Twice Round the Clock by Billie Houston – Review
By Sandra Callard
In the annals of literature, 1935 stands as a time ensnared by the fervent allure of crime tales. An era when the collective imagination was captivated by whodunits that danced across pages and flickered upon cinema screens, dominated by none other than the indomitable Agatha Christie. Yet, amidst this tumultuous surge of intrigue, the enigmatic duo known as The Houston Sisters managed to carve a niche of their own. Billie Houston, the lesser-known half, shifted from the vaudeville stage to embark on a literary endeavor with Twice Round the Clock. A seamless transition, it appears, for her maiden voyage into the realm of crime fiction has yielded a gem that sits resplendent on the shelf of literary ingenuity.
In the book, Houston unveils a meticulously woven tapestry of mystery that will leave readers dizzied in the best possible way. Her ensemble cast, both clever and charming, play their parts with a finesse that renders the reader’s attempts at deduction futile. Not once, not twice, but a confounding quintet of guesses is met with resolute misdirection. It’s a narrative gambol that keeps the mind delightfully off-kilter, a merry-go-round of guesses that never alights where anticipated. The very title, a masterful stroke, becomes an allegorical nod to the swirling chronicle of events that envelops the reader.
The tempo of the prose, often brushed aside as inconsequential, is a testament to Houston’s precision. A judiciously paced novel, akin to a well-conducted symphony, is an ode to the reader’s appetite. And Houston, with her crafty hand, has notched every beat perfectly, bestowing a rhythmic cadence that renders the pages a pleasure to traverse.
Set against the backdrop of opulence, Houston doesn’t squander ink on ornate descriptions of locales. Instead, her linguistic wealth is lavished upon the characters, each sketched with vivacity that leaps from the page. From the irksome to the engaging, her characterisations elicit palpable emotions. Antagonists are so thoroughly vile that the reader instinctively recoils, while the eclectic range of protagonists spans the spectrum from youth to maturity, from the ordinary to the extraordinary. Even the seemingly mundane carry an allure within Houston’s narrative realm.
The brilliance of Houston’s storytelling is amplified by the paradox it reveals: this is her sole literary creation. A fact that echoes with incredulity, it stands as a literary singularity. Why? I’m sure the reasons are manifold – perhaps her diversions into other successful ventures left her with too little time to traverse the labyrinth of another novel, a task known to be demanding and time-devouring. Yet, her solitary masterpiece outshines a multitude of middling offerings, a beacon of excellence that distills the reader’s immersive hours into what feels like mere moments.
Twice Round the Clock stands as a testament to her brilliance – and one can only rue the absence of further literary exploits from her pen.
‘Twice Round the Clock’ by Billie Houston is published by the British Library