Josephine Poole Essay - Critical Essays

Poole, Josephine


Josephine Poole 1933–

British author of novels for young adults and adults, and playwright.

Poole's specialties are the juvenile mystery and horror story, genres in which authors often stop short of true intrigue or terror out of deference to the sensibilities of their young readers. Poole, however, refuses to spare her readers from any of the suspense or supernatural spine-tingling her imagination concocts, which accounts perhaps for the popular and critical success her books have enjoyed.

Thematically, Poole's novels are studies of good versus evil, and of the various forms that evil takes. Her young protagonists all confront some form of evil face to face, and are forced by circumstance to come to grips with it and, eventually, to defeat it.

Often praised for the strength of her plots and for her evocative atmospheres, Poole structures many of her works in an almost filmic fashion, due perhaps to her experience as the author of two British teleplays.

Both her novels for young people and adults mix exact, often ruthless character studies with the thrills of their plots. Emily's intellectual, permissive mother in Touch and Go and the philanthropic Mrs. Dillys in The Lillywhite Boys are examples of Poole's memorable characters.

Critics have faulted the novels for having thin or unlikely premises, for clichéd dialogue, for some unresolved denouments, and for their haunting, even nightmarish effect. However, Poole has been unanimously praised for the overall excellence of her writing, and for the inventiveness and promise she has shown as a novelist. Poole has said that she writes to recreate the kind of books that gripped her most as a young girl, and it cannot be denied that her well-written, convincing books fall well into the tradition of L. M. Boston and similar writers with whom she is often compared. Some critics feel that her works are themselves headed toward classic status; she has at least developed a reputation as an author whose works show respect for the tolerance levels of young people by always keeping them deliciously terrified. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 21-24, rev. ed., and Something about the Author, Vol. 5.)

[There] is a real study of the nature of good and evil underlying the story [of Moon Eyes]. The only reason why it should not be called "an allegory" is that no right-minded child would then dream of reading it. This would be a pity, for it should have a strong appeal for any imaginative child of twelve and upwards. The writing is vivid, and the descriptions are clear and economical….

The only drawback to this book is that the imaginative child mentioned earlier will probably refuse to go up to bed alone in the dark for months after reading it. The climax, for instance, is pure nightmare, when the children are trying to get out of the house with the black dog-spirit prowling after them. No pandering to the young reader, in fact, either in the excellent writing or the events of the story, and this makes it a good book as well as a most unusual one.

"Firm of Purpose," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1965; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3328, December 9, 1965, p. 1133.

Ruth Hill Viguers

Mr. Pawley's casual arrangements for the care of his children while he takes his artistic frustrations to a kinder climate are not unusual when one considers similar parental unconcern in other English stories. Even the fascinating old house and the overgrown garden are common enough. Kate is a sturdy, sensible child, and although he has never talked in all his four years, Thomas seems less abnormal than independent…. But the air of strangeness and mystery in which the children move is felt immediately, and the reader accepts as inevitable the entrance of the menacing presence of Aunt Rhoda, whom Kate invites to stay in their home…. The story builds up to a fearful climax in which Thomas is the pawn in a battle with the forces of evil and is saved as much by his own stubborn independence as by Kate's terrified efforts. The writing is smooth and graphic, a pleasure to read aloud. The book should find a very appreciative audience among children just leaving the fairytale age but still looking for tales of the supernatural.

Ruth Hill Viguers, "Early Spring Booklist: 'Moon Eyes'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1967, by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIII, No. 2, April, 1967, p. 203.

[Moon Eyes] is a very strange tale which will appeal to those children to whom the boundary between real life and imagination is not well defined. To the cynical adult mind it poses many questions—why, for instance, did their father go away leaving 15 year old Kate and her 5 year old dumb brother alone in the house; why did their kindly daily, Mrs. Beer, or Kate's schoolmistress not act against the obviously dangerous Aunt Rhoda; why had no one tried to make Thomas speak before? But apart from these questions the story is a compelling one, and has an interesting atmosphere. It is powerfully written….

