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The Weekly paper of the New Communist Party of Britain

Ghosts and middle class angst

reviewed by Ben Soton

The Secret of Cold Hill The Secret of Cold Hill: Peter James: Pan Books 2020, 400 pp; hbk £11.99; pbk £8.99; Kindle £4:99

THE appearance of a mysterious old woman. Sightings of people long dead and general strange happenings. This is the subject of Peter James’ new novel The Secret of Cold Hill – a sequel to his 2019 work The House on Cold Hill.

Peter James is a native of Brighton and many of his novels are set in that seaside town and the surrounding area. His books have been made into television programmes and stage plays. Many have occult themes. This one, at face value, is a supernatural thriller. In fact the two Cold Hill novels are essentially about the anxiety suffered by that section of the population referred to as the “middle class”.

Marxists have often debated whether they actually exist. Are these people not just the better off section of the working class?

The middle strata is made up of small business people and skilled white-collar workers who often possess a university degree. Less likely to suffer poverty and low pay as other sections of the working class they instead suffer issues of insecurity, anxiety and occasional guilt toward those less well off.

In The Secret of Cold Hill two couples move from Brighton into an up-market housing development in the Sussex village of Cold Hill. Jason Danes is an artist and his wife Emily runs a catering business. Oliver Penze-Wendell has recently been made redundant from a Brighton insurance company while his wife Claudette is a woman of leisure.

Penze-Wendell tries to hide his financial problems from his wife, who is happy to spend her time scoffing entire boxes of chocolates and guzzling cheap wine. Meanwhile Jason Danes, who suffers from obsessive-compulsive disorder, is anxious about the success of his recent paintings.

As the first residents of the new housing development, they meet hostility from older villagers who see them as intruders. Then both couples start seeing strange things and suffering odd experiences – namely the ghosts of the residents of the house that once stood where they live. Rather than comparing notes with those in a similar situation they snigger at each other’s bad taste in clothing, wine and use of terminology.

As the strange and frightening events worsen Jason Danes sees something from his studio window. A construction worker is killed in a tragic accident and Jason initially feels guilty for having failed to prevent it. He then decides to paint a picture depicting the dead worker as a skiver – a sign of the ambiguous way in which these people view those below them.

I wonder whether there will be a third Cold Hill novel. At the end of the book another couple move into the same housing development. Their surname is Middle. Many of us lower down the social order view the likes of the Danes and the Penze-Wendell’s with a degree of envy. After reading the novel I felt glad to live in a modest house in an Edwardian suburb, just west of the city-centre of another south coast city.