A novel about a claims adjuster who falls for a married woman who may or may not be involved in an insurance fraud. 1953.
This really was not the book I intended to read. Last week I wound up with a great big pile of books, including some higher priority library books, so I had plenty of options. But I opened Fortune is a Woman on a whim, and before I knew it, I’d read thirty pages. If that’s not a sure sign of a good book, I’m not sure what is.
Before seeing it for $0.75 in a thrift store, I’d never heard of the book. I also hadn’t heard of Winston Graham (although, of course, I’d taken notice of the surname, which I share). Some of you may be familiar with the Poldark series, which is by far Winston Graham’s best-known work. In addition to those dozen books about 18th century Cornwall, though, he also published about thirty novels, chiefly in the crime/suspense genre.
Now, if you’re familiar with the books I enjoy reading, you’d know that “crime” is not a descriptor I look for. Fortune is a Woman, however, offers much more than you’d expect from the crime/suspense genre (or at least the genre as it stands today). For one, it’s solidly written. For another, there’s virtually no violence. This is the most we get:
I put one picture down and took out my torch and switched it on. The thing I’d stepped on was a man’s hand. I jerked the torch back and it caught the edge of the picture frame and slipped out of my hand. As it hit the floor, it went out.
And don’t worry, we’re immediately reassured that it’s not a random, severed hand—it’s still attached to somebody.
We get something else from Fortune is a Woman that’s rare for the genre: subtlety. The narrator and protagonist, Oliver Branwell, is not a flashy hero. I’m not even sure he qualifies for “hero.” He begins the story on a night sometime before the war, when he’s walking down a road outside of London and sees a young woman trying to change a flat tire. He helps her with the tire, and then she gives him a lift to the town where they’re both headed. He’s a little short with her about whether he’s going to fight, should a war break out. The drive is generally a bit awkward. It gets even more awkward when the young woman parks at her house, directing Branwell to the town further on. The woman’s father comes out and clearly disapproves of this ride with Branwell. Oh yes, and did I mention Branwell is a tramp? (Or, in today’s parlance, a hobo.)
Through little bits and pieces, we learn that Branwell had a difficult youth. The war, however, enables him to become more respectable, and to meet respectable people. One of the men he befriends in the war offers him a job, come peacetime, in his family’s insurance firm.
So that’s how the hobo becomes an insurance claims adjuster. His job, as he describes it somewhat uncomfortably, is to act as liaison between insurance agents and claimants, ensuring that everyone is playing by the rules. Branwell enjoys his work, but he’s also disoriented by his new position in life. He doesn’t make friends easily, either:
I hadn’t the frankness, the openness that you needed for real friendship. It was easy to call it shyness, reserve, but it was something much deeper. I made people uncomfortable because I made them think I didn’t like them.
Branwell is even more surprised when he does finally make some true friends. Or at least, that’s what they appear to be…It begins when he’s called to check up on a claim that’s been made regarding a house called Lowis Manor. There’s been a fire in one of the rooms, and several antiques and valuable paintings were ruined. It looks like a pretty clear-cut case. The owner of the place, Tracey Moreton, takes an immediate liking to Branwell. It must be because he and Branwell both fought in North Africa. Yes, that must be it, reasons our narrator…
And then Branwell meets Tracey’s wife, Sarah. Branwell recognizes her as the young woman with that flat tire before the war. She doesn’t recognize him at first—-understandably, he’s changed quite a bit—-but he doesn’t hesitate to jog her memory.
It’s obvious that Branwell has been infatuated with her all these years. He maneuvers to get invited to Lowis Manor, to spend more time with the Moretons, and especially to be close to Sarah. And then, while he’s out investigating another claim, he sees a painting of Lowis Manor hanging in someone’s flat. The painting is unmistakable, and it’s the certified original. The only problem is that the original was supposedly burnt in that fire over at Lowis Manor. Could there have been two paintings? Hmm…
I don’t think I’ll be giving too much away (since it was included on my dust jacket flap): the action really starts when Branwell sneaks into Lowis Manor, in search of the most expensive paintings, hoping to discover whether they’re fakes. Once he’s inside the house, though, he sees that something’s amiss. There are piles of curtains and sheets all over the place—and not just the sheets covering the furniture while the family is out of town. That’s when he steps on something “rubbery” on the floor: the hand. But his bigger problem, even beyond the body he’s discovered, is that he smells smoke. A fire’s been carefully set in the cellar. Even worse, it’s been set in the undetectable way he was describing to Sarah just last week…
The author is clever with how he constantly shifts situations and characters, so you never quite know who’s honest or who’s innocent. Sarah, as the narrator’s weak point, is the most susceptible to this constant shifting of character. Up until the last page, I was convinced that his love for her would prove his downfall.
Fortune is a Woman reminded me in so many ways of a Cary Grant type of movie. There’s that humility paired with cleverness; there’s that damp, smoke-filled atmosphere. There’s also that little snarky, self-deprecating kind of humor. Like when Branwell goes to interview a claimant and finds her, a fashionable, married woman, sitting up in bed. She stretches out in bed and tells him:
‘But don’t hurry away on my account. There’s all the evening to kill.’
I said: ‘A good bit of it’s dead already.’
‘I expect you’re aching to get back to the wife and kiddies.’
‘No wife?’ She eyed me up and down. ‘How very clever of you. What’s the recipe?’
I said: ‘Never having an evening to kill.’
There was, in fact, a film version of this made in 1957 (alas, starring Jack Hawkins, not Cary Grant), and judging by a little snippet it’s well-done and resembles the tone of the book. The American movie title was “She Played with Fire,” and currently it’s available on YouTube.
As always, though, I recommend the book above all. Trust me: this one will certainly keep you turning pages.