The last book completed by Norfolk-born author Mal Peet is a chilling, compelling ghost story, writes Rowan Mantell
Late author’s novel finally published
Mal Peet died three years ago but his final completed book has just been published – a ghost story, set just after the end of the Second World War, and reaching back to a family tragedy in the First World War.
Mr Godley’s Phantom is a darkly atmospheric tale of a young man and a very old man, both wounded by war. Set on Dartmoor, it is a thriller, a police procedural and gripping examination of grief and guilt, love and duty.
Mal keeps the reader engrossed and guessing, right to the end of
Mr Godley’s Phantom. Even the phantom of the title itself is both an astonishingly beautiful car and… a ghost? A hallucination? A figment of imagination or as real as fear and death?
The book was already with publishers when Mal learned he had cancer. Now it is the last of his eight completed novels to be published.
Mal grew up in North Walsham, turning his childhood into the remarkable Life: An Exploded Diagram, which tells the story of a boy from a council estate going on to grammar school, with diversions through everything from first love to the Cuban missile crisis.
Mal only began his first novel aged 52. His second, Tamar, won the Carnegie Medal for the best UK children’s book of the year. He wrote for children, for young adults and for adults.
“Everything Mal wrote was so, so different,” said his widow, Elspeth, a children’s author.
Mr Godley’s Phantom started out as a short story and expanded into a novel for adults while Mal wrote another short story to fulfil the original commission.
The Good Boy, an urban version of Norfolk’s Black Shuck legend, will be republished in the spring.
“He would always say that he absolutely did not believe in ghosts but then, whenever our children, or visiting children, asked him he would tell this ghost story that happened to him when he was a teenager,” said Elspeth. “It would have been somewhere near North Walsham, in a small abandoned building in woodland. He would say he didn’t believe in ghosts but he told this story so convincingly, of seeing someone, reflected in a mirror or broken glass.”
The book Mal was working on as he died was finished by his friend, and fellow author, Meg Rosoff, and published in 2016.
Meg, who lives on the Suffolk coast, said: “I knew he was ill. I had last seen him in the autumn and he thought he had sciatica.” Instead he had terminal lung cancer.
“He called to tell me that the chemotherapy hadn’t worked and there was nothing else they could do apart from palliative care and it was over. It was an absolutely horrifying phone call. And you are desperate to say something and you want to say something to help, so I said, ‘Well, I’ll finish it.’ I didn’t even know what the book was about! It helped that I loved it and loved hearing Mal’s voice in every page. It kept me in dialogue with Mal, which was fabulous.”
Beck, by Mal Peet and Meg Rosoff, was the powerful coming-of-age story of an orphan sent from Britain to Canada in the 1920s, with themes of love, abuse, exile and homecoming.
Elspeth, who is still sorting her way through Mal’s unfinished projects, regularly visits Norfolk, both to see his family and to attend the annual Mal Peet memorial lecture which is part of the University of East Anglia’s Fly festival of literature for young people. The children’s book section of the annual East Anglian Book Awards, co-founded and sponsored by the Eastern Daily Press, is also dedicated to Mal.
He did not know that Mr Godley’s Phantom would be the last novel he would complete, but its themes of loss and grief and legacy become even more haunting after his death.
Mr Godley’s Phantom, by Mal Peet, is published by David Fickling Books, hardback, £12.99.
‘He would say he didn’t believe in ghosts but he told this story so convincingly’