[Moon Eyes] is essentially a battle between good and evil, appealing to a wide range of readers—particularly girls—and when at last Kate and the influence for good have won the battle with Thomas, a number of questions are unanswered and leave plenty of food for thought.

"'Moon Eyes'," in The Junior Bookshelf, Vol. 29, No. 4, August, 1967, p. 222.

R.G.G. Price

[The Lilywhite Boys] is ambitious and at times brilliantly written; but somehow the family in the country house with do-gooding wife, gnomic cook, strange secretary and neglected sons, who make a religion of their mother, are unconvincing and don't tease the curiosity. Such very special cases need to be presented to the reader cunningly, so that they seem as important and interesting to him as to their creator. Being introduced to wonderful friends of friends and remaining quite unmoved is an unavoidable experience in life but it has no place in literature. Perhaps part of the trouble is that a short story theme is scaled up to a shortish novel. The book's real distinction in detached phrases, sentences and even paragraphs isn't enough to carry the central conception of the novel.

R.G.G. Price, "New Fiction: 'The Lilywhite Boys'," in Punch (© 1969 by Punch Publications Ltd.; all rights reserved; may not be reprinted without permission), Vol. 256, January 22, 1969, p. 142.

There is a certain kind of well endowed, energetic woman who spends her days doing good unto others….

Mrs. Dilly, the central figure of Josephine Poole's perceptive novel The Lilywhite Boys, is the epitome of such gifted, busy women….

[The] point about Mrs. Dilly and the problem of the novel is that people who spread light and happiness far...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Elizabeth Bewick

[Catch as catch can is a] story in which fourteen-year-old cousins, en route for a holiday in Lancashire, witness a man's suicidal leap from a train and as a result find themselves unpleasantly involved with a gang of dope smugglers. The situation is trite, the characters overdrawn—adults acting at times with incredible naiveté—and the dialogue abounds in clichés, however crisply delivered. There is a certain compelling quality about the writing and the mounting tension of the plot holds one's interest with a kind of mesmerized horror….

Elizabeth Bewick, "Eleven to Fifteen: 'Catch as Catch Can'," in The School Librarian, Vol. 18, No. 1, March, 1970, p. 85.

From the clamorous second-class carriage, the sepulchral corridor in first, [Catch as Catch Can is] a slow sizzler that makes most juvenile mysteries look like comic strips…. There are … neatly falsified alarms, and a lurking lot of real ones…. All, it's a little disappointing to learn, apropos of a cryptic message about a smugglers' rendezvous that the doomed passenger had put in Piers' pocket. But the climax is a clammy chase up the ladder of a derelict lighthouse, "and, oh triumph in this checkered evening," Piers recognizes among the much-obliged police, "Swallow, his bane at the station" when he'd first suspected foul play. Convincingly peopled and detailed so that there's real life in danger.

"Younger Fiction: 'Catch as Catch Can'," in Kirkus Reviews (copyright © 1970 The Kirkus Service, Inc.), Vol. XXXVIII, No. 19, October 1, 1970, p. 1097.

James Fenton

Yokeham takes its name from a modest country house in Derbyshire, where the assorted remains of an old family while away their rather draughty lives under the firm rule of the widow of the last male heir…. The … characters include a few Gothic crones and a homosexual gallery owner, Compton Dando, one of the author's least happy creations. But the story begins with the unsolicited intrusion into this charmed circle of Catholic snobbery and hypocrisy of a pushing young man of means and sound business sense [Geoffrey] who claims to be a distant Jordan relation from Africa….

[Geoffrey] looks all set to win Philippa and the house with her from the lethargic and unfeeling Nick. This, it transpires in the final, rather sudden catastrophe, is not to be: the villain retreats from the scene of his destruction as suddenly as he came. But this is a rather reticent and at times baffling novel, and we are never quite sure right up to the very end that we are in possession of enough facts to judge clearly what is going on.

James Fenton, "Victims," in New Statesman (© 1970 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), Vol. 80, No. 2064, October 9, 1970, p. 464.

