Peet died in early 2015, but now we have the posthumous Mr Godley’s Phantom, a short but powerful novel that, in its underlying engagement with ideas of justice and history, as well as its eerie, unsettling characterisation and brilliant evocations of place, pushes Peet’s standing significantly beyond anything his previous work might have suggested. In fact, it is something close to a masterpiece – a glorious one-off, beautifully told, with a narrative that is daringly simple right up until the point when it becomes very complicated indeed.
War, and all its wounds, is the sombre theme of the late Mal Peet’s final book, an unusual ghost story. Subtitled An Infection Of Evil, it chillingly describes what happens when an ordinary man witnesses the most abject horrors and how the resulting psychological damage can poison a life. Martin Heath was a brave soldier who helped to liberate Belsen and, in the aftermath, is struggling to cope with an abiding depression. Offered a job by an old comrade-in-arms, he becomes a chauffeur for Mr Godley, a frail, elderly man who is sad beyond measure following the death of his son in World War I and the suicide of his wife. In spare and careful prose, Peet describes the torment of the two men, both scarred by conflicts, haunted by their pasts and keenly, devastatingly aware that moral certainties can no longer be relied upon.
The late Mal Peet was a writer of extraordinary gifts. His work was varied, intelligent and challenging, and he strained at convention while telling powerful and moving stories... Few other authors who write ostensibly for children have matched his range: in many ways he resembles Robert Westall, whose output over forty or so novels was consistently excellent and who was unafraid to treat difficult themes... What follows is a thrilling study of pain, grief and evil, with the mechanics of a murder mystery powering the plot. What is honour when all else seems to be falling apart? What is a man’s life worth when he teeters on the verge of death? Martin struggles with his past and with his ambition; the young, beautiful female housekeeper may be a potential ally or an enemy. Postwar Britain, hidebound and dreary, is subverted by flashes of lust and power. The subtle and disquieting ending will resonate with teenage readers, lingering in the mind long after the book is finished.
Peet always writes with energy and zing, and along the way, just as the policemen stop regularly for a pint in the pub, the reader is sustained by the refreshing details of this book. Peet enjoys the quirkiness of dialect speech, the earthy joyousness of passion and small pleasures such as the “gorsey paddocks” and “green-scented air” of the countryside. And in his precise, cheerfully cynical, unstuffy writing, there is always humour grinning over the shoulder of tragedy.