Dead of Winter (1959) by Constance Cornish

Dead of Winter by Constance Cornish

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“It looks, she thought bitterly, like a movie scene of some Old World Christmas, a fairy-tale Christmas. Surely the whole thing was something out of Grimm. Or Kafka. Kafka with snowflakes.”

Recent widow Abbey Humphrey is relieved to have found a refuge in the charming Colonial village of Deepford, Vermont. She doesn’t know how she would have gotten through the last few months without the support of her friends Jenny and Emma, not to mention the upcoming Christmas holiday.

Deepford seems so safe and peaceful compared to New York City, but appearances can be deceiving. Abbey comes home to find a dead body in her bedroom. And not just any dead body—it’s Stacey Harrington, Jenny’s husband. As the rumors swirl around her, Abbey learns that she may not be so welcome in Deepford after all, as this small town is hiding big secrets.

Dead of Winter is a basic woman-in-peril tale that is notable only for offering a stronger mystery plot than is normally seen in this type of story. Multiple witnesses saw Abbey let Stacey into her home on the day of the murder, even though she was in New York City at the time. Ironically, she is unable to prove her own alibi, so to clear herself, she must discredit the seemingly iron-clad alibis of other suspects. The resulting solution, while convoluted, is more complicated than expected, both logistically and emotionally.

Dead of Winter by Constance CornishAbbey is grateful to have left behind the competition and superficiality of city life, thinking she has found a more real, authentic lifestyle in the country. Little does she realize that Deepford is every bit as concerned with keeping up appearances. That’s why Stacey’s ex-wife Emma pretends it doesn’t hurt that he moved on with her best friend. That’s why Jenny looks for an out-of-town lawyer when her marriage is in trouble. And that’s why a whole separate town has sprung up across the river to house all the necessary but unlovely factories, supermarkets, and housing developments that can’t be allowed to sully the picture-perfect village of Deepford. All ugliness has been banished from the town, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. It’s still there, lurking just out of sight.

This isolated Stepford village, where everyone can see inside each other’s houses, makes an ominous setting. Abbey thinks her friends Jenny and Emma are on her side, and Stacey’s business partner John Middleton seems to offer a helping hand (not to mention a possible love interest). But these people have a long history together that doesn’t include Abbey, a shared past that has forged both resentments and loyalties.

Dead of Winter by Constance CornishIt’s emphasized repeatedly that, even in these modern times, no one can hope to survive in the countryside without being able to count on their neighbors. Abbey is still new enough to consider the snowstorms and power outages an adventure. The city-dweller in her can’t quite believe it’s possible to really be cut off from police in an emergency. Natives of the region understand how dangerous the place can be, however, which makes it more important to maintain their relationships with each other than to protect a newcomer who might not stick around. Even if her friends are not conspiring against her, they may not go to great lengths to help her, either.

For much of the book, Abbey is not so much committing to a life in Deepford as she is fleeing from her old life in the city. Her late husband Pete, an advertising executive, was a true Mad Man, dying of a heart attack after the couple enjoyed their nightly bedtime martinis. As much as Abbey misses her husband, she can’t help feeling anger at the way he trapped them in a lifestyle that ultimately killed him.

Success had left no time to catch that tomorrow in which they would begin to find themselves and enjoy the fruits of all their striving. Success was like the wages of sin and even worse than death, it left a residue of fear as well as loneliness. Maybe that’s what Pete really wanted. Perhaps he adored the life he led and in actual fact wouldn’t have had it otherwise. The rush and tension and bitter competition may have been the very spice of life to him. And suppose the inner goal of his life had been to die at the height of his career before the worm of self-doubt could have entered his soul? But where had this left her who wanted, much more simply, to be a small-town housewife complete with children and relatives and belongingness? Abruptly she felt a sting of resentment against this man she thought she had known, for having sacrificed her life to his compulsions.

She and her husband had very different plans for their second home in Vermont. Pete saw it as a status symbol to own a New England vacation home. For Abbey, it was part of an idealistic, rather impractical scheme to escape the rat race by opening an antique store in the country. Now that dream is all she has left, and it’s being slowly eaten away by murder.

The whole village was like a beautiful, rose-decorated box of rare and fine confections whose insides contained arsenic. Her sanctuary, this dear Deepford, had suddenly, within the space of a week, become the sugar icing over deadly poison.

Whatever the outcome of the murder investigation, life in Deepford will carry on much as it always has. The question is whether Abbey will be able to overcome her disillusionment and accept the town as it truly is, even if the reality is far from her Christmas-card image of village life. Dead of Winter proves that there’s no such thing as a simple life, however picturesque the surroundings. There’s nothing very earthshaking about that conclusion, or about much else that happens. Still, it features a more robust whodunit plot than the setup initially seems to promise, and the effort is appreciated even if the execution is a bit clumsy.

Availability

Dead of Winter is out of print, with used copies widely available. It was also published as a Detective Book Club volume with The Case of the Mythical Monkeys by Erle Stanley Gardner and The Dark Fantastic by Whit Masterson.


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