In Cold Pursuit (1977) by Ursula Curtiss

Ursula Curtiss In Cold Pursuit Cover 01

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

[He] looked bitter and dispossessed, like a man who had had something precious snatched away from him. It wasn’t grief; it had nothing to do with grief. Was that why any compassion she felt for him was purely in the abstract? Because he had said “my wife” in the same tone he might have used to refer to his horse, or his car?

The murder down the street barely registers for Mary Vaughan. After all, the killer was arrested right away, and she has a lot going on in her own life. Not only has she recently broken off an engagement and quit her job, but Mary is also responsible for her teenage cousin Jenny, whose parents sent her to Santa Fe to escape a violent older boyfriend. When Mary learns that Jenny’s ex is in the area, they need to get out of town in a hurry. A long weekend in Juarez should do the trick.

What Mary doesn’t know is that the murder victim’s husband David is very aware of her. This possessive man has been nearly undone by his lack of control surrounding his wife’s death. The police are keeping him at arm’s length, and the swift arrest of the culprit robs him of a proper outlet for his rage. The police don’t know that David’s wife spoke to him before she died. She told him that she sought help from a blonde neighbor, who closed her door against the dying woman.

David believes he has found his wife’s true murderer: Mary Vaughan. And he is following her to Mexico to kill her.

Ursula Curtiss In Cold Pursuit Cover 02This should be an incredibly suspenseful situation but the story is constantly losing momentum. Mary believes that Jenny is threatened by her former boyfriend Brian, but she doesn’t even know what Brian looks like. She has no idea that she may be in danger herself until the very end. Even then, she still doesn’t know why.

You can see what Curtiss is going for. Tourists on holiday take for granted situations that would seem suspicious or even dangerous at home. Sudden intimacy with strangers who may not be telling the truth about themselves, hotel rooms that could be invaded with passkeys at any time, sunbathers by the pool who can monitor your comings and goings.

The creepiness of the hotel is so acute that it’s amazing Mary and Jenny stick around as long as they do. Casa de Floras is the newest and fanciest motel in Juarez, but there is a rotting core beneath the luxe exterior. Nothing works properly. People are constantly barging into their locked room. If someone else told her about all this, Mary realizes at one point, she would think, “she can’t be very bright” for remaining there.

Mary initially believes that the anonymity of a resort hotel makes it the perfect place to hide out. Only later does she realize it also makes things easy for their enemies.

These enemies may include Owen and Daniel, older men who separately befriend the two women. Jenny also develops a quick friendship with Astrid, a girl her own age, but is later frightened by a note from her.  (Frankly, Mary seems more interested in the “delectable” and “cuddle-able” Astrid than in any of the men.) The man next door is supposedly an invalid. He never leaves his room, but they hear him constantly, just on the other side of the wall. If they can hear him, can he hear them?

None of these other characters are even remotely fleshed out. Their encounters with Jenny and Mary come off as banal, without the sinister undertones they need. The appeal of this kind of plot is the cat-and-mouse game between hunter and hunted. We don’t get that at all, which is a shame because Mary is quite intelligent and resourceful.

Even Jenny remains an enigma. We’re never sure how she really feels about Brian—or Mary, for that matter. She’s a passive character who rebels by refusing to eat. Her anorexia is a major subplot. Mary is genuinely worried about her health and counts every mouthful; she has become nearly as obsessed by her cousin’s diet as Jenny herself. However, she is also resentful, feeling that Jenny is hurting herself as way of getting back at others. But Jenny is also an eighteen-year-old girl whose abusive relationship has just been broken up by her parents. She was sent across the country where a cousin she barely knows watches her every move and reports back to them. Like David, she wants to control her world. Like him, she chooses the worst possible way of doing so.


In Cold Pursuit is out of print. A few reasonably priced used copies are out there.

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