“The dream could be summed up in two words: beautiful things. A home filled with richly tinted rugs, with authentic period pieces, with exquisite pie-crust tables and Duncan Phyfe chairs, with one or two fine paintings and shelves of Spode china and Steuben glass. The dream did not concern itself with electric marvels of kitchen efficiency, such as most housewives hanker for, and took little notice of clothes or cars. It concerned itself only with something she could love.”
Susan Wells has a dream, of a gracious home full of lovely furniture, all her own. Things can’t hurt her, the way her irresponsible father did. And once she has her dream house, she’ll never feel poor or shabby again. Susan isn’t beautiful, or charismatic, or even especially smart. But when she meets Harry Caldwell, her employer’s ne’er-do-well son, she sees a way to make her dream come true. Yes, Harry will give Susan her dream house…one way or another.
Strictly a Loser is another inverted mystery from Edna Sherry, whose Sudden Fear is one of the best books I read last year. Unfortunately, this later book, while readable enough, lacks the spark and tension that made Sudden Fear such a delight. None of the characters are sympathetic, which wouldn’t be a problem except that they’re not terribly interesting, either.
Susan soon finds that maneuvering Harry into marriage is the easy part; keeping him is the real challenge. The Caldwells lead a prosperous suburban existence, but Harry will not have enough money to support the dream house until he comes into his millions at the age of thirty. This makes it awkward for Susan when her flighty husband falls in love with another woman while he’s still only twenty-nine. Harry’s determined to divorce her and marry the kittenish Leila. With her original scheme on the rocks, Susan must come up with a new plan in a hurry.
She is inspired by two very interesting facts. One is that Leila Thomas was recently acquitted of killing her first husband, allegedly mistaking him for a burglar à la Ann Woodward. The other is her discovery that an uncontested Reno divorce is not valid in the state of New York. Even if Harry does marry Leila in Nevada, Susan will remain his legal wife in New York.
Susan’s plot is kept secret from the reader, and the best part of the book is the middle section in which the plan is slowly carried out. At one point, she is almost derailed by a hilarious group of juvenile delinquents.
“Hi, sugar. I dig you the most.”
“Come on, baby doll, let’s put it in orbit.”
“How about a little back-seat bingo, chick?”
Her emotionless nature may help Susan in her ruthless pursuit of security, but it makes her a less than compelling protagonist. One of Susan’s neighbors describes her as “not bad-looking…once you look at her. Thing is, nobody does.” It’s very possible to create a fascinating story around the inner life of a protagonist who is outwardly unremarkable. The problem is that Susan doesn’t have much inner life. For most of her existence she lies dormant, coming alive only when contemplating her revenge scheme.
She felt as if she had been suddenly translated from drab black and white to brilliant Technicolor. For once she had taken charge, had carried out a bold decisive maneuver instead of mooning and dreaming of a hazy future. She was a personality, a somebody, no longer a humiliated ex-wife or a colorless cog in Charles Stevens’ machine. She was Susan Wells, a force to be reckoned with, a pilot who steered the ship. The act of murder had stiffened her like whalebone.
Harry and Leila, though more flamboyant, are too silly and self-centered to sympathize with, and the various investigators are just as colorless as Susan. The result is that after an intriguing first half, Strictly a Loser becomes plodding and predictable.
The previous owner of my copy wrote “very good” on the title page.
Strictly a Loser is out of print, with some used copies available. It was also published as part of a Detective Book Club 3-in-1 volume with Relative to Murder by Stanton Forbes and Who Lies? by Ellis Peters.