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Saturday, June 26, 2010

Peter Van Greenaway

The Medusa Touch by Peter Van Greenaway. Gollancz 01702, 1973 (h/c). Cover by Colin Hay
With his third novel, Peter Van Greenaway proves himself to be unquestionably a master of suspense. Each of his plots turns out to have a more shattering impact than the previous one. The Man Who Held the Queen to Ransom and Sent Parliament Packing was hailed in the Press as the "most astounding novel" of its year. Of its successor, Judas!, R. C. Churchill said (in the Birmingham Post), "as thirlling a story of suspense as any reader could desire"; the Manchester Evening News called it "a cliff-hanger"; and The Times declared, "This extraordinary book (which contains about three other novels) is impossible to set aside." Now Mr Van Greenaway comes up with something even more startling.

The quiet opening, which suggests a detective story, is deceptive. A well known novelist, Morlar, has been battered almost to deatah; in  fact, the police doctor pronounces him dead, but by some miracle of will-power, there's a flicker of life in him still, desperately holding on. Inspector Cherry of the Yard can find no conventional clues; but, an unconventional man, he begins to explore Morlar's mind, as revealed in his novels and in interviews with his psychiatrist, Zonfield.

Zonfield describes Morlar as "the most dangerous man in the world", and he could be right... throughout Morlar's life, his enemies have mysteriously met disaster. In their sessions together, the psychiatrist has tried to explain this (and much more) away as coincidence or premonition. But he cannot explain away the appalling evidences of his power which Morlar now produces—the destruction of a submarine, the crash of a jumbo jet into Centrepoint, the fatal deflection in orbit of a manned moon rocket.

And now, from a note in Morlar's journal, the Inspector realises where he intends to strike next, and why he is striving so desperately to stay alive to engineer his atrocious coup...

The novel builds up to a climax of agonising suspense, as the Inspector tries in vain to persuade people at the very top level that he isn't crazy and that the fantastic danger is real. And at the end Morlar, his coup achieved, passes on a last two-word message of even more terrible import. This is indeed the Arctic and Antarctic of chillers.
Peter Van Greenaway is a bit of a mystery. His novels are well known, especially The Medusa Touch, which was filmed in 1978 and starred Richard Burton and Lee Remick. What surprises me is that almost nothing is known about Van Greenaway himself.

Despite what it says in the blurb above, The Medusa Touch was not his third novel but his fifth, the first two (The Crucified City and The Evening Fool) appearing in the early 1960s. Van Greenaway was born in London in 1929 and died in 1988. He was a former lawyer who turned to writing full time... and that is all that appears to be known about him.

The real mystery is that he doesn't seem to appear in birth or death records. There is a brief announcement of his engagement on 12 October 1949 in The Times: "The engagement is announced, and the marriage will shortly take place quietly, between Peter, only son of Mr. and Mrs. A. G. Van Greenaway, of London, and Ursula, only daughter of the late Mr. Philip Mond, and of Mrs. Mond, of Flat 7, 71 Holland Park, London, W11."

The marriage records record the marriage in 4Q 1949 in Kensington between Ursula A. I. Mond and Peter V. Greenaway. Ursula was born in 1928.

It seems that Van Greenaway began writing for TV in the late 1950s, his scripts including one-off plays for ITV Television Playhouse, ITV Play of the Week, The Wednesday Thriller, Thirty-Minute Theatre, Mystery and Imagination and ITV Sunday Night Theatre. Working backwards, he appeared as an actor in a series called Escape in 1957 and had a play on the radio (Home Service) entitled The Drummer Boy as early as 1955.

However, this small (but usually well received) list of credits is all that remains of Van Greenaway beyond his engagement notice and a note that he and his wife attended the memorial service of Mrs. Constance Goetze in 1951.

If Van Greenaway was, indeed, his name. The name doesn't turn up in any census or phone records. Only two Peter Greenaways were born in 1929, one (Peter N., born in Uxbridge) the son of Horace and Beatrice Greenaway, the second (Peter, born in Maidstone) the son of William and Laura Greenaway... not A. G. Van Greenaway.

So who was Peter Van Greenaway? At this time I have no idea... a mystery that has me mystified. Unusual for such a high profile author.

Minor update: 26 February 2011
From an anonymous comment below and a little further digging, we learn that Peter Greenaway was the son of Arthur T. G. Greenaway and his wife Florence M. (nee Hyde) who were married in West Ham in 1926; an older brother, Arthur L. Greenway, was born in 1927. There is still no sign of a birth record but even official records are prone to errors. I think this one can be classed as "solved" thanks to our anonymous contributor.

5 comments:

Dan McNeil said...

Brilliant author, and immensely inspirational to me. Glad I'm not the only one who can't confirm whether he ever existed...

Anonymous said...

Peter Greenaway was born to Arthur and Florence(nee Hyde) Van was not a given name, he was born in Plaistow, but his parents moved outside of Brighton. He married Ursula but they divorced. He had a partner later and I believe two children.

Anonymous said...

that is peter there are no other siblings he was named after his father

Anonymous said...

I know he existed! My mother knew him.

Anonymous said...

He lived in London, Kent, Devon and moved north.
I understand that there was only one child.