You are starting to become a tad worried. The new neighbour in the flat next door is beginning to creep you out. At first you thought that you may have been overreacting; she was just being over friendly, a little too confident, nervous about meeting new people maybe? But then you noticed things going missing at home: the ring you were given by your mother has gone; the little yellow duck that you’ve had since you were two and won in a Hook-The-Duck game at the fair; the conker you had pickled after it won fifteen, yes fifteen games in a row and made you into a playground sensation for the whole of the half term; and, most upsetting of all, the little pendant containing the small, dark, curly hair that you found in the urinal after you followed Brian May into the toilets in Selfridges one Christmas. You wonder whether they got lost in the move, but you’re sure that they were there before. Then there are the other things: the TV being left on a different channel to the one you know you left it on; the coffee spoon being clean and put back into the drainer; the letters on the side table all being straightened up and neatly aligned in size order. You start to think you’re being haunted by a ghost with OCD, but the rational part of your mind suspects the new neighbour. And then there is the letter addressed to you personally, in a childish writing. You found it on your door mat when you came home. You open it and pull out the piece of paper inside. You stare in disbelief at what is written on it. You can’t believe anyone would stoop so low as to write this.
In your trembling hands, sweat pouring from your brow, scarcely able to believe it, is written…..a blurb.
Murders that look like accidents. An accident that looks like murder.
A couple and their young son burn to death in a house fire.
A girl dies from a nut allergy.
A woman falls under a train during the rush hour.
An accountant falls down the steps to his basement.
Their deaths appear to be accidents but Gloria knows they were murdered because she murdered them. And every time Gloria kills she buys a doll.
But how many dolls will she need to keep her satisfied?
When Gloria takes a room as a lodger her behaviour starts to spin out of control. Gloria wants love and happiness and friendship and she will do anything she can to get what she wants..
Human kind has probably been collecting things for as long as we have strode the face the earth. From the very first caveperson collecting mammoths to put into his album (always looking for the allusive, ultra rare, short-haired small-tusked mammoth. If he’d waited several thousand years he could’ve saved himself a lot of time and have just gone to India to see the elephants, but he didn’t know that. Also, it was over collecting that led to their extinction. A lesson to be learnt there.), to the Elizabethans, collecting powdered wigs and fatal diseases, to the Victorians with their handlebar moustaches and top hats.
Nowadays, people collect all sorts of things: fridge magnets from Bognor Regis to Kurdistan; teaspoons with those twee little pictures on the handle of where they got them from; toy cars that every parent has trodden on and cursed about; phonecards (remember them?); thimbles; coins; beer mats (it is a thing, I’m told); those naughty cards you see in telephone boxes in Soho (what? There are some very rare ones about. If anyone has any swaps….I mean, I have a friend who has lots of swaps. Asking for them, obviously….moving on); Wade Whimsies; clogs; the list is endless really.
They collect these things for a multitude of reasons; maybe they are just pretty or have some sentimental value? Maybe they are just weird and like to hoard and cherish their collection of dead flies collected from the windowsills of churches around the UK. Who are we to judge?
When I were a nipper in the 70’s I used to collect stamps. Let’s face it, who didn’t? I collected them because it was the Thing To Do. I had an album with those clear acetate covers on the pages to show off the stamps in all their glory. People used to give me stamps from all over the world, or, more often, just from their own post. I don’t mean, by the way, that people came from all over the world to give me stamps. I wasn’t some mythical stamp collecting Dalai Lama to which people travelled huge distances to visit and bring stamps to. That would have been weird, frankly. Plus I don’t look good in a loin cloth. No, of course what I meant was that people I knew gave me stamps from…oh, you know what I mean.
Where was I?
Oh yes, anyway, I collected stamps because everyone else did. Then I moved on to stones, Yes, stones – I didn’t get out much, which, thinking back, is a bit of a hindrance to stone collecting, but I digress. But these weren’t any old stones. I didn’t just go out and pick up yer common flint, or run of the mill slate that had fallen off a roof somewhere. No, I collected stones such as amethyst, quartz, and pyrites of every description, often given to me by folks who knew I liked them. I even got my Collectors badge at Cubs for my stone collecting. I think that that was the point that I started to lose my friends, but again, I digress.
