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.

Continue reading “The Fifth Caller (1959) by Helen Nielsen”

The Death Wish (1934) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

The Death Wish by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“He hates his wife. He’s not just irritated or bored with her. He hates her. That’s a damned ugly thing.”

Every morning, Shawe Delancey drives to the station, commutes to the office, then comes home again for dinner with his wife. On the surface, his life seems ordinary. The truth is quite different, however. His wife Josephine flies into miserable rages, demanding that he account for every moment of his day. Delancey is driven to the station by a chauffeured limousine paid for by his wife. All day, he sits alone in an office also financed by Josephine, waiting for business that never comes. And every evening, he returns, at the last possible moment, to a lonely house. It’s always just him and Josephine because she has quarreled with all the neighbors.

If only he could be more like his friend Bob Whitestone, with a loving wife like Rosalind. Whitestone seems to have everything a man could want—until the night he shocks Delancey with words that will change both of their lives forever: “I wish to God I could kill her.” Continue reading “The Death Wish (1934) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding”

Widows Mite (1952) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Widow's Mite by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“You’ve been living in a house with a murderer. And you’re not even very curious to know who the murderer is.”

The chipmunk and the bird. That’s all Tilly can think of when she sees cousin Sybil and her husband Howard lying unconscious in Sybil’s bedroom. Earlier that day, Tilly’s young son Robert was frightened by a “big boy” who dropped poison into the mouths of a chipmunk and a bird. Tilly thought his story was a figment of his imagination—until Robert showed her the dead animals, laid out side by side. Just like Sibyl and Howard.

The “arrogant and domineering” Sibyl has never been easy to please. As a widow with a small income, Tilly appreciates her cousin’s invitation to spend the summer, but it’s sometimes difficult to accept her role as a poor relation. After Sibyl is killed, however, Tilly discovers herself in a new, and even worse position: murder suspect.

Widow's Mite by Elisabeth Sanxay HoldingWidow’s Mite is an amiable but undercooked effort from the usually excellent Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s not menacing enough to be a suspense novel, not deep enough to be a psychological study, and not baffling enough to be a detective story. While it’s pleasant enough to read, there’s no real purpose to it.

Tilly is a born people-pleaser, though lately her efforts don’t seem to please anyone. Early on, she is so cowed by Sybil that Tilly gives in to the other woman’s demand for sleeping pills even though she has been drinking heavily. When she later notices that her cousin may be sleeping too deeply, she doesn’t even try to wake her up for fear of Sybil’s wrath. Needless to say, Tilly feels awful when it turns out Sybil really has died. But how can she reveal to police that Sybil could have been poisoned earlier than they believe without also revealing that she herself may have been the one to administer the poison?

After Sybil’s death, Tilly transfers her obedience to Sam Osborne, a total stranger. Osborne seems reasonable at first, complaining about detective stories “with those fool girls in them.”

“Those dim-wits,” he said. “The ones that always keep something back from the police or the famous detective The girls that see a man coming out of the summer-house where the body is found later, and never tell. The girls that see the good-for-nothing nephew sneaking something into Auntie’s tea but never say a word when Auntie drops dead […] It’s all damn nonsense,” said Osborne, “and it never works. If anyone’s in any way mixed up in a police case, the only thing to do is to tell the truth about what you know, and tell it quick.”

Almost immediately, however, he has a radical change of heart and encourages Tilly to do all kinds of suspicious things. Though Osborne accuses Tilly of being too “innocent” and “artless,” he’s more than happy to take advantage of her trusting nature. She sees nothing to worry about, even as his advice gets her into more and more trouble. There’s nothing romantic about the way Osborne takes charge of Tilly’s life, and the only suspense is wondering how he’ll manage to top his previous bad ideas (which he always does).

The other suspects are also quick to impose upon Tilly’s meek nature. What should be a house of mourning soon becomes a madhouse. Sybil’s husband Howard survives the attempt on his life, but vacillates about whether he’s going to let Tilly and her son stay now that Sybil is gone. The high-strung Howard is barely able to handle the aftermath of Sybil’s murder but, as Osborne reminds Tilly, Howard didn’t find life with Sybil very restful, either.

“Howard’s a good egg, after his fashion. But he’s got what you might call a low breaking-point. And he’s had to stand all the things a stuffed shirt can’t stand. Disorder, confusion, crazy extravagances, crazy quarrels with the neighbors. One time when they were having a dinner-party, all the oyster forks had disappeared, at the last moment. He was absolutely sunk.”

