When I’m panting for a novel and find nothing on the “New Fiction” shelves to tempt me, I’ll often discover something intriguing while shelving older novels—something like We Are Not Alone and Criminals.
We Are Not Alone was written in the mid-1930s by James Hilton, most well known for Lost Horizon and the utopia of Shangri-La. Despite sharing some of Lost Horizon’s otherworldly flavor, We Are Not Alone fits a this-worldly genre, the murder mystery. The novel’s prologue takes us to an English village where, many years before, a beloved local doctor was hanged for murdering his wife. The novel then traces events up to shortly before the woman’s death, opening a window into the doctor’s thoughts and detailing the series of bad choices and missteps that brought him, and a young woman convicted as his accomplice, to the scaffold. But did they commit the murder?
Although more this-worldly than Hilton’s novel, Margot Livesey’s Criminals is also a tale of individuals making a series of bad choices and missteps. Straight-arrow Ewan Munro finds an abandoned infant and takes her to the home of his not-quite-sane sister Mollie, where they find themselves working at cross-purposes to deal with their tiny guest. The plot accelerates with the appearance of a thuggish stranger and a potential fraud investigation.
With its measured pace, chatty narrator, and philosophical pretensions, We Are Not Alone aims to make the reader reflect, but its characters are more types than people. Criminals doesn’t ask for much reflection, but with its snowballing storyline and well-meaning yet deeply flawed characters, is gripping and entertaining.