“There isn’t anything funny about wanting to kill somebody you love. There isn’t anything reasonable about it, either. All the same, it happens. But you don’t believe that, do you, Rosemary? You’re one of the lucky ones that never get love and hate mixed up. Or maybe you’ve never been in love.”
Enid knew it was a bad idea to get involved again with Vic while he was still married, but that was Enid. “I never do the right thing…Or if I do, it’s at the wrong moment.” She even confided to her friend Martin that she thought Vic was dangerous, that he might kill her one day.
When Enid is found murdered, the police dismiss it as a burglary gone wrong. Martin can’t help remembering her worries about Vic, but hesitates to report his suspicions. He himself was once wrongly accused of a crime, and it’s cast a shadow over his entire life. No, before going to the police, Martin must solve his friend’s murder on his own.
The Footsteps on the Stairs is what you might call a hangout mystery. The appeal is watching Enid’s endearing friends wander around a sun-dappled New York City in search of her only slightly less charming enemies. The would-be sleuths almost outnumber the suspects and there are only a few scenes of real suspense. Yet the interactions between these characters are gripping, and it’s too bad that one of them is almost certainly the killer.
For all her sparkle and wit, Enid has left a very limited social circle behind. There is Martin, her business partner Hazel, and Hazel’s sensible daughter Rosemary. Investigating the murder of his only friend forces Martin out of his comfort zone and into a potential romance with Rosemary, but his own demons may stand in the way. Life under suspicion has left Martin a hunted creature. He has not exactly been cleared of killing his wife—it’s simply that her family has run out of avenues through which to pursue him. Whenever he meets someone new, it’s only a matter of time before they hear the rumors.
“If it hadn’t been you, it would have been somebody else. That’s the thing, you see. I never know when it’s going to happen again, I just know it will sooner or later. It’s not very—tranquilizing.”
No, it wouldn’t be. Rosemary could see that. “But it doesn’t have to spoil your whole life! So somebody sees your or hears your name and says, ‘Aren’t you the Martin Shipley that et cetera.’ So you say, ‘Yes. Have you read any good books lately?’ And that’s that.”
“God, you’re wholesome,” he said. “I find it simpler to avoid people whenever possible.”
He cannot help seeing himself in Vic, but might be identifying with his plight a little too much. Like Enid, he finds Vic repellent yet is sometimes won over in spite of himself. The best thing about Vic is his wife Thelma, a sweetly daffy alcoholic. She started drinking when her husband stopped. “It’s been happening all my life, I take on other people’s afflictions.” Her sunny nature and loyalty to Vic stand in stark contrast to the tragedy of her addiction. Thelma’s friend Lulu, a hat-check girl who married into high society, is another scene-stealer.
Lulu was a sleek little package of a woman…Yet there was something about her that took the curse off all this surface artifice—a quality of basic naturalness that refused to be polished away and that kept Hazel from begrudging her even her shoes, which were bright red, spike-heeled, sling pumps. Lulu’s voice was husky and faintly raffish. Her eyes looked out at the world with a kind of zestful, astonished self-mockery, as if she were saying, Hey, look what’s happened to little wrong-side-of-the-tracks Lulu, hey, how about that!
This is not what you would call a densely plotted novel. All that really happens is that these characters have delightful and ominous conversations with each other until Martin stumbles into a surprisingly harrowing finale. The Footsteps on the Stairs is a lazy Sunday brunch of a novel, not much of a mystery but fun while it lasts.
Kirkus Reviews, July 14, 1966
If you want to be picky, you can complain about this book. You can say that Potts is writing closer to the typical feminine mystery form than she was in her previous books. You’d be wrong. She’s pulled off another beaut. She’s got a short mystery down in dialogue. If we lifted our long run plays out of mysteries instead of gutters or asylums, this would be it. Who killed Enid? (And you hate to see her go.) Who’s going to save Martin? (And you want him saved. He’s already been accused of doing in his first wife.) Dialogues in detection, different, good, romantic but not foolish.
The Footsteps on the Stairs is out of print, with a few used copies available.