When I tried the page 117 trick the other day to see what 2017 held for me, the book that came to hand was Harriet, the latest novel by Elizabeth Jenkins (see here and here) that I've tracked down.
The facts of the real-life 'Penge mystery' are not entirely clear-cut (as evidenced by a successful appeal against the initial death sentences on all the defendants), but Elizabeth Jenkins sees in the case a stark and terrible lesson about the depths of evil to which outwardly normal, quite decent people are capable of sinking. She drives the lesson home by establishing the comfortable milieu in which Harriet, when we first see her, is settled, and by depicting the characters around her as normally, humanly, fallible, with normal human weaknesses, no more. There is a hint of danger in one of them - Patrick, an aspiring painter, self-centred and short-fused - and, more obviously, in Lewis, the brother who hero-worships him. Lewis it is who single-mindedly sets his sights on marrying Harriet and getting his hands on her money. Once he has done so, that comfortable milieu dissolves away and Harriet is gradually drawn into a wholly alien world of deprivation, degradation and suffering.
The events that unfold are, as they draw near their terrible denouement, almost too painful to read. The pain is less in the details of Harriet's ordeal, hideous though they are, than in the depiction of the steady growth, in those supposed to be looking after her, of an ability to regard her as something less than human, something whose suffering and fate are a matter of indifference. The novel was published in 1934, and reading it I couldn't help but think of how a similar process was about to unfold across Europe ('and the seas of pity lie, Locked and frozen in each eye'), as quite ordinary people found it easy enough to believe that certain of their fellow humans were untermenschen who could be mistreated and killed without compunction. I also found myself thinking of more recent events, particularly of the horrific cases of child neglect, starvation and cruelty that are continually coming to light...
In Harriet, Jenkins's vision of humanity is bleak indeed - which wouldn't be so unbearable if she wasn't such a damned good writer, with the gift of drawing you into an entirely convincing world. A review in The Observer described this novel as 'like a cold hand clutching at the heart' - and that, for once, is no overstatement.