Celia Fremlin was born in 1914 in Kingsbury, England, the daughter of a doctor and the sister of nuclear physicist John H. Fremlin. She studied classics at Somerville College, Oxford, but after her mother died in 1931, she was expected to look after her father. Instead of being content to just stay at home, she took jobs in domestic service, which was unusual for a middle-class woman at that time. She said it was to "observe the peculiarities of the class structure of our society," and those experiences later found their way into her writing.
Much later, in her sixties, she began to take long walks at night by herself over the back streets of London, partly for research and partly to prove a point. Her conclusion was that to make the dark streets lose their terror, "We don’t need more policemen on the beat. We need more grandmothers." Those experiences were compiled into a TV program about challenging people’s fears of urban streets at night and many observations also wound up in her books.
Her life may have seemed like domestic bliss on the surface, but it was filled with its share of tragedy that would be at home in any crime novel: Not only did she lose her mother at age 17, but her youngest daughter committed suicide, as did Fremlin's husband, rather than live a disabled life after a heart attack. She also outlived her second husband and her other two children, and went slowly blind in her later years, spending her last days in a nursing home, which was a bit ironic, considering she became an advocate for euthanasia late in life.
Fremlin's first mystery novel was The Hours Before Dawn from 1958 which won the Edgar Award for Best Novel and established her style of mystery/horror set mostly around the lives of married women in the 1950s. Some feel that The Long Shadow was an equally fine work, and H.R.F. Keating even included it in his 1987 listing of the 100 best crime and mystery books. It's the story of the Imogen Barnicott, third wife of a celebrated, cruel and egocentric professor, who, despite her unhappy marriage, had never plotted her husband's murder—yet after his supposedly accidental death, she receives a mysterious phone call accusing her of that very thing. Add to that strange happenings like new messages left lying around in his handwriting, work on an unfinished manuscript of his that continues to be written, and shadowy figures seen in the house, and Imogen not only begins to doubt her husband is dead at all, she begins to believe she just might take his place.
Celia Fremlin used to say that she wrote the sort of book she wanted to read, in which a mysterious threat hangs over someone and escalates chapter by chapter; or as, H.R.F. Keating recalled her saying, "to put a plot that is exciting or terrifying against a background that is domestic, very ordinary, humdrum." She used this to great effect in The Long Shadow and others, slowly building an atmosphere of suspense and terror out of the excruciatingly mundane, using the contrasts as a literary canvas like Dali and his surrealistic art.
Her character observations managed to be cutting and yet have a touch of dark humor, as well, as this passage from Imogen's experience at a party a well-wishing friend had encouraged her to attend:
Worst of all, perhaps, was the apparently unending procession of people who, incredibly, still hadn't heard, and had to be clobbered with the news in the first moment of meeting. Had to have the smiles slashed from their faces, the cheery words of greeting rammed back down their gullets as if by a gratuitous blow across the mouth. There they would be, waving from across the road, calling "Hi!" from their garden gates, phoning by chance from Los Angeles, from Aberdeen, from Beckenham...One and all to have their friendly overtures slammed into silence, their kindly voices choked with shock. One after another, day after day, over and over again: sometimes Imogen felt like the Black Death stalking the earth, destroying everything in her path.
Fremlin's books are filled with astute perceptions that no doubt bear the imprint of her first-hand research into human behavior, as Imogen's stepson Robin advises her about taking on boarders:
I'd choose Depressions rather than Anxiety States...From the point of view of a landlady, Depressions are good because they lie in bed until midday and don't eat breakfast. Whereas Anxiety States want grapefruit—All Bran—the lot."
In addition to her 20 novels and nonfiction books, the last dating from 1994, she wrote short stories, poetry and articles and was a member of the Crime Writers Association for many years. The Long Shadow, The Hours Before Dawn, and her other fiction certainly deserves a closer look.