“Don’t—just spread anything like that around or you’ll find yourself in real trouble.”
“Trouble? What do you think I’m in now?”
Lieutenant Gridley Nelson has never faced a homicide case quite like this one, with a victim who is even more mysterious than the murderer. Wealthy Glen Williams was known as a soft touch, always eager to assist the less fortunate. But where did his money come from? Why did the people he tried to help hate him so much? And why did Williams, in his dying moments, try to shield his killer?
Deadlock begins with a fascinating premise, the question of exactly when help crosses the line into harm. In the hands of Glen Williams, charity can be more dangerous than a loaded gun. The solution is every bit as unusual as the setup, and Ruth Fenisong is willing to allow her characters a surprising amount of moral ambiguity without judgment. This lets the reader experience real empathy with the suspects and their plights.
Before he can identify the killer, Nelson’s first challenge is to understand Glen’s many contradictions. He lives a life of luxury with no apparent source of income, yet Glen and his brother Michael are the sons of a simple farmer. Though Glen is engaged to Betty Conway, a girl from his hometown, his desk is full of love letters from other women. And despite his famous devotion to helping others, the manuscript of Glen’s self-published novel paints a darker picture of his motives.
He had been a man who wanted desperately to stick his fingers in other people’s pies, who interpreted a normal desire for privacy as base ingratitude, whose need was not for people but for puppets he could manipulate to his own greater glory. And because he had little use for people as people, he had little use for God. Not that he admitted this. Rather he placed God at a level with himself, a being of perverted humor who laughed at all the ridiculous situations through which mortals struggled.
The objects—or victims—of Glen’s benevolence have nothing in common except a desperation to improve their lives. Building superintendent Fred appreciates Glen’s kindness to his disabled son, and is willing to perform any kind of service to earn money for the boy’s care, no questions asked. Likewise, Glen’s teenage maid Bernice would do anything to escape a life of poverty. Glen promised to introduce aspiring photographer Tom to gallery owners, but introduced him to something far more sinister instead. Tom’s lover Sarah, a washed-up alcoholic actress, doesn’t really expect Glen to come through with the roles he’s promised, but she hates what he’s done to Tom. And Morgan, an ex-GI who scrapes by selling encyclopedias door to door, has finally gotten tired of waiting for Glen to provide his big break. But did Morgan realize that Glen was less interested in his musical talents than in his beautiful wife Joss? That’s not even counting Glen’s long-suffering fiancee Betty or his brother Michael who has loved her hopelessly for years.
All of these suspects have real weaknesses, some quite serious, that bring them under suspicion. If Glen Williams, by stringing along these desperate people, was practically asking to be murdered, their own naivete and eagerness to get something for nothing has made them easy targets as well. While he was alive, Glen managed to keep his life carefully compartmentalized; in the wake of his murder, however, his “friends” begin to meet and interact, with explosive results. Luckily, Lieutenant Nelson and his amusingly uncouth sidekick are understanding of human folly.
Nelson went his way smiling. He liked the little detective who concealed unexpected muscular power beneath his ill-fitting clothes and unexpected brain power behind his illiterate speech. He liked a great many people and wanted to keep them alive. Life was so dear to him that he resented even the deaths of those he did not like and of those he did not know. That was the key to his vocation, to his patient pursuit of murderers at large.
As a man, Grid Nelson is a little too good to be true. He’s one of those wealthy bluebloods who amuse themselves by joining the police force; when Nelson feels a little down at work, he thinks of his gorgeous wife Kyrie (who is utterly besotted with him), little Grid Junior, and their devoted servant Sammy, all waiting eagerly for him to return home. It’s laid on a bit thick.
As a detective, however, his calm, logical approach is appealing. Nelson prefers to interview suspects in a quiet and respectful way, feeling that this gets more truthful results than the third degree. He also understands that a nervous reaction does not necessarily show guilt, since “experience had taught Nelson that most people carried a burden of guilt which swelled to oversize proportions in the presence of the law. And he knew that this guilt could more often than not be traced to an exaggerated sense of sin, accumulated over the years and rarely pertinent to a case of murder.” There are downsides to his logical approach, however, as Nelson spends a large chunk of the investigation chasing down a lead that makes perfect sense on paper, only to find that real life isn’t always rational.
If there’s a flaw to Deadlock, it’s that everyone is too likable and sympathetic. As a result, the book never digs as deeply into its own darkness as the early chapters seem to promise. Regardless of their guilt, each suspect is enmeshed in a deeply dysfunctional situation, yet it doesn’t seem to affect them as strongly as it should. Their messes are too easily cleaned up.
But maybe that’s exactly Fenisong’s point. Deadlock is a twisty tale that builds to a solution that is ingenious and well-clued, but that’s not all it offers. Normally, suspects cleared of murder are relieved to resume their ordinary lives. For these characters, however, their ordinary lives are miserable. The murder investigation, traumatic as it is, gives them the opportunity to confess their sins to the understanding Nelson and be absolved. Ironically, Glen’s death has given his survivors what he could not provide them in life: a fresh start, a chance to move beyond the mistakes of the past into a brighter future.
Her tales are not cosy, with the more painful aspects of life being carefully woven into the fabric of the text, but neither are they gory, nor overwhelmed by despair – even when the ending avoids fairy-tale-like closure.
Deadlock is available in paperback and ebook formats from Stark House Press, in a double volume with Dead Weight.
2 thoughts on “Deadlock (1952) by Ruth Fenisong”
Interesting to see how our thoughts meet and diverge. I’m not sure I found all of the characters likeable. I didn’t particularly warm to Tom, but I didn’t mind finding the other suspects non-repellent, as the sort of victim the book plays with, means you don’t need hugely unlikable suspects. I think Fenisong does dig deeper with some of the suspects more than others – the caretaker and his wife provide quite a sorrowful element to the tale, the tragedy coming through human folly, rather than malice aforethought. Felt quite poignant for me.
Nelson probably is a bit too perfect, but I don’t think I was as bothered by it. Perhaps because he is not too obtrusive in the text.
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It’s true that some of the characters are more sympathetic than others, but I appreciate that Fenisong doesn’t really condemn any of them outright. This is not a noirish world where one mistake will doom you forever–there are second chances. I agree that the plight of the caretaker and his wife seems especially real and tragic. Unlike the others, their motives are unselfish, yet they will suffer the most for their actions. I also thought Bernice’s situation was quite sad, since she is so young and trying to escape a bad situation while the adults in her life only steer her in the wrong directions.
Definitely an unusual book, and it’s convinced me to give Fenisong another chance after the disappointment of The Lost Caesar.
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