Friday’s Forgotten Book: I Start Counting by Audrey Erskine Lindop

Audrey Erskine Lindop (26 December 1920 – 7 November 1986) wrote about eight novels, lists of her works vary. I Start Counting (Doubleday, 1966) seems to have been the most well-known of them, based on the success of the film adaptation with Jenny Agutter in her first starring role. It won the Grand Prix de Littérature Policière – International Category in 1967.

The story is narrated by Wynne Kinch, an orphaned 14-year-old in the suburban Midlands, during the free-wheeling 1960s of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. Wynne is part of a blended family, living with her paternal grandfather, her aunt by marriage Lucy, and Lucy’s three children. The twins Nellie and Len are Wynne’s cousins from Lucy’s second marriage. George, Lucy’s older son from her first marriage, is no relation at all. But they are a true family, squabbling internally and coalescing at the slightest hint of external threat. Wynne has developed a walloping girlish crush on George, and he’s doing his best to wait for it to run its course.

In addition to the general angst of a self-conscious teenage girl with an embarrassing family and excess baby fat, Wynne is sad because the family recently moved to a high-rise apartment when the neighborhood where she’d lived most of her life was slated for reconstruction. She makes frequent trips to visit the old house, unbeknownst to the rest of her family, who would be horrified, as a serial killer is on the loose. So far responsible for the deaths of four girls, the strangler has given the police few clues to work with. But self-absorbed Wynne does not think twice about disappearing alone to visit the old house, with no one knowing where she is.

Wynne gradually decides for not very good reasons that George is the strangler and that she must protect him at all costs. Her bumbling eventually brings George to the attention of the police, and Wynne herself is charged with accessory to murder after the fact.

Apparently readers either love or hate this book, there seems to be no middle ground. I loved it when I first found it as a teenager years ago. I completely identified with Wynne and her inability to fit inside her skin. I found (and still find) the extended family hilarious. Of course Granddad raises mice. Keeping pigeons would be far too ordinary. The offhand mentions of mice breed shows and mice industry newsletters still evoke snickers. I identified strongly with the domestic chaos resulting from six adults sharing living space, as at the time my family of eight was wedged into a house far too small for it. Although some reviewers consider the characters poorly drawn, I can only assume they were reading a different book.

The mystery is generally not prominent, it simmers on the sidelines most of the time and seems to be a catalyst to the characters and their interactions with each other, which I consider a fascinating way to construct a suspense novel. My reaction to the identity of the strangler was first to be startled and then to ask myself how I missed it. Definitely a fair-play mystery. All in all, I still love this book.

3 thoughts on “Friday’s Forgotten Book: I Start Counting by Audrey Erskine Lindop

  1. Excellent! (I was still putting together the music list this morning, or would’ve looked directly at your review then for confirmation of the film adaptation). Definitely has the feel of Muriel Spark about it, from your description, and what I saw of the film some time back…was this novel offered as a YA book, and if so, reasonably? Or was it claimed, for its time in print and afterward, by younger readers?

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  2. I can’t imagine anyone in 1966 considering this a YA book, with its sex and drugs and whiff of incest. It won the French national award for best foreign mystery, and that is not a YA award.

    If it was categorized as YA, it was on the basis of the film, which I understand takes liberties with the characters, removing some and reframing others, as well as the plot. To my mind, the raucous nature of the book is due to the characters, especially Wynne’s classic 14-year-old cluelessness, so these changes are unfortunate.

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  3. I suspect the likelihood seemed stronger to me from seeing about the last half-hour or so of the film, indeed.

    Though you might be surprised, as 1966 was the cusp of the new wave of more naturalistic YA…the 1964 Newbery Shortlist has accidental murder of a young girl by thresher, tough ugly city life, and the like, and Marijane Meaker’s DINKY HOCKER SHOOTS SMACK! became a bit of a classic YA not too long after, to say nothing of Jean George’s JULIE OF THE WOLVES, and such adult novels as CATCHER and THE STERILE CUCKOO were being grabbed up by kids. Indeed, if the book had been take up by YA audiences, it might’ve stayed in print longer…I shall see what I can do about interlibrary loan…once the TBR mountain range is somewhat bested…

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