“One ex-wife. One wife. One mistress. One fiancée. And no age limits. Cradle to the grave, that’s the Rock’s policy.”
Professionally, Larry Rock is on top of the world. A successful newspaper columnist, he’s just published his first book, with TV and radio deals on the horizon. It’s his personal life that’s in chaos. Larry invites the four women in his life to a party, intending that one of them will not survive the night—but which one?
Follow, As the Night is one of several unusual mysteries by Patricia McGerr, asking readers to identify the murder victim as well as the killer. The gimmick works well here, as all of the characters are directly involved as potential victims or murderers. The main action moves swiftly due to the natural time constraint of the party, as present-day interactions are woven between flashbacks. The cattiness and seedy glamour of showbiz bottom-feeders is entertaining while adding its own element of danger: in a world that thrives on insincerity, it can be difficult to spot genuine, deadly emotion.
Although the identity of the would-be killer is known from the start, Larry’s ex-wife Shannon quickly catches on to his plan and works to thwart it, creating a supremely tense situation. Shannon’s discovery highlights the weakest aspect of the book, the idea that Larry, a grasping phony, would be so irresistible to so many women. I mean, Shannon learns that he is planning to toss one of his lady friends off the balcony and still wants him back! (It also takes a shockingly long time for her to realize that she might be the one destined for a one-way trip to the sidewalk.) Over the course of the evening, however, flashbacks reveal more about Larry and his relationships with these women, some of which are quite different than they appear on the surface.
Much of the first half of the story explores the marriage between Larry and the impossibly sweet Shannon, the hackneyed tale of an innocent who can’t see what a heel her husband is until it’s too late. Once over this hump, things get leaner and meaner as Larry starts tangling with women in his own weight class. His second wife, failed starlet Claire, won’t give him a divorce unless he pays up. Larry needs a quick divorce so he can marry Dee, the pregnant teenage daughter of his boss. If he doesn’t marry Dee, he loses his job. If he does marry her, however, the coarse and brilliant Maggie will cut off his book deal. “You’ve walked out on a couple of women already,” Maggie warns. “But they were your wives. I’m not. That’s just one reason why it won’t be so simple to walk out on me.”
Each of these women is monstrous to Larry in her own way. They are embarrassments, living reminders of all the ways he has failed despite his outward success. Even his occasional moments of clarity seem just as likely to lead him in the direction of evil as good.
Lying awake then, scratchy-eyed and unrelaxed, his triumph sloughed off like a reptile’s wornout skin. He was overwhelmed by a sense of the hollowness, the falsity of all the things he believed important. He felt an intolerant contempt for the people who’d eaten his food, drunk his liquor, and contested for his favor. Fourflushers, phonies, swindlers–he drew bitter satisfaction from the name-calling. They think I’m a top dog–or say they think so–because they want to use me, to squeeze me dry. And I lap it up. I feel six inches taller because somebody with a yen for publicity gives me a build-up. I’m just as shallow and corrupt as any of them. […] What care we put into our manufactured backgrounds, our tales of conquest. Who believes us? Or who, believing us, cares?
While there are a limited number of scenarios that can unfold at the party, McGerr sets up the finale well. Clues subtly emerge throughout the story, falling into place with a satisfying click. Early on, I felt that I knew exactly what was going to happen, I just didn’t know why. By the end, I knew exactly why, but no longer felt sure about what.
Follow, As the Night is a meditation on a wasted life. All of the characters, not just Larry, are given the choice between ruthlessly pursuing what they want and being decent human beings. The only trouble is that it may already be too late.
It’s almost like a bizarre, inverted, game of clue, in which you possess the winning combination of cards that spell out the solution (“It was Larry Red Rock, on the balcony, with a loose guard rail…”) without getting any nearer to the conclusion. You really have to reason from the given information to find that final piece of the puzzle before it’s being given to you in the final chapter, which is what keeps her name ascending on my list of favorites. McGerr’s take on the genre made the books I read not only a pleasure for a classicist like me, who appreciate a clever plot and fair-play clueing, but also to a contemporary audience whose preference goes to crime novels and thrillers.
Follow, As the Night is out of print, with few used copies available. French speakers may have better luck, as it was filmed as Bonnes à Tuer and several French editions have been released under that title.