The Late Clara Beame (1963) by Taylor Caldwell

Book cover of The Late Clara Beame by Taylor Caldwell (1963)

6 stars (6/10 stars)

Christmas proceeds as scheduled, come snow, darkness, alarms in the night, bullets and Borgia cups! What a wonderful spirit America has. Disaster to the right, disaster to the left, disaster fore and aft, and America beams at Christmas and pretends all is deliciously right in this worst of all possible worlds. How about some drinks?”

Last Christmas, Sam Bulowe died of poison. Police have closed the case as suicide, but Sam’s “ice-blue” widow Alice and her hard-as-nails brother are determined to find his killer. At least that’s what they tell each other. Brother David is convinced that their relatives Laura and Henry Frazier know more than they’re saying about the death. Something will have to be done about them, one way or another.

Christmas is coming again—what better time to find out exactly what happened to Sam? However, the situation becomes increasingly fraught as a snowstorm traps the family in their country home with a mysterious stranger. Who will survive to ring in the new year?

The Late Clara Beame maintains an enjoyable air of mystery for most of its length. Although the actual events that take place are a bit hackneyed, this is one of the few mysteries where no one at all seems to be off limits as the murderer. It isn’t clear whether Alice and David are investigating Sam’s death, or trying to cover up their own involvement. The later attempts on Henry and Laura’s lives may not be murder attempts in the first place. For that matter, Henry seems a little shady himself, as the sole heir to his wife Laura’s wealth and, after all, both Fraziers were spotted in Sam’s bedroom on the night of his death. Henry’s also brought his client John Carr home for the holiday. Nobody knows anything about John; he seems familiar to everyone, though he denies ever meeting any of them.

Book cover of The Late Clara Beame by Taylor Caldwell (1963)All of this nefarious activity can be traced back to Alice and Laura’s deceased aunt Clara Beame, who caused turmoil within the family before finally leaving her entire fortune to Laura. Shy Laura is ill-equipped to deal with this windfall, especially in the wake of a traumatic miscarriage. Ominously, she feels the presence of Aunt Clara this Christmas, warning her of danger. (Aunt Clara’s ghost may prompt some eye-rolling, but doesn’t intrude too much.)

The characters are given more depth than one might expect, especially Laura, who in most books would simply be our sweet heroine. Caldwell isn’t afraid to explore darker sides of Laura, who won the treasure and the fairy-tale prince, but can’t stop thinking of herself as an unwanted child. “Laura felt alone, outside of this group, outside of this house, as though she had been banished or forgotten, and was not even a memory to these four gathered around her hearth on Christmas Eve…’Notice me, please notice me,’ she implored them in her mind.” The servants view her spells of depression as manipulative, crying and pouting so that Henry will give in to her whims. They see her as an ungrateful girl; she has everything and it’s still not enough. To her husband Henry, she is a fragile clinging vine who needs his protection. But he has a little help in thinking that, as Laura admits to David in a startlingly honest heart-to-heart.

“I met Henry when Alice became engaged to Sam, and he thought I was a fluffy helpless little thing, and he liked that. We’ve been married five years now, and I keep pretending—”

“That you’re a simple little girl who needs protection and pampering?” David’s tone was dry.

“I’m afraid so. Anyway, it makes him happy. I’m not a fool, really. It’s very tiring to be gay and gushing all the time. No one ever really cared about me except Henry and Aunt Clara and Mama, and so I have a sort of—well, an inferiority complex, and I do try to please […] Henry likes it. He expects it. He wants to be deceived. Sometimes I don’t know where the real me begins or ends. If I get serious with Henry, it makes him miserable. When he comes home he wants to find a never-never land, where everything is warm and beautiful.”

That’s not exactly what Henry gets in the days leading up to Christmas, as he and his guests are shot at, poisoned, and accused of vile crimes.

This is an unusual excursion into crime for author Taylor Caldwell, who more commonly wrote historical epics and family sagas. Clearly her interest lay more with the characters and family dynamics than in the mystery. Still, it’s a pleasant ride until Christmas Eve, when everything becomes all too obvious yet must still play out at length. Like the killer, The Late Clara Beame nearly gets away with it, but overplays its hand at the end.

Second Opinion

Saturday Review, August 31, 1963:

Storm douses lights, but guilt shines through. Highly emotive.


The Late Clara Beame is available in ebook form from eNet Press in the US and UK.

6 thoughts on “The Late Clara Beame (1963) by Taylor Caldwell

  1. I like the sound of this book and of course its author is completely new to me (I would expect no less on this blog after all). Also like how it is from 1960s as I am not that good at reading mysteries from that decade (and beyond for that matter), as ordinarily they don’t appeal. Glad I might have found another exception.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This book is quite cynical about postwar American society, with the character of David being especially critical of conformity, materialism, and stifling gender roles for both men and women. Most of the characters do learn to look past their surface judgments of each other and become happier as a result, which is a nice message for Christmas.

      I was trying to find out whether Taylor Caldwell wrote any other mysteries (apparently not), and she seems to have been an…interesting person. She claimed to prefer writing historical novels, as she was able to draw on memories of her eleven past lives to make them more accurate! Sadly, not all of her opinions were so harmless, as she also spoke out against feminism and civil rights later in life. While these attitudes aren’t present in The Late Clara Beame (in fact, there are some passages that do read as feminist), it did bother me to learn this about the author.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Normally I’m not too bothered by the personal beliefs of authors, but Caldwell publicly allied herself with some hateful causes. Even though the book itself is harmless, I wanted to put the info out there so readers can make their own decisions.

        Liked by 1 person

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