Long synopsis for In the Absence of Mrs Petersen

Jim Petersen, an English scriptwriter, sends his wife Sarah to New York for a holiday because she is bored with the Hollywood life (“The place has a sort of… of deadening thing about it…”). He is late arriving at the airport to wish her bon voyage but is just in time to witness her plane fail to clear the runway and burst into flames. Sarah is killed in the resulting fireball.

Dazed after the tragedy, Jim flies to Paris where he meets a young secretary at a party who appears to him to be almost an exact replica of his recently deceased spouse:

‘I’m sorry I was staring at you in that very rude way a few minutes ago, but you are extraordinarily like my wife.’

Jim strikes up a conversation with the girl, a Yugoslav called Katherina Feldic, who soon puts a proposition to her new acquaintance. She tells him that she is planning to go to Belgrade, where her grandparents are hoarding a sizeable quantity of valuables that they would like her to have. In return for the use of Sarah’s passport and his assistance with smuggling the gold and jewellery out of the country, Jim is offered the chance of a handsomely paid holiday in Yugoslavia with his beautiful new companion. He accepts.

After spending time together in Paris and Venice, the couple arrive in Belgrade. Jim drives Katherina to her grandparents’ home in a village outside the capital to view the hoarded treasure. Two nights later, he returns to their hotel unexpectedly early, spots Katherina emerging from it and decides to follow her. She leads him to a restaurant where she is joined by a young Yugoslav man whom Jim and Katherina had met the previous evening, on which occasion she had claimed not to know him. When Jim confronts her later that evening, Katherina confesses that she does know the man after all: he is a dissident called Pelic who has been causing embarrassment for the Communist government. Although in love with Pelic, Katherina admits to Jim that the situation is hopeless as the authorities will never allow him to leave the country or Katherina to marry him and live in Yugoslavia together. She therefore implores Jim to get her back to Paris as quickly as possible. They agree that they should collect the gold and jewellery the following evening and then attempt to cross the border by car.

Jim drives Katherina to their pre-arranged rendezvous point, noticing as he does so that they are being tailed by the police. When they arrive they find that Pelic is lying in wait for them. The dissident takes Jim’s passport from him at gun point and explains that he and Katherina are going to try to reach Paris by train disguised as Mr and Mrs Petersen. In order to create a diversion, Jim drives back to Belgrade at high speed with the police hot on his tail. He has almost reached the city when he loses control of the car on a bend and it plunges down a cliff. The Englishman is thrown clear of the open-top Alfa Romeo and starts walking back to Belgrade.

Next morning, Jim is intercepted by the police and interviewed. As he refuses to admit that the woman he has been accompanying is not his wife he is put in jail. This is exactly what Jim had hoped for because by delaying the police enquiry in this manner he gives Pelic and Katherina the time they need to get safely out of the country. After several days of dissemblance, interrogation and uncomfortable solitary confinement, he tells the police something approaching the truth and they let him off with a hefty fine plus an accompanying lecture:

“You will pay your fine and you will then be released, and you will leave Yugoslavia at once. It has been an expensive visit for you, but perhaps you have learnt something from it.”

Jim does as he is told and the book ends with him taking a taxi to Katherina’s address in Paris, where he observes her walking down the street arm in arm with her beloved Pelic.