Pamela Marsh

Menaces and warnings, lonely moors and abandoned ruins, not to mention a pair of grimly determined bizarre-looking hunters—all suggest unlikely melodrama [in Catch as Catch Can]…. But Mrs. Poole has a knack of surrounding the terrifying with the everyday and making both routine and terror convincing. Good writing in fact makes her story almost too realistic for adults, though most 10-12-year-olds are tough enough to take it.

Pamela Marsh, "'A Pause in the Day's Occupations …' Known as the Tuned-Down Children's Hour," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1970 The Christian Science Publishing...

(The entire section is 354 words.)

C. S. Hannabus

Take a typical English village, put the grudges accumulated over the years in a pile, allow human nature to do its worst, and light the blue touch-paper [and you have the story of Billy Buck]….

A book which tightens its grip around your brain as you read, not only in its acceleratingly oppressive ambience of evil, not only in its ominous furniture (blood-stained stones, rookeries, prong-bearded strangers), but also—and mainly—in its frightening suggestion that gullible people can beget a panic more terrifying than any monster you care to imagine. Take this up and await its sequel.

C. S. Hannabus, "Fiction: 'Billy Buck'," in Children's Book...

(The entire section is 119 words.)

Virginia Haviland

Uniting elements of Gothic romance and black magic, the unusual story [of The Visitor]—starting in a quiet, leisurely fashion—moves into an atmosphere thickening with suspicions and threats, and speeds to a devilish climax. The characters and their relationships are drawn to satisfy a mature reader; the writing creates its effects with economy.

Virginia Haviland, "Late Winter Booklist: 'The Visitor'," in The Horn Book Magazine (copyright © 1973 by The Horn Book, Inc., Boston), Vol. XLIX, No. 1, February, 1973, p. 50.

(The entire section is 78 words.)

John Ives

After the success with two previous books about the supernatural, Moon Eyes and Catch as Catch Can, there is evidence again in [Billy Buck] that [Josephine Poole] is able to evoke a sense of unease through the quality of the writing. But for this reviewer there was evoked a second sense of unease. The story gives a picture of a village community best by the powers of darkness, and perhaps it reveals a simple prejudice to suggest that the whole import of the novel might be dismissed bluntly as claptrap. But young afficionados of the supernatural novel may be more willing to suspend such disbelief when they become immersed in some of the more gripping passages which Miss Poole achieves with her...

(The entire section is 139 words.)

Zena Sutherland

The omniscience of the young, in many of the mysteries written for them, is usually not believable. Here [in Touch and Go], because one of them—Charles—is with his father, who is a policeman pretending to be on holiday but actually on a security mission, the knowledge Charles has shared with Emily makes it credible that they should realize that a major crime is being planned…. The characterization is adequate, the dialogue unusually good, the plot tight, and the suspense delightfully unbearable. (pp. 15-16)

Zena Sutherland, "New Titles for Children and Young People: 'Touch and Go'," in Bulletin of the Center for Children's Books (© 1976 by the University of...

(The entire section is 118 words.)

Margery Fisher

If the plot of Touch and go is … unlikely, this matters less than it might because of the careful working out of the plot and the kind of apparently random, properly selected incident and behaviour that activate it…. The author manages her multiple narrative skilfully and integrates in it a shrewd if swift analysis of the friendship that grows between Emily and Charles, a peacefully childlike relationship which disappoints Emily's conscientiously permissive mother. The two young people, hampered as they are by adult prejudice and power, show considerable acumen in judging what they see by accident and making the most of their chances. Unfortunately, as in almost every story of its kind, the crooks are so...

(The entire section is 143 words.)

Anne Carter

In the matter of menace lurking in a smiling countryside, Josephine Poole has something of the mastery of Geoffrey Household and … Touch and Go is a chilling little exercise in la chasse humaine….

Charles and Emily share all the resilience and ingenuity of the young and they are not easily beaten. In a hilarious chase through the carnival streets, with time fast running out, the hunters become the hunted and their nefarious plot is foiled with panache. Even then, there is a bizarre realism in the ending which is characteristic of this author. Touch and Go is a thriller of more than ordinary pace and excitement, but there is nothing stereotyped about the characters or their...

(The entire section is 313 words.)