“It was strange how, since it first came up in the Sterling living room, Inez Bailey’s murder had infused his thoughts. The girl had died; but for him at least the crime still lived, as it must live with her murderer, his inescapable companion. Would the twenty-year-old crime emerge even yet to affect the living?”
Two decades ago, Inez Bailey was found strangled beneath the lilacs. It was a shame, everyone agreed, but, after all, she wasn’t exactly a “nice girl.” With some of the most prominent men in Los Alegres rumored to have been involved with Inez, the town fathers quickly shut down the murder investigation. Everyone went on with their lives and forgot about Inez Bailey, except for one person…her killer.
More of a crime drama than a mystery, The Man Who Got Away With It first appears to be an idyllic portrait of the good life in small-town California circa 1949. Men go to work in horseshoe-patterned sport shirts while teenagers drink cokes at the drug store. If a murderous breeze from the past sometimes ruffles the smooth surface of their lives, it’s nothing more than a brief thrill in an otherwise placid existence. Bernice Carey slowly introduces complications to these characters until it becomes clear that many of them have reason to remember the murder of Inez Bailey all too well. As situations from the past seem to be replaying in the present, this exploration of social mobility, corruption, and postwar consumer culture leads to a shocking conclusion that ties together all the themes of the novel.
In the years since the murder, life has gone on very pleasantly in Los Alegres. Ben Sterling owns the biggest radio shop in town. He, his wife Beth, and their teenage daughter Shirley live in a beautiful home. It’s an expensive house, though, and business isn’t what it used to be. His store is facing competition from Inez Bailey’s brother Tim, of all people. “With television in the undecided state it’s been, and all that,” Ben is feeling the pinch. Shirley comes and goes as she pleases, leaving her father terrified that she will get involved with the wrong kind of boy. Beth thinks he’s silly to worry. “Shirley only goes with the nicest kids in Los Alegres. And she’s a nice girl. It’s only the bad ones, like Inez Bailey, that get murdered.”
Chicago homicide detective Roy Malley, visiting on a family vacation, becomes interested in the local unsolved crime. He can’t help noticing that Ben is experiencing some kind of tension. Is Ben guilty of the murder, or is he heading toward a crisis of his own?
Malley discusses the Bailey case extensively with Jim Billings, the former sheriff who was forced out of his job when prominent citizens realized he was investigating their sons as suspects. The more he learns, however, the more he worries about the implications of what he is doing. Unlike the professional criminals he is used to dealing with, it would seem that this killer has led a blameless life since the crime. Is it fair for Roy Malley to blow up the lives of an entire family as an intellectual exercise, simply because he’s bored on vacation?
It was foolish, of course, giving so much thought to the affair. He had no intention of doing anything about it. But there seemed to be in almost all human beings—if they weren’t demoralized in one way or another—an instinct for workmanship. The human mind liked order, recoiled from sloppiness. Especially in one’s own line of work, whether it was carpentry or cooking, or, as in his case, detection, you liked to see things finished, complete, and neat to the last detail. The sight of a job done with inferior workmanship was subtly irritating.
The murder lends a welcome suspense to Ben’s otherwise dull midlife crisis. Carey leans hard into the mundane details of the Sterlings’ mid-century anxieties, details which will seem very familiar from the many other portrayals of suburban angst that have proliferated throughout the ensuing decades. It isn’t quite fair to Carey, since she got there first—1950 is early for critiques of postwar conformity, which didn’t go fully mainstream until a few years later. It’s ironic that the element of the book that would have been most relevant to its own time is the one that’s aged most poorly, through no fault of its own, as it is well done.
In the opening chapter, the Sterlings hold an “informal” gathering for only four other guests, but Beth is overcome by nerves because they have deviated very slightly from standard neighborhood protocol.
Do you suppose they’ll think it’s funny, serving beer instead of highballs? I don’t want to seem cheap; and goodness knows, it isn’t, really. I’ve got pretzels and assorted nuts—I mixed in a few salted peanuts. The assorted are so high; and people just gobble them. And the Ritz crackers with bleu cheese look lovely, and with potato chips and all. Of course, the Merritts always serve those fancy cocktails.
Much of the novel is along these lines, a constant agonizing over trivialities, chronicling Ben’s efforts to maintain a social position which seems, to him, precarious. He doesn’t even aspire to be one of the “big bugs” who control the town. All he wants is to stay comfortably in the middle class, to rise above his blue-collar origins. He thinks that social class is like a vending machine: all that’s needed is to put in the right amount of money and press all the same buttons that your neighbors do. Ben’s tragedy is that he fundamentally misunderstands the people he lives among, until it may be too late.
The Man Who Got Away With It is most interesting as a document of prosperous small-town life on the cusp of the 1950s. While that story has become less than groundbreaking over time, the fact that it takes place in a small town rather than a suburb allows for a wider range of characters to be involved and sets up the book’s unexpected final chapter. The dark side of Los Alegres, hinted at throughout, comes roaring out in full force to create a brutal ending that will linger in the mind of the reader.
Kirkus Reviews, September 21, 1950
With a stress (as in her The Body on the Sidewalk) on the prosaic in the lives of plain people in a small California town, this revives, with the visit of a Chicago homicide man, O’Malley, the unsolved strangling of a girl some twenty years back. Sensitive to the unnatural reticence of one of a group of solid citizens, O’Malley reaches a certainty of guilt with no evidence to go on […] Careful, credible.
The Man Who Got Away With It will soon be back in print from Stark House Press, in a double volume with The Three Widows.