The Footsteps on the Stairs (1966) by Jean Potts

The Footsteps on the Stairs by Jean Potts

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“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 by Jean PottsThe 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.

Second Opinion

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.

Availability

The Footsteps on the Stairs is out of print, with a few used copies available.

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6 thoughts on “The Footsteps on the Stairs (1966) by Jean Potts

    1. The Evil Wish shows the dark consequences of a murder that is not committed. It’s been reprinted by Stark House in a double volume with Go, Lovely Rose, the latter of which I’m reading right now (amazing so far). These are probably easier to find due to the reissue. Another total classic by Potts is The Little Lie, about a face-saving fib that turns into a huge deception. John Norris is of course the real Potts expert and has a lot info on his site as well.

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  1. I must say I liked this one a lot & remember it as being a good-natured, well-written mystery that was fun to read (whereas some of her books, though equally well-written, can be darker in tone and more gruelling to get through). But then I enjoyed ‘Home is the Prisoner’ even more & was taken aback by the low score you gave it…

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    1. I think we’re actually on the same page with this one. All of the characters and their world really came to life here and it was fun spending time with them. The ending is killer, I just wish there had been a little more suspense prior to that. 6 stars is meant as an above-average grade, not a negative one–it’s based on 5 being an average, good-enough read. The rating scale has now been added to the sidebar to make this more clear.

      Thank you for sharing your thoughts on Home Is the Prisoner. For me, it was all right but not as special as some of Potts’ other works. This is all subjective, though, and it’s good to hear another perspective. Are there other titles by Potts that you would also recommend?

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      1. If you liked ‘The Little Lie’, you might like ‘Death of a Stray cat’, though I felt it suffered from one of the old problems – a lack of suspects. I guess that’s not necessarily a bad thing, though, when the suspects in question are well-characterised – and Potts does a good job there. ‘The Trash Stealer’ had a glowing review from Anthony Boucher, no less, on the cover…but I felt it was too inconsequential – anyway, somehow I just didn’t get it. Personally, I like ‘An Affair of the Heart’ – as far as I can recall, it’s one of her happier books (like ‘Footsteps on the Stairs’ & ‘Home id the Prisoner’). ‘The Man with the Cane’ is more in the ‘Little Lie’ bracket: a bit cruel. I’ve read ‘The Only Good Secretary’ but can’t remember anything about it.

        I’m being critical, I know – but I do feel Potts was a really good writer who brought a novelist’s depth to most of her mysteries, and that she’s undeservedly forgotten these days.

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      2. Thank you so much for the detailed response–those are some of the exact titles I wondered about. Hopefully these Stark House reprints will catch on and bring Potts to a larger audience. Even in her bleakest works, she is always able to find something real and human within the characters.

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