“The thing she had done had given her a renewed strength, a renewed awareness. She had rediscovered herself, and she knew that she would never cry again.”
It’s all over. They had some good times during the war, but being a housewife in the suburbs is not for her. That’s what Jane has just told her husband Alan when the bag of money lands in their car.
Forty thousand dollars. All at once, Jane can have the life she’s always dreamed of. And if other lives have to be destroyed to make it happen, that’s just too bad.
Jane Palmer is the female precursor to Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley, determined to achieve the life she wants at any price. Like Ripley, she’s not a naturally gifted manipulator; most of the time, she’s barely keeping her head above water. For a long time, she gets by on sheer nerve and her protective covering as a simple housewife.
But Jane has enemies everywhere. Somehow, all her life she’s been surrounded by people who try to keep her from the greatness she knows she is capable of. First and foremost is her husband Alan, who expects her to be content with the smallest of ambitions. “You’re allergic to ruts,” he tells her wearily, “a home and a job and kids being the standard Number One rut.” Alan doesn’t understand at all about the money—he even wants to turn it in to the police. The more she thinks about it, the more Jane realizes he isn’t just a dull husband, but “all the things that were beating me down and driving me to conform and making me betray the good that was in me.” She’ll have to do something about Alan.
There’s also her sister-in-law Kathy, who lives across the hall and knows far too much about the Palmer’s lives. Jane doesn’t worry about her at first. “Kathy was the kind the world turned out by the millions, like things turned out on a machine, the female equivalent of Alan, conforming, cowardly, without strength.” However, Kathy’s never liked her brother’s wife and, in her own way, she is just as tenacious as Jane. When Don Blake turns up, claiming to have served with Alan in the war, she’s eager to confide her suspicions. But Don seems a little too interested in Alan’s wife. These two could be very dangerous to Jane.
Finally, there’s Danny Fuller, the hoodlum who’s come in search of the money. Like Jane, he’s a low-level operator desperate to move up to the big time and, like her, he’ll do anything to get his hands on the cash. He has Jane’s number right from the start. They’re both con artists, not especially skilled, but good enough to recognize when they’re being played. As they interact, the two adopt and discard different personas at a dizzying speed, almost instantly seeing through each other’s efforts but appreciating the artistry behind them.
The plot being fairly dumb is, I think, part of the point. Though Jane is incredibly focused and determined, she is not superhuman. She makes mistakes (a lot of mistakes), she panics, she says and does weird things that draw suspicion. Her biggest misstep is assuming that anyone who disagrees with her is stupid, when that’s far from the case. This makes the plot incredibly suspenseful because it legitimately seems that Jane could be caught at any time.
Yet beneath it all remains her placid belief in her own superiority, that everything she does is right because it’s what she wants. Monstrous deeds float into her mind quite naturally, just one more banal chore to be completed:
She knew that she could not think of the thing that was pressing itself upon her unless a part of her mind was occupied with the problem of dust on the coffee table, unless the thinking was accompanied by the complacent drone of a vacuum cleaner. By noon she was hungry, and in the midst of her eating she realized that the important thing was done, and that it was somehow right. Whatever followed now was a matter of incident. The decision had been made. She did not know when or how. It had been taken without thought, rising out of a need that was beyond thought. She’d done nothing. But it was too late to turn back.
Watching Jane’s reign of terror unfold is the major attraction of the novel, which veers from a very simple, almost too simple, writing style to moments of exaggerated melodrama. Occasional switches to Danny or Kathy’s point of view are simply not compelling, since they only show a less interesting character finding out things the reader already knows about a rather amateurish crime.
Too Late for Tears is at its strongest when it focuses on Jane’s wonderfully demented worldview. It’s one thing to desire her own identity, to not vanish into postwar suburban cliché. But she is more ashamed of mediocrity than of theft and murder and more afraid of feeling trapped in a marriage than of literally being sent to prison.
The most telling moment takes place when Jane wears a dowdy disguise so she can buy crime supplies unnoticed. When a male store clerk overlooks her, exactly as intended, she still cannot help being overcome with the same rage and shame she felt as a teenage ugly duckling. Jane vows to return, draped in mink, to revenge herself…on a hardware store clerk who didn’t flirt with her. This scene vividly demonstrates that however much she acquires, she will always be an ugly girl who could only make herself beautiful on the outside, a poor girl who longs for all the money in the world. And none of it will ever be enough.
It doesn’t work completely, but hitting on 15 of 16 cylinders at high speed is a pretty good percentage. If there is such a thing as noir fiction, this is it, and it’s top notch.
Too Late for Tears is out of print, with few used copies available. However, the 1949 film version is in the public domain and is as faithful to the book as the Production Code allowed. It can be seen in its entirety on youtube.
On a more personal note, today just happens to be my birthday! Too late for tears, indeed…