The Face of the Tiger (1958) by Ursula Curtiss

The Face of the Tiger by Ursula Curtiss

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It isn’t over with,” Lou said flatly. “People remember kidnappings and everybody connected with them long after they forget other things. I’ve found that out.”

Summer is in full swing at the Coastline Club, and Lou Fabian couldn’t be happier with her job there. No one at the club could possibly associate the new employee with Louise Royce, who was mixed up in that scandalous kidnapping case last year. Until one day the phone rings. “I know who you are, Miss Fabian.

Is it just a prank call, or something darker? Lou gets her answer when a woman is killed in the woods behind her cabin. Although she is drawn to one of the male guests, she’s not sure if he can be trusted. Lou must overcome her past trauma if she hopes to save herself and find the killer who is hiding in plain sight.

The Face of the Tiger is gripping suspense novel, with dark deeds playing out against the summery backdrop of a Connecticut country club. Lou is an intelligent woman who always keeps her head, even when her emotions are in turmoil. The murder forces her to reexamine her past in detail, searching for a person she’s forgotten who remembers her, “someone who, last summer, had been only the flicker of a skirt, the back of a head, a hand holding a cocktail.” Ironically, the new crimes provide an opportunity to reclaim her life, and it’s heartening to watch Lou grow stronger by facing her fears.

The Face of the Tiger by Ursula CurtissIt’s due to the influence of wealthy Dana Mallory that Lou was hired at the club. Former playgirl Dana has settled down to domestic life with her husband and infant son. A serious heart condition means she can’t stand shocks, and she doesn’t receive very many. Her wealth protects her from the sharp edges of life, but it also insulates her from what’s really happening in the world. Dana’s cousin, the charming yet secretive Sam Ingalls, claims that he only wants to shield Dana from things that might strain her heart—things like murder and kidnapping. Lou wants to believe Sam, but can’t help wondering if he’s more involved than he lets on.

Lou enjoys her job as a “secretary’s secretary,” which allows her to trace phone calls and check on the whereabouts of suspects. All of this is done the old-fashioned way, by looking up handwritten records in ledgers. As a member of the staff, she also has the opportunity to go almost anywhere on the grounds without arousing suspicion, making both alarming and amusing discoveries. One almost gets the sense that Curtiss herself is having fun poking around the Coastline Club and exploring how it operates.

Mrs. Engstrand wanted a box Max had put away somewhere for her, and Mrs. Engstrand wanting anything was, for all her lazy placidity, a little like God wanting light.

Mrs. Willey, who ran the annex, phoned to say that one of the bus-boys, experimenting with an electric fan, had short-circuited the entire annex. At three o’clock Dolores, the burro, escaped from the corral, broke up a ladies’ tennis foursome and, guided by some sure malevolence, bolted straight for the Gifford cabin and Mrs. Gifford, who had just issued forth to hang up Ruth Ann’s bathing-suit.

On top of dealing with various workplace crises, Lou is also limited in how she can interact with guests, which makes her investigation a challenging one.

The plot is jam-packed. There’s the past kidnapping, the anonymous caller, the murder, and more. While it seems clear that these cases are all connected, the book treats them as mostly separate plot strands with their own protagonists—Lou, Sam, and police lieutenant Corey.

The truth of the matter was simple: Lieutenant Corey’s cold exterior hid a cold interior. He was not inhumane, and he kept a stern little dog to prove it, but he was ambitious in the thoughtful, reasonable way that is more consuming in the end than any dizzying ambitions. He had arrived where he was by never looking at the top of the ladder, but firmly, unswervingly, at the next rung.

The Face of the Tiger by Ursula CurtissLieutenant Corey’s investigation of the unidentified woman’s murder is actually very interesting. For a long time it seems to be running far behind Lou and Sam’s activities, but through dogged police work, Corey comes closer and closer to intersecting with them. This inquiry is much less posh, involving dishwashers, taverns, and dingy boarding houses instead of lush country clubs.

The scattered efforts of Lou, Sam, and Lieutenant Corey all come together “like quicksilver” in a breathless finale that includes one absolutely chilling moment. The way Lou arrives at the solution is highly unusual, but there are a few characterization issues and loose ends that are never sufficiently explained. Overall, however, The Face of the Tiger is an effective thriller that deftly mixes a jolly holiday atmosphere with moments of menace.

Second Opinion

The Saturday Review, March 14, 1959

Fine nerve-tingler, with good humorous touches and adroit characterization.

Availability

The Face of the Tiger is out of print, with some used copies available. It was also published as an Ace Giant Double with The Stairway.

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