“One of you four nice people tried to murder me fifteen years ago, and I want to find out which one of you it was.”
More than a decade ago, Stephen Longworth fled the small city of Yarborough, Pennsylvania. Back then he was Frank Bly, a teenage boy dazzled by his wealthy employers, especially the lady of the house, Tessie Vanbrugh. But things went very wrong for Frank. Now he’s returning to find out why.
Though now a successful author, Stephen has never forgotten what happened to him in Yarborough, and he’s never forgotten Tessie. No one in town suspects that new arrival Stephen Longworth is really Frank Bly, for one very good reason: They all believe Frank Bly was murdered fifteen years ago.
And he’s come back, to solve his own murder.
Better Off Dead is a short novella, so things happen quickly for Bly. He almost immediately befriends the Vanbrughs and their now-adult daughter Nan. Geoffrey and Tessie Vanbrugh invite their new neighbor to an intimate dinner party with Dick Strawn and his wife Denise, who just happen to be the other suspects in Frank Bly’s murder.
It was one of them. One of these four decent, considerate people whom he had trusted, the nicest people he had ever known. Their charm, their sensitive gentleness was on the surface—illusion. The secret reality was ugly, desperate, violent. In some way he didn’t understand, he had drawn that violence upon himself. Somehow his very existence must threaten one of them without his knowing it. But which one? And how?
Over the course of an explosive evening, Bly learns more than he ever dreamed about his own attempted murder, as well as the successful murder of the man whose body was identified as his. Though drawn to Nan, he is not totally immune to the appeal of Tessie, whose “ravaged face smiled, and he saw Tessie’s ghost among the ruins of her beauty.” Imprudently, Bly accepts an invitation to spend the night, only to find himself once again framed for a crime he did not commit.
Better Off Dead is readable and fast-moving, with some pretty good foreshadowing of the solution. Frank Bly is a tough character, no stranger to violence after spending his adulthood in the OSS and knocking around various foreign lands. What he doesn’t expect is that the Vanbrughs will cast their spell on him again, taking him right back to boyhood.
That’s about as much mystery and characterization as 64 pages will stand, however. While worth reading, Better Off Dead lacks the depth and complexity of Helen McCloy’s longer work.
Better Off Dead is available as an ebook from The Murder Room.