The Fifth Caller (1959) by Helen Nielsen

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We have a crime of violence and a study in a shambles, and we have a woman who attempted to kill herself a few hours after the murder. What more do you want for an arrest?”

At 5:22 p.m., Dr. Lillian Whitehall was beaten to death in her office. There were four appointments on her calendar that day, along with one final, unscheduled visit—from her killer. Police believe that fifth caller was her office nurse, Hungarian refugee Anna Bardossy. The two women fought earlier that day, and shortly after the murder, Anna was found lying on the beach with her wrists slashed. She says she remembers nothing about the day of the crime.

Investigator Douglas Marshall knows that a Los Angeles winter can be dark and foggy. It’s hard to be sure what you’re really looking at. He learned during World War II to dot every i and cross every t. If Anna Bardossy is guilty, he will prove it. As the case proceeds, however, Marshall must confront his own war experiences, discovering that he has more in common with Anna than he would ever want to admit. 

Borrow the NIght and The Fifth Caller by Helen NielsenThe Fifth Caller is an intriguing mystery that highlights some of the strange and sinister elements of life in postwar California. It might seem unbelievable that anyone would fall for Dr. Whitehall’s crazy theories, but Helen Nielsen emphasizes that the midcentury boom in psychotherapy was fueled by years of war and upheaval that left millions of people traumatized. Everyone in this story genuinely needs help. Some of them get it, some of them don’t, and some get exactly the wrong kind of help. As The Fifth Caller demonstrates, not all doctors are healers, but healing can be found in surprising places.

At first, it seems impossible that anyone would want to murder the saintly Dr. Whitehall. Her patients are so devoted that they could almost be described as a cult. Within the medical establishment, however, Dr. Whitehall has a different reputation. The district attorney’s office has received complaints about her treatments, but actual wrongdoing is difficult to pin down. 

When I first came to her […] she was sincerely trying to help people. But then she became confused. She imagined that she had some kind of power no one else had, and then she imagined that she was losing the power. That was when she began to acquire devices and formulas. They were harmless in themselves, but dangerous when a patient was really ill.

Dr. Whitehall and Anna often clashed over differences of medical opinion. Their relationship was complicated even more by the fact that Dr. Whitehall was not only Anna’s employer, but her immigration sponsor. If Anna wanted to stay in the United States, she needed to please her boss, a woman who became increasingly difficult to placate as Anna began moving toward a life of her own. 

There is a distinct subtext to their relationship. Anna and Dr. Whitehall lived together, and they are described as “more than just employer and employee.” It is repeatedly mentioned that Dr. Whitehall “hated men” after an unhappy marriage; Marshall’s suggestions that the doctor may have seen Anna as a daughter are met with embarrassed silence by those who knew her. Dr. Whitehall’s business associate is not surprised that relations had deteriorated between the two women: “these close relationships between women never work out.”

Whatever the truth of their relationship, Marshall knows that Anna won’t be the one to help him find it. Her experiences in Hungary, first in a Nazi concentration camp and then under Communist rule, have left her suspicious of police. “I’ve been watched and questioned before, Mr. Marshall,” Anna tells him. “I’ve been forced before to confess to crimes I knew nothing about by men even more clever than you. I know how you think.” 

Due to his military work with refugees and displaced persons, Marshall believes he knows how Anna thinks as well. “She sounds genuine,” he tells Dr. Huntzinger, who treats Anna after her suicide attempt, “but they learn to lie.”

The DPs, the victims, the refugees of society. I’m not being self-righteous, Huntziger, merely realistic. Prolonged deprivation and fear of punishment will make almost anyone dishonest. They have to learn to lie; it’s their only chance of getting out alive.

Anna’s lies and silences bring Marshall’s own long-buried experiences to the surface. Their interactions are full of tension, as their relationship is constantly shifting, from detective and suspect, to man and woman, to soldier and refugee. Dr. Huntziger tries to guide them, but Marshall’s urgent need for the truth may drive them both to the brink. It is fascinating to see a book from this period seriously examine the effects of PTSD, for both civilians and veterans, while also suggesting that there are healthier ways to explore these traumas and move forward with their lives. 

The biggest focus is on the mystery of Anna’s whereabouts on the day of the murder, but there are also four other suspects to account for. High-strung patient Naomi Griswold seems determined to see Anna arrested for the crime. The doctor’s attorney and business manager, Mr. Elrod, remains calm under questioning…until police want to check the books. Dr. Whitehall’s brother Bryon Davies is guilty of gambling, womanizing, and (to Marshall’s disgust) wearing a plaid cummerbund. He needs money—would he kill for it? Finally, there is Tim, the rather slow-witted furnace repairman. He might have important information, if they can only coax it out of him.

All of these are potentially interesting characters who don’t get much attention from the author. Their antics do lighten the tone, however, and provide Marshall with a chance to show off a sardonic sense of humor. He distrusts a witness who seems too unassuming, for instance, as “humility is like underwear; essential, but indecent if it shows.”

The Fifth Caller is a highly effective exploration of guilt and trauma. Nielsen makes good use of her California setting; this is not a Los Angeles of sunshine and orange groves, but one of gray skies and clammy fog in the weeks before Christmas. While the murder mystery is a little thin, the solution does play into the novel’s themes in ways that are both unexpected and rewarding.

Second Opinion

NB Magazine

Again, the tension is palpable and the pace snappy […] Nielsen is an exceptional writer, intelligent and emotionally aware. I think this is a must read for fans of psychological noir.

Availability

The Fifth Caller is available in paperback and ebook formats from Stark House in a double volume with Borrow the Night.


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