This week I'm blogging about British novelist P. M. Hubbard, whose strange, evocative suspense novels – almost all of which are out of print – draw on a very particular sense of place – chiefly an unnerving, oppressive and remote rural Britain. Yesterday I posted a brief overview of his oeuvre and a bibliography, and for the rest of the week I'll be focussing on books and stories from either end of his sixteen-year career – although not necessarily the books and stories a Hubbard fan might expect. Today it's the turn of his fifth novel (counting his two children's novels): A Hive of Glass.
Determining that the Dunstreet in question is a (fictional) country town 150 miles outside of London, near the south coast of England, Slade sets off in pursuit of the tazza. As he explores the town's verdant surroundings, there's an early hint of the environment as an entity in and of itself – something which is common in Hubbard's work:
The whole countryside was dark and green and crouched a bit... the trees filled all the valley bottoms as if they had been poured into them – as indeed, in embryo, they probably had – and the valleys ran together in a network always pointing southwards to the place where their combined streams met salt water almost between the oak roots. The air was so soft and wet you could squeeze it out. It smelt of dead wood and land-locked brine.
The environmental aspects of Hubbard's novels have been much remarked upon, but it was another aspect of A Hive of Glass which particularly struck me, one which Book Glutton identified in his original comment drawing my attention to the author. This strand manifests itself right at the outset, when Johnnie visits an antique shop in the Midlands and spies an eighteenth-century glass at the back of a cabinet. Knowing what it's worth, and knowing the proprietor doesn't, he manages to buy the glass at a knock-down price; realising his mistake, the dealer relents, but sees something in Slade's eyes that causes him to back off. What he glimpses is the madness of the collector.
This unhinged zeal is one I'm more than familiar with (as regular readers of this blog might have noticed). It's a compulsion to possess objects – glass, antiques, books, whatever – a need which clearly speaks to an absence elsewhere in one's life (although I hesitate to explore what exactly that might be). The collecting impulse is, for the most part, fairly benign – Johnnie's evident delight at his newly bought glass as he gingerly washes it in a nearby stream is a joyous moment. But it does have its dark side, and that unpleasant facet of collecting rears its head throughout the novel.
The first instance comes in a Dunstreet auction room, where Johnnie pinpoints the dealers in the room and remarks upon the way they bid up pieces so that regular punters don't buy them for less than the market price. But the impulse becomes more personal as the novel progresses: Slade begins to suspect someone else is on the trail of the tazza, and in time events conspire to bring him to a place where it becomes unlikely he will be able to secure it for himself. It's at this point that Slade verbalizes the dark side of collecting: "So long as nobody else gets it."
A Hive of Glass is a terrific book, perhaps Hubbard's first out-and-out classic (there's another recent and glowing review of it on the Pretty Sinister Books blog). But he was to write many more over the next fourteen years – and it's to his final novel that we turn next, a fine example of the hunter-and-hunted subgenre that weaves through British fiction: 1979's Kill Claudio.