So you’re planning a murder? For love, hate, revenge, or money. Let’s go.
It’s an old story. Playwright Myra Hudson has money, fame, intelligence—everything except youth and beauty. Everything except love. But that’s no problem if you’re willing to pay.
Her strange romance with Lester Blaine begins when she fires him from her play for being too handsome. Despite her cynicism, Myra falls deeply in love for the first time, blinded by her new husband’s beauty. If Lester doesn’t feel the same way about her, at least he plays his role to perfection. Myra seems to have found her happy ending at last, until an intriguing young woman enters their lives.
Irma is beautiful, and hard as nails. Myra is fascinated and keeps her close, using her as inspiration for a new play. It doesn’t occur to her that Lester may be fascinated as well. Myra thinks she knows the score:
Myra watched them together with a smug gusto. Her ego took credit for their looks. Others might surround themselves with charming men and pretty women, but she attracted the cream. Nothing less was Myra Hudson’s due. She looked on them almost as creations of her own hand. It never occurred to her that if they had not been outwardly superlative she would never have given either a second thought. Lester’s radiance covered a weak, greedy inanity, and Irma’s a cheap, cold calculation. But Myra’s voracious love of beauty blinded her to their intrinsic worthlessness.
Then, on the Fourth of July, her Dictaphone accidentally records Lester and Irma plotting to murder her. Divorce would be utterly humiliating—and it wouldn’t satisfy her rage. No, Myra will kill or be killed.
Over the course of a very long holiday weekend, she tries to stay alive without knowing when or how the killers may strike. “Murder is a tough chore,” but clever Myra plans to execute the perfect crime or die trying.
Sudden Fear is a mean, tough little thriller. As monsters, Lester and Irma have nothing on their “victim,” Myra. We are told throughout the novel that Myra is too cool and calculating, too convinced of her own superior intelligence. A spoiled rich girl, she demands only the best, and will smash her human toys when they (inevitably) disappoint her. It’s no surprise that she would literally rather die than swallow her pride and admit she made a mistake. There is no hesitation at all about killing Lester and Irma; quite apart from their murder plot, they are witnesses to her fallibility, and they must be destroyed. “The annihilation of Lester and Irma was hardly more important to her than the necessity for saving face,” Myra acknowledges to herself. “No matter how smoothly her plan went, it would be as dust and ashes to her, if the truth got out.”
The two lovers are so painfully dumb and smug that it’s a pleasure to watch the various elements of Myra’s plan click into place, one by one. But her scheme may be too complicated for its own good. In this cage match between three would-be killers, it’s anyone’s guess who’ll come out alive.
In many ways, Myra and Irma are a lot alike: they both see people as objects, the disposable means to an end. Both Irma and Myra will go as far as necessary to get what they want, and they both lack some key element to their emotions. Irma is cold and reptilian, bent on clawing her way to the top while Myra uses her money and power to destroy people. Are they very different? Myra has so much power and money that she doesn’t need to use people to get ahead, but she does use people to feed her ego. Remove Myra’s money and privilege, and toss looks her way– it’s not that hard to see Myra acting a lot like Irma to get ahead.
All of Edna Sherry’s books are out of print. Sudden Fear is rather expensive on the resale market, perhaps due to the sexy cover of the Dell paperback. (The scene on that cover actually does happen in the book, by the way. Then Irma sits around in the nude with Myra, just like I always do when meeting someone for the first time. It’s only polite.)
Sudden Fear was filmed in 1951, starring Joan Crawford as Myra and femme fatale extraordinaire Gloria Grahame as Irma. Handsome Lester, he of the “Greek puss” is inexplicably played by Jack Palance. Palance effectively portrays Lester’s menace, but one wonders what Myra saw in him in the first place. It’s a highly enjoyable film noir, equally campy and tense.