Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 381
Muriel Spark’s novel centers on aging and death among a circle of relatives, lovers, friends, and acquaintances. One unifying factor is that many characters receive mysterious phone calls that are thinly disguised death threats, with the caller stating “Remember, you must die.” The book is not, however, a conventional mystery story: while every person who receives the calls does die during the course of the novel, the identity of the caller is never revealed.
Lettie Colston is among the first to receive such a call. She and her brother, Godfrey, share a house with Godfrey’s wife, Charmian, who is recovering from a stroke that has affected her mentally and physically. Lettie reports the call to the police; at first it does not bother her, but she gradually becomes obsessed. Godfrey, although concerned with Charmian’s care, is often lost in sexual fantasies and fetishes.
His former lover, Lisa Brooke, has recently died, and several characters attend her funeral. These include her ostensible husband, Guy Leet, who is Charmian’s former lover; later he learns that Lisa had a previous marriage, so theirs was not legal. Lettie convinces Godfrey to hire Lisa’s former housekeeper to assist with Charmian’s care. This proves a bad move, as Mrs. Pettigrew transfers her blackmailing schemes from Lisa, with whom she had some success, to Godfrey. The Colstons ignore the warnings of Jean Taylor, Charmian’s former companion, who lives in a nursing home.
Alec Warner, Jean’s one-time lover, also receives a “remember” call, and soon Godfrey and Charmian receive them as well. Retired police inspector Mortimer, to whom they have reported them, becomes concerned. He invites them all to his home to discuss the situation but offers little practical advice. He does not reveal that he receives the calls as well and attributes them to Death itself.
Jean and Alec communicate the secrets about the long-ago affairs to the people involved so that Mrs. Pettigrew cannot blackmail Godfrey. A burglar surprises and kills Lettie in her home; the investigation of the murder helps reveal Lisa’s former marriage. Her real husband, an institutionalized mentally ill man, later dies, leaving Mrs. Pettigrew her beneficiary. As Charmian recovers her mental faculties, she opts to leave Godfrey and live in a long-term care facility.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
Each time Dame Lettie Colston answers the telephone, the anonymous caller announces “Remember, you must die.” Unnerved by the calls, the old woman contacts the police, but they cannot identify the caller. Lettie’s brother, Godfrey, is too preoccupied with his own problems to be sympathetic. He is exasperated by the mental deterioration his wife, Charmian, has suffered after her stroke.
Miss Jean Taylor, a resident in a nursing home, reflects upon the many years of her work as companion for Charmian, the famous novelist. Now she is trapped in a ward where the other women exhibit signs of memory loss, the staff patronizes the residents, and the head nurse brutalizes and demoralizes the residents.
Godfrey and Dame Lettie attend a memorial service for Lisa Brooke, who has died after suffering a stroke. Godfrey had an affair with Lisa many years before. At the service is an old acquaintance, Guy Leet, whom he is surprised to see. Guy is now an old man severely afflicted with arthritis.
Mrs. Pettigrew, Lisa’s housekeeper, has been named beneficiary of Lisa’s estate. No one knows that Mrs. Pettigrew had blackmailed Lisa for many years because of Lisa’s affair with Godfrey.
Alec Warner, a retired sociologist, is fascinated with the problems of old age. When he turns seventy years old, he begins the immense project of compiling records of old people’s physical condition, routines, attitudes, and tastes. Many years earlier he had loved Jean Taylor, but when he was advised to marry someone of his own class, he ended his relationship with her.
Dame Lettie hires Mrs. Pettigrew to help take care of Charmian. Mrs. Pettigrew planned to blackmail Godfrey just as she had blackmailed Lisa. She is frustrated when she finds out that Leet, who had secretly married Lisa many years ago, will inherit Lisa’s estate.
Jean faces a new challenge in the nursing home. Although the malicious head nurse has been released, her successor admits eight severely demented residents to the ward. Their wails and bizarre behaviors upset Jean and the other longtime residents.
About six months later, Godfrey Colston receives one of the anonymous calls. Godfrey often visits Olive Mannering, a young woman, to satisfy his sexual longings; he pays her for raising her skirt and allowing him to gaze upon her thigh. Godfrey is preoccupied by the threat of Mrs. Pettigrew’s blackmail, and he tells Olive about it.
Charmian, whose memory had begun to improve over the winter, announces that she wishes to move to a nursing home outside London. When she receives the anonymous caller’s message, “Remember, you must die,” she responds cheerfully, saying that she often thinks of her death.
Olive Mannering tells Alec Warner about Mrs. Pettigrew’s plot. When he returns home, Alec becomes the third person to receive the anonymous telephone message that day. He immediately makes notes in his file cards about the event.
Retired chief inspector Henry Mortimer welcomes those who had received the telephone calls to his home to review the evidence. He notes that each person who had received a call attributes different characteristics to the caller. Mortimer believes the caller was “death” himself, but he does not reveal this opinion to his guests. Instead, he advises them to make up their own minds as to the identity of the culprit.
Mrs. Pettigrew discovers a newspaper item reporting that Olive Mannering is to marry an old widower, Lisa’s brother-in-law. Mrs. Pettigrew, realizing that Godfrey has been visiting Olive on his mysterious outings, blackmails him. Feeling helpless, Godfrey allows her to drag him to his lawyer’s office to make changes in his will. Jean Taylor wants to free Godfrey from Mrs. Pettigrew’s domination, so she tells Alec Warner to tell Godfrey that Charmian had had an affair with Guy Leet for many years. Alec does so, and Godfrey dismisses Mrs. Pettigrew.
Dame Lettie becomes increasingly fearful about the intentions of the anonymous caller and shuts herself up in her house. One night, she surprises a burglar and is bludgeoned to death. Her body is not discovered for four days.
Guy visits Charmian in the nursing home outside London. He still expects to inherit Lisa’s estate. When he returns home, Percy Mannering is waiting for him. The two men begin to argue about poetry. The telephone rings and the caller asks for Percy, telling him “Remember, you must die.” The two men stop bickering and spend the evening together. Percy is inspired to write a sonnet on mortality.
During the investigation of Dame Lettie’s murder, the police, with the help of Henry Mortimer, discover that Lisa had already been married when she married Guy. Her real husband, who had been a patient in a mental hospital for forty years, becomes the benefactor of Lisa’s estate.
Alec Warner, who had visited patients in that hospital as part of his gerontological research, loses all of his gerontological files when his apartment catches fire. Four months later, he visits Taylor, who encourages him to begin his research anew. He feels unable to do so. He tells Jean that Lisa’s mentally ill husband has died. Now Mrs. Pettigrew will inherit Lisa’s fortune.