Then I moved on to comics. Why? Because they were fun and I loved the stories and the art.
The point I’m labouring to make here is that I collected these things because they were pretty, or they looked nice and shiny or they were just fun.
In The Doll Collector, Gloria collects dolls.
Now, dolls are freaky things at the best of times. They are an acquired taste. I know plenty of people who collect them just because they like them. They give them names, if they haven’t already got one from the doll making people, give them little personalities, and, in extreme cases, forget they are dolls at all and start treating them like real people. Some even have, um, naughty time with them 😳
As I say, an acquired taste.
Gloria collects dolls for a very specific reason; they are keepsakes of the people she has killed. You could say that they hold some sentimental value for her.
Yup, Gloria is a killer. But she’s a clever killer. She makes the deaths look like accidents (I refer you back up to the blurb for the details to save me typing them out again 😉 ), and is getting away with it.
Gloria is more unhinged than a drug dealer’s door after a series of dawn raids. She is a thoroughly unlikable person, taking great offence at anything that she deems below her and taking against anyone who crosses her. At the start of the book Gloria is in need of new digs; her current landlord isn’t really working out for her, unfortunately for him, and so, after seeing an advertisement for a lodger at work, she finds herself on the doorstep of one Maurice Jennings.
Maurice is a nice guy. He is the polar opposite to Gloria’s self obsessed, cuckoo land bonkersness. Maurice lives alone in a flat that was left to him and his mother by one Mrs Sullivan, an elderly woman to whom she was a full time carer. Sadly his mother passed away, and he should be able to live there rent free, but there’s a snag. In fact there are two snags (standing here for Selfish Nasty Arrogant Greedy Scumbags): Norman and Ian.
Norman and Ian are father and son respectively. It was Ian’s grandmother (his mother’s mother) who left Maurice and his mum the ground floor flat in its entirety, rent free forever. But Norman and Ian had other ideas and, unbeknownst to Maurice, stole and destroyed the will, leaving Maurice and his late mother to believe that Mrs.Sullivan had reneged on her promise. They are estate agents and look after the flat. They charge Maurice a rent knowing full well that he will be unable to keep up with the payments in the hope of evicting him and refurbishing, then selling, the flat. They are utterly odious people. Ian is in thrall to his father who has an iron grip on him. Maurice and Ian were childhood friends until Norman got his claws into Ian and turned him against Maurice. They are entitled snobs and will stop at pretty much nothing to get the money they need to stay in business and keep to the lifestyle they have become accustomed to.
Maurice is unaware that they have ripped him off in the worst possible way and lives for winning the Pools (this story is set in 1991, btw, when the Pools were still a thing. Are they still still a thing?), so that he can get himself out of the rut he finds himself in.
But that was before Gloria. Gloria storms into his life and at first it is a breath of fresh air. Well, more like a breath of bleach and cleaning fluids really, as Gloria turns his flat upside down and inside out in her mission to clean it up. She is a strict germophobe and an utter control freak. She insidiously weaves herself into Maurice’s life and in no time at all he is under her spell and caught in her trap.
As I have already mentioned, Gloria, Norman and Ian are thoroughly repellent individuals. There is very little to like about them. In fact, there is sod all to like about them. Gloria’s backstory is a sad and tragic one, and it does illicit some sympathy for her and how she has turned out. She also shows a teeny tiny smattering of remorse for her victims, but it is fleeting and she soon reasserts herself as an utterly and deliciously bonkers villain. She is a very well drawn character and one that you really want to see get her just desserts.
Norman and Ian are similarly well drawn. Neither have any real remorse or regrets over their actions, although Ian occasionally shows some.
Other characters come into play: there is Odette, the young woman who moves into the flat next door and to who Maurice takes a shine to (they bond over their love of cats; something that puts her firmly onto Gloria’s radar. Ah!); Felicity and Tristan, the young newly married couple who move into the downstairs flat next door, and to whom Gloria spies on and constantly sneaks into the back garden of to overhear their conversations. She doesn’t like them at all; and then there’s Amber who comes into Ian’s life.
All of these characters are likeable (hurrah! See, it’s not all doom and gloom 😉 ), and enter Gloria’s world in ways that make you scream out at the book for them to get out!
