The Birthday Gift (1976) by Ursula Curtiss

The Birthday Gift by Ursula Curtiss

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“He had thought, before, in terms of a thread-end which he could not relinquish. He thought now in terms of fine and nearly invisible wire leading to what, under its look of quiescence, might just possibly be a freshly armed bomb. “

No good deed goes unpunished, as an innocent favor results in deadly consequences for Lydia Peel.  Since she is already traveling to Connecticut to attend a family wedding, it should be no trouble to deliver a birthday gift to her friend’s sister right down the road. Paula and Emmett Blake don’t seem grateful for the present, however. In fact, they can’t wait to get rid of Lydia.

More welcoming is their other guest, Mrs. Chilton. The old lady laughs over a dropped cigarette; she is such a careless smoker by day, she confides, that she doesn’t dare smoke at night. Just a few hours later, though, Mrs. Chilton burns to death in her own bed. Lydia suspects murder, and all at once a simple errand becomes more complicated, and more dangerous, than she could have imagined. 

The Birthday Gift is a well told, but rather simple, story. There are only a limited number of suspects for Lydia to chase down, sometimes with the aid of the Chiltons’ handsome lodger Desmond Moran. Then, too, Lydia is not quite a disinterested sleuth. She spent all her childhood summers in the town of Elder’s Farm, and has past histories with several of the figures in the case. This is the first time she’s been back in ten years, however. While she considers herself something of a local, the year-round residents disagree and do not trust her.

They may be right, as she cannot help assessing the now-adult suspects based on their actions as teenagers. Mrs. Chilton’s daughter Candide was a particular nemesis in those days, though Lydia admits she doesn’t know much of Candide’s life since then. The almost-divorced Candide is extremely vague about where she was sleeping on the night of her mother’s death. Is she simply being circumspect about a new romance for the sake of her child-custody case, or is there something more sinister here?

Candide’s head went up and back imperiously; for a moment she was poised to say something cutting. Then, visibly like a woman having second thoughts about discarding a garment which she might want again someday, she stood up, pulled on her gloves, and gave her brief, unamused smile.

Lydia soon learns that Candide’s manipulative nature has not changed with the years, as Lydia is easily maneuvered into doing all kinds of favors for her old enemy. This includes babysitting her bratty son Harry, who may know more about his grandmother’s death than the adults realize. (A frequent theme for Curtiss is the woman who gets stuck with someone else’s child, which allows the author to really dig into the responsibility and tedium of parenthood without the danger of her heroine being viewed as a bad mother. Just off the top of my head, it happens here, in Hours to Kill, In Cold Pursuit, and The Forbidden Garden.)

To keep herself company in the spooky old house where she is staying, Lydia watches a lot of television, albeit with a knowing eye. So does Harry, but this child of the television age seems to uncritically absorb everything he sees on the screen.

Harry was seated where she had left him, cross-legged on the floor, watching a laxative commercial in which a just-returned executive, arm fondly around his wife, was confiding to her his internal trouble in Pittsburgh. And they talk about the dangers of television violence, marveled Lydia, and asked Harry if he would like a glass of ginger ale. He nodded without looking away from the screen; apparently he didn’t want to miss the part where the indulgent wife produced a large bottle from some private hoard.

The recurring TV subtext is usually comic, but there is a sad moment when Lydia must decide whether to let Harry watch a news report about Mrs. Chilton’s death. She finally allows him to watch, feeling that “the television screen was the ultimate authority to the very young, and this would bring it home to him as nothing seemed to have.”

Another figure from Lydia’s past who looms large in the present-day mystery is Desmond Moran. A journalist recovering from a plane crash, he rents a studio from the Chiltons and seems to know Candide better than he lets on. Desmond begins an investigation of his own, but he and Lydia work separately and rarely share information. It’s possible that his goals are very different from hers.

On paper, there’s a lot going on here. There is the mystery of Mrs. Chilton’s death and the question of exactly what the Blakes are up to. In addition, Lydia is concerned for her friend Susan, Paula Blake’s sister, who has taken up with a suspicious man back in Santa Fe. As ever, Ursula Curtiss is a sharp observer of character.

From the challenging glance she gave him as she poured, [Mrs. Tadlock] was a woman to whom hospitality was not an offer, but a command, and the declining of it for any reason a calculated insult to be repaid at some future time. She had a practiced air of having forced drinks into reformed alcoholics, rich desserts into desperate dieters, spicy food into ulcer patients.

Everything comes together very smoothly. The Birthday Gift is a slick production that is never dull to read, yet it’s hard to feel too invested. Unlike most works by Ursula Curtiss, there is never a sense of danger or even much genuine emotion. The best books, like the best gifts, are not the ones that deliver exactly what you expect (however nicely), but the ones that give you what you didn’t even know you wanted.

Availability

The Birthday Gift (also published as Dig a Little Deeper) is out of print, with used copies available.

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