew, she could have been fabricating everything. In fact, it would have been more sensible to assume that she was lying to him because that's how sex work has to function for it to be in any way safe! Oh, and for reference, if you do phone a sex line, the worker on the other end does not owe you anything physical. There are other types of sex worker who deal in the physical side of relationships.
Both of these main characters are already ridiculously incompetent, but it doesn't stop there! Not only does Mabel blabber about her personal life to her client, she also used a teenager from her apartment block as a muse when describing her sex-worker persona's appearance to John. Not only is this incredibly dangerous, it's also an invasion of privacy. Does it really need to be said that modelling your sex-worker persona on another person without their permission is disgustingly sleazy and outright wrong?
This muse girl, Cheryl, and her boyfriend, Tommy, were the nicest characters in the book. Her drive to create a better life than her alcoholic father had given her was really endearing and she had the sweetest relationship with her boyfriend, who the envious John literally deliberately set fire to at one point (gah, that man makes me so mad!). Their adorable relationship made it all the more heartbreaking to read about these disgusting adults making stupid choices that could well have ruined these two innocent kids' lives forever. I know it's fiction, but I really found myself invested in those two characters' stories and I wanted things to go well for them. I choose to imagine that after the terrible events of this book, the poor girl gets some counselling to work through the horrible ordeal that John put her through and she and Tommy can finally safely move into that flat in the West End together and just live a happy normal life.
It was interesting to read the different characters' descriptions of the Glasgow and Bearsden areas. Cheryl was enthusiastic about the shops in the city centre while Mabel was intimidated by all of these outlets exclusively targeted towards young people. I enjoyed reading about the buskers down Buchanan Street, and being familiar with the area made the descriptions all the more vivid. I was particularly amused by the mention of the Clanadonia Drummers, who often busk there. The portrayal of Bearsden Cross was just as recognisable, with a detailed description of the Aulds bakery that Mabel visits and that still exists today, despite having been written at a time when Woolworths still existed. Presumably the Marks and Spenser that is at Bearsden Cross nowadays hadn't been built when the book was written - Mabel has to make her way into the city centre to get the self-indulgent delicacies that she funds with the sex line revenue.
A side plot that occurs in this story, which only crosses the above plot in passing, is about a refuge for abused women that takes up a floor of Cheryl and Mabel's apartment block. Although these sections didn't really seem very related to the main story, I found them compelling and interesting to read. This side plot starts with Mrs Janet Peacock who escapes her abusive husband and Stepford life in Bearsden and moves into the refuge in the rougher area of Springburn. It's understandably a bit of a culture shock as she's introduced to her roommate, the working-class alcoholic Mary.
I wasn't keen on how these two women were so stereotypical of their middle- and working-class backgrounds. It seems like a tired cop-out for all the well-off suburbans to have dirty little secret skeletons in their closets while all the poorer city folk are loud and obnoxious. I had a similar problem when I read J. K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. That said, it was hard to actively dislike any of the characters at the refuge. Most of their problems stemmed from the abuse they had experienced, but it was clear that they were all working to come to terms with their situations and fight past the pain. This made a nice change from Mabel and John's attitudes, who both blamed their failings on other people. (Mabel had been obliged to look after her old-aged parents so was now hedonistic and inconsiderate; John had been left by his wife so had a vendetta against all women.) Something I really liked about the refuge scenes was that, although the abuse had hurt them, these characters were well-rounded and, though present, their past was not their only defining characteristic.
This subplot also raised a whole bunch of dilemmas that I'd never had any reason to think about before reading this book. The sister of one of the abused women reacted really unthinkingly after receiving a letter she received from the woman. The sister was ignorant of the abuse, but I was still appalled that, on receiving the cryptic letter asking to meet, her reaction was to phone the husband and let him know where his wife was. It occurred to me, though, that many people never talk about abuse or how to act in such a situation. That's a failing of our society and one that I think Margaret Thompson Davis addresses fairly well here. Although, the subsequent storming of the refuge by the armed husband seemed a bit sensationalist.
Another dilemma came when the women in the refuge discovered that Mary, the alcoholic, had begun drinking again. Although it was against the rules of the refuge, they decided not to alert the care staff. This was really troubling for me, because I was torn about the correct course of action. If they told the care staff about Mary's drinking, she might have been forced to leave the refuge, which would have been utterly devastating for the vulnerable woman. On the other hand, if they didn't tell the care staff, who then found out about the incident, all of the women might have been forced to leave and Mary could have gotten badly hurt. I honestly don't know what I would do in such a situation, and am just seriously grateful that I'm not forced to makes that choice!
In A Deadly Deception Margaret Thompson Davis addresses issues that many people might not consider until they find themselves in a similar situation and unsure of what to do or how to proceed. What are the unspoken mores of sex work? How should you act if someone has left their husband and is acting weird? What can you expect if you decide to seek help in your old age or if you're being abuse? The subject matter is grim and frightening, and the plot is pretty extreme, but it isn't salacious. And it certainly affected me and made me think about unpleasant but real experiences that I would have otherwise ignored. It wasn't an enjoyable read, and I probably wouldn't recommend it to a friend, but it was thought-provoking and stuck in my head long after I finished it. That's pretty darn commendable.
My name is Kirsty Morgan and I am a music student at the University of Aberdeen. I like monkeys, the colour pink, the TV show Firefly, Diet Coke and playing on swings.