But it’s Maurice who you really root for. I was desperate for him to get out of this well and in one piece. He makes a couple of mistakes in his desperation to save money, and Gloria, who wouldn’t miss a pine marten in a field of stoats, seizes upon them to exert her control over him. You almost want to pull Maurice from the pages and slap him hard for him to grow some balls.
Will he come out of this ok and unscathed? Will Gloria, Norman and Ian get their comeuppances? Will Odette’s cats survive Gloria’s plans for them? Is this the real life or is this just fantasy? Is he forever caught in a landslide with no escape from his reality? Will Maurice open his eyes, look up to the sky and see….ok, I’ll stop that now.
There is a very nice vein of dark humour running throughout The Doll Collector. Take Gloria for example. Despite her clever deviousness, she is wilfully ignorant of anything that she doesn’t understand or remotely care about. On overhearing Odette, who she calls ‘The Prostitute’, talking to Felicity and Tristian, ‘The Smoochers’, she reveals her ignorance which Maurice secretly revels in:
‘The prostitute told The Smoochers that her grandmother used to work in a park during the war, and they were impressed. As if sweeping up leaves is important to the war.’
‘Can you remember the name of the park, love?’ he asked, wondering how she would pronounce it.
‘Sounded like Belching to me.’
‘What are you looking so impressed for?’
‘It was a communications centre. Her grandmother probably decoded messages from secret agents. It was vital work.’
These little moments also help Maurice to deal with his situation and to play a game of mental one-upmanship on Gloria.
The cover states that it is a ‘chilling serial killer thriller’, and whilst it most certainly is chilling in parts, I find this to be a tad misleading and the story wasn’t what I was expecting, but that is in no way a bad thing. I wouldn’t necessarily call Gloria a serial killer, either. She doesn’t kill to satisfy some deep rooted need, but out of a compulsion to get her own way and to create her own, in her mind, perfect world. In this way I find that there are echoes of the classic 80’s film, The Stepfather, starring Terry O’Quinn. The stepfather was a character who was always looking for the perfect family unit, and, once he found one and once he had inveigled himself into their lives, if they didn’t meet his high expectations, he killed them all and moved on to the next assuming a new identity along the way. Nice.
Gloria is almost trying to do the same thing; she wants a husband, home, perfect neighbours, perfect image and the perfect life as she sees it. If she doesn’t get that then she does something about it. Often, but not exclusively, with fatal consequences.
However this is really nitpicking. The Doll Collector is great fun and is an extremely well written, tense, maddening, infuriating, character driven slice of domestic noir. There are parts where you’ll be biting your lips down to the quick, desperate for poor Maurice to man up and kick Gloria in the lady parts and out of his life.
The characters are often repellent, but fascinating, and you really do root for the good guys, whilst all the while fearing that this is going to be one of those books where it all turns to shit at the end and the bad guys get away with it all.
So, do they get away with it? Will Maurice get his happy ending or will you end up throwing the book across the room in infuriated anguish? Well, you’ll just have to read it for yourself and find out, and I highly recommend that you do 🙂
About Joanna Stephen-Ward:
Joanna Stephen-Ward was born in the Australian outback, and grew up in Melbourne. Her school days were spent dreaming about being an opera singer or a writer. To the exasperation of her parents and teachers she spent her final year sitting at the back of the classroom writing a novel set in WW2.
When she left school she went to an opera school where she was taught drama, movement and language pronunciation and had small roles in the workshop productions. She was not good enough to become a professional opera singer, but the seeds of her novel Vissi d’arte were sown.
She left Australia and spent a year travelling around Europe and the UK. While working in outpatients for the NHS she met Peter and they married in 1985. They lived in Richmond Surrey and she worked at The National Archives, an enthralling place for anyone interested in history or crime.
Having been brought up as a lonely only child, she was astonished to discover in 2010 that she was one of eight children. She and her sister had last been together on a verandah in the outback when they were babies. They had a joyous reunion in Cornwall in 2012.
Joanna has written seven novels and is working on her eighth.
Joanna’s Social Media Links:
My thanks to Joanna and to Emma Welton (Damppebbles) for giving me the opportunity to read and review this book and to shout about it on the Blog Tour.
Don’t forget to check out the other stops along the tour or Gloria will be adding another doll to her collection……