“Aren’t we ever going to get rid of Mrs. Henshaw? Hasn’t she done enough to Hartley and me without this. She might at least have the decency to die a natural death. But no. She’s got to get herself murdered […] Nothing can stop people like Mrs. Henshaw. I ought to know. I grew up under her thumb.”
Since they were children, Rachel and Hartley Buckmaster have been terrified of the family housekeeper, Rose Henshaw. They can’t even pretend to be sorry when she’s found dead at the bottom of the cellar stairs. But it turns out that Rose may have had a little help falling down those stairs. When her brother Hartley becomes the prime suspect, Rachel must probe the town’s deepest secrets to learn why so many people were so afraid of Rose.
Go, Lovely Rose is an impressive debut from Jean Potts, fully equal to her later work. The structure is somewhat unexpected—it initially seems that Rachel will be the main detective, but she ends up sharing the spotlight with a number of other characters who join the investigation. Though they all claim to be working for the good of Hartley, each person seems to have a different idea of what that involves and they are often at cross-purposes. Since the characterization is top-notch, this wider focus allows a number of fascinating personalities to be explored. It also deepens the mystery, as the line between detective and suspect grows increasingly blurred. It’s hard for Rachel to know who she can trust, especially because she herself is not immune to the effects of small-town gossip and old grudges.
Rachel is afraid to dig too deeply into Rose’s secrets for fear of what she might learn about her own father. Why would he not only continue to employ such a cruel woman, but also demand in his will that she be allowed to live in his house for life? This provision has left the young Buckmasters tied to Rose forever, unable to sell the house as long as she’s alive. While Rachel escaped to Chicago, aspiring artist Hartley has remained in Coreysville, trapped alone with their tormentor. Hartley isn’t the only one damaged by Rose; her estranged husband Francie was once a promising young businessman and has now become a squalid miser who runs the local junk shop.
In her quest to clear Hartley of murder charges, Rachel is aided by members of the equally dysfunctional Bovard family. Hugh Bovard was their father’s best friend. He drinks a little, he philanders a little, and none of it consoles him for the breakdown of his marriage to Althea: “There it was. All his love, and it wasn’t enough, it wasn’t what she wanted. Only he couldn’t stop hoping. He went on and on. Stubbornly, monotonously hoping, like a bird that knows only the one call.” Lost in grief since the death of her disabled son Ronnie sixteen years earlier, Althea takes out her anger on those who survived, her husband and their teenage daughter Bix.
Potts is always tender to the young, and the character of Bix perfectly captures the special agonies of adolescence. In true teenage fashion, she embellishes and playacts to get attention. Aspiring to an adult sophistication that is totally beyond her abilities, Bix never met a fancy word she couldn’t mispronounce. “Her lipstick was smeared on with a fine disregard for the natural boundaries of her mouth. And her hair! It was straight, light-brown in color, and Bix had apparently cut it herself. In a poor light. With a dull pair of scissors.” Yet for all her posturing, she is also a child who is afraid of the dark.
Then there were other nights like this one, when all the furniture crouched, ready to spring at some secret, pre-arranged signal. The lamp turned into a fist threatening her, the window into an eye watching her. Whatever it was, hiding under the chintz petticoat [of the dressing-table], moved now and then, ever so slightly, ever so warily. Whatever it was, huddled at the foot of her bed, crept an inch toward her, stopped, waiting for the signal. And outside the window something—what? Not the ivy. Something old and evil—tapped and tapped, trying to get in.
It would be easy to laugh at such fears, but Bix has a lot to be afraid of. She can’t depend on her parents. Hartley is the only one she can count on; there is something beautiful and terrible about her love for him. Bix would truly do anything for Hartley, maybe even commit murder.
With so many enthusiastic amateur sleuths who are all so suspicious themselves, there’s rarely a dull moment in Go, Lovely Rose. There are also just enough lively side characters to make Coreysville feel like a real town. One standout is Hugh Bovard’s employee Gloria, who views her job as a sacred calling that she obviously hopes will become profane at any moment.
“I just love my job.” Gloria’s face–spotty, almost painfully sincere–took on a dedicated expression. “Mr. Bovard’s the most wonderful man to work for in the world. Oh, I know he’s supposed to be quick-tempered. He does get mad sometimes, but when he does it’s for a good reason. You know what I mean? It’s justified.”
Again, some comment seemed indicated, and Rachel groped mentally. I’m glad to hear you testify? Amen, Sister Gloria? All the possibilities that occurred to her had a distinct religious flavor.
Less amusing is the book’s very 1950s treatment of Ronnie, the “Mongoloid” son of Hugh and Althea who died when he was only eight years old. Rachel, who is meant to be an admirable character, remembers the dead Ronnie with loathing, describing him as monstrous. Her love interest Dr. Craig knows just what the problem is. “They should have put him into an institution”—that way, Althea wouldn’t have gotten so attached to her child. Obviously, Althea’s obsession with her dead son is deeply unhealthy. At the same time, Potts allows the reader to see the source of her sorrow. It’s clear that no one else loves or misses Ronnie, not even his father Hugh. Althea seems determined to mourn hard enough to make up for everyone else’s indifference. Her behavior is ugly, but so are the attitudes the other characters express toward a disabled child.
Go, Lovely Rose is a stunning achievement by any measure. From a first-time novelist, it’s nothing short of miraculous. The few things that don’t work (Rachel’s romance, the lack of development for Hartley) are minor. Potts nails everything really important: humor that’s funny, suspense that’s scary, realistically flawed yet relatable characters, and an ending that goes right down to the wire.
As an examination of a horrible woman’s vindictive lifestyle and its effect on not just two families, but an entire town, Go, Lovely Rose is easily one of the most arresting and perceptive crime novels of the 1950s.
Go, Lovely Rose is available in paperback and ebook from Stark House, in a double volume with The Evil Wish.