Part metafictional thriller, part love story, Iris Murdoch’s 1973 shortlisted novel – widely regarded as her best work – raises big questions about truth and fiction. Read an extract from our November Book of the Month here

Bradley Pearson, narrator and hero, is an elderly writer with a ‘block’. Adding and contributing to his torment are a host of predatory friends and relations - his melancholic sister, his ex-wife and her delinquent brother, and a younger, deplorably successful writer, Arnold Baffin. Not to mention Baffin’s restless wife and disturbingly engaging daughter. Bradley attempts to escape. His failure to do so, and its aftermath, lead to a violent climax and a most unexpected conclusion.

Published in the UK by Vintage Classics

Publication date and time: Published

It might be most dramatically effective to begin the tale at the moment when Arnold Baflin rang me up and said, ‘Bradley, could you come round here please, I think that I have just killed my wife.’

A deeper pattern however suggests Francis Marloe as the first speaker, the page or house-maid (these images would appeal to him) who, some half an hour before Arnold’s momentous telephone call, initiates the action.

For the news which Francis brought me forms the frame, or counter­ point, or outward packaging of what happened then and later in the drama of Arnold Baffin.

There are indeed many places where I could start. I might start with Rachel’s tears, or Priscilla’s. There is much shedding of tears in this story.

In a complex explanation any order may seem arbitrary. Where after all does anything begin? That three of the four starting points I have mentioned were causally independent of each other suggests speculations, doubtless of the most irrational kind, upon the mystery of human fate.

Broken wine glass

As I have explained, I was about to leave London. It was a raw damp cold afternoon in May. The wind carried no flowery smells, but rather laid a moist healthless humour upon the flesh which it then attempted to flay. I had my suitcases ready and was about to telephone for a taxi, had in fact already lifted the phone, when I experienced that nervous urge to delay departure, to sit down and reflect, which I am told the Russians have elevated into a ritual.

I replaced the instrument and went back into my crowded little Victorian sitting-room and sat down. The result of this manoeuvre was that I was immediately aching with anxiety about a number of arrangements which I had already checked ten times over.

Had I got enough sleeping pills? Had I packed the belladonna mixture? Had I packed my notebooks? I can only write in a certain kind of notebook with the lines a certain distance apart. I ran back into the hall. I found the notebooks and the pills and the belladonna of course, but by now the suitcases were half unpacked again and my heart was beating violently.

Vintage telephone

I lived then and had long lived in a ground-floor flat in a small shabby pretty court of terrace houses in North Soho, not far from the Post Office Tower, an area of perpetual seedy brouhaha. I preferred this genteel metropolitan poverty to the styleless surburban affluence favoured by the Baffins.

My ‘rooms’ were all at the back. My bedroom looked on to dustbins and a fire escape. My sitting-room on to a plain brick wall caked with muck. The sitting-room, half a room really (the other half, stripped and degraded, was the bedroom) had wooden panels of that powdery dignified shade of green which can only be achieved by about fifty years of fading.

This place I had crammed with too much furniture, with Victorian and oriental bric-a-brac, with tiny heterogeneous objets d’art, little cushions, inlaid trays, velvet cloths, antimacassars even, lace even. I amass rather than collect. I am also meticulously tidy though resigned to dust. A sunless and cosy womb my flat was, with a highly wrought interior and no outside. Only from the front door of the house, which was not my front door, could one squint up at sky over tall buildings and see above the serene austere erection of the Post Office Tower.

Post Office Tower, London

So it was that I deliberately delayed my departure. What if I had not done so? I was proposing to disappear for the whole summer, to a place incidentally which I had never seen but had adopted blind.

I had not told Arnold where I was going. I had mystified him. Why I wonder? Out of some sort of obscure spite? Mystery always bulks larger. I had told him with a firm vagueness that I should be travelling abroad, no address. Why these lies? I suppose I did it partly to surprise him. I was a man who never went anywhere.

Perhaps I felt it was time I gave Arnold a surprise. Neither had I informed my sister Priscilla that I was leaving London. There was nothing odd in that. She lived in Bristol with a husband whom I found distasteful. Suppose I had left the house before Francis Marloe knocked on the door? Suppose the tram had arrived at the tram stop and taken Prinzip away before the Archduke’s car came round the corner?

Mystery always bulks larger. I had told him with a firm vagueness that I should be travelling abroad, no address. Why these lies? I suppose I did it partly to surprise him. I was a man who never went anywhere

I repacked the suitcases and transferred to my pocket, for re-reading in the train, the third version of my review of Arnold’s latest novel. As a one-book-a-year man Arnold Baffin, the prolific popular novelist, is never long out of the public eye. I have had differences of opinion with Arnold about his writing.

Sometimes in a close friendship, where important matters are concerned, people agree to differ and, in that area, fall silent. So, for a time, it had been with us. Artists are touchy folk. I had, however, after a superficial glance at his latest book, found things in it which I liked, and I had agreed to review it for a Sunday paper. I rarely wrote reviews, being in fact rarely asked to. I felt that this tribute would be some amends to Arnold for former criticisms which he had perhaps resented.

Then on reading the novel with more care I decided regretfully that I detested it just as much as I detested its numerous coefreres, and I found myself writing a review which was in effect a general attack upon Arnold’s whole ceuvre.

What to do? I did not want to offend the editor: one does sometimes want to see oneself in print. And should not a critic simply speak out fearlessly? On the other hand Arnold was an old friend.

suitcase in a hallway

Then the front door bell (already too long delayed by my rambling narrative) rang. The person who stood outside (within the front door of the house, but without my subsidiary front door) was strange to me. He seemed to be trembling, perhaps from the recent attentions of the wind, perhaps from nerves or alcohol.

He wore a very old blue raincoat and a stringy fawn scarf of the throttling variety. He was stout ( the raincoat failed to button) and not tall, with copious greyish longish frizzy hair and a round face and a slightly hooked nose and big very red lips and eyes set very close together.

He looked, I later thought, rather like a caricature of a bear. Real bears, I believe, have eyes rather wide apart, but caricatured bears usually have close eyes, possibly to indicate bad temper or cunning.

I did not like the look of him at all. Something significantly ill-omened which I could not yet define emanated from him. And I could smell him from where he stood.

Perhaps I might pause here yet again for a moment to describe myself. I am thin and tall, just over six feet, fairish and not yet bald, with light fine silky rather faded straight hair. I have a bland diffident nervous sensitive face and thin lips and blue eyes. I do not wear glasses. I look considerably younger than my age.

Finger on doorbell