“I can’t think that’s very tragic,” said Tilly.

“It was—for him. It was a humiliation he never got over, to see their guests eating oysters with big forks.”

While all teenagers say they hate their parents, Sybil’s son Taylor, fresh from a school for disturbed children, really seems to mean it. Their neighbor, emotionally unstable divorcee Carola Dexter, claims that Sybil was her best friend and often complained to her about Tilly’s grasping ways. But would a best friend try to steal Carola’s boyfriend Dick Cantrell, as rumor suggests? Maybe a best friend who thought Carola was after her own husband. Soon Tilly’s head is swimming from all the unasked-for gossip her fellow suspects insist on sharing.

Tilly’s lifestyle is an old-fashioned one that is likely to irritate many readers. Why doesn’t she get a job instead of becoming a professional houseguest? Her late husband Ian’s modest life insurance is due to run out very soon. This worries Tilly, yet she has no plan in place. As Tilly herself reminds us, though, not everyone is capable of rising to meet extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are very ordinary indeed, muddling along as best we can and making plenty of mistakes along the way.

Me? I’m nobody. Nothing. I’ve never had a job or earned a penny in my life. I’m not able to support my own child. I’m not a really good housekeeper or cook, I can’t sew. I’ve got friends, and I love them, girls I went to school with, but they’re not important, dazzling people. Just dear and nice. I’ve had beaus, the average number, but never anyone like Ian. Never anyone with such charm and wit; never anyone so handsome and debonair. Only that little, little time together—and now I haven’t anything. I’m nobody.

No! That’s disgusting. That’s shocking. I am somebody. I’m Robert’s mother, and I was Ian’s wife, and I made him happy. I made my parents happy. I’m not mean or cruel or dishonest, and I’m not stupid.

A strong, intrepid heroine is always appreciated, but most people are not strong or intrepid. Tilly certainly is not. She is, however, a good person who has never hurt anyone and doesn’t deserve the ordeal she’s going through.

There’s still no excuse for Sam Osborne, though. That’s an ordeal she brought upon herself.

Widow’s Mite is less a mystery than a series of random events. The ending is one of those solutions that seems to happen simply because the author feels the book has gone on long enough and she had better put a stop to it. The novel is otherwise well-paced, with a nicely understated sense of humor. It’s adequate light entertainment. To experience Elisabeth Sanxay Holding at the height of her powers, however, check out The Blank Wall or The Innocent Mrs. Duff instead. Widow’s Mite is too meager a portion.

Availability

Widow’s Mite is available in paperback and ebook from Stark House as part of a double volume with Who’s Afraid.

The Little Lie (1968) by Jean Potts

The Little Lie by Jean Potts

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“Doesn’t it occur to you that somebody is—well, not telling the truth?”

“Lying,” she specified. “Somebody’s lying.”

It all starts with a white lie. When her boyfriend Chad breaks up with her, Dee Morris is humiliated. To save face, she tells her family and neighbors that he is out of town for a job interview. She assumes the story will eventually peter out on its own. But when outside forces intervene, Dee’s little lie becomes a very big one. How far will she go to protect her reputation? And what will happen when Chad returns?

The Little Lie is a stunning work of suspense that builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, toward a shattering climax. The final chapter is a masterpiece—utterly shocking and merciless, but the only way this story could possibly end.

For a while, the plot seems deceptively low-key. It is primarily a character study of Dee, her brother Oliver, sister-in-law Erna, and their lodger Mr. Fly, all of them disappointed middle-aged people clinging to their illusions. Even within the context of this dysfunctional group, however, it soon becomes clear that something is off about Dee. There are hints of a troubled past, especially in her relationships with men. This includes Oliver. No sooner has Chad left, than Oliver starts talking about leaving town as well, beginning a new life somewhere else. Dee doesn’t want that. She wants her brother all to herself. And if Oliver’s wife Erna stands in the way, Dee will just have to do something about that.

Jean Potts takes a deep dive into the psychology of these characters and the small-town New England atmosphere, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Aside from the high drama at the beginning and end of the book, Dee’s lie serves largely as an entry point into her world; while others are certainly interested or suspicious, the one who is most obsessed with Dee’s lie is Dee herself. For a long time, the violence is emotional, consisting of tiny, devastating incidents that wound all the more deeply because the perpetrator uses their intimate knowledge of the victim to determine the most effective target.

Dee kills through kindness, and for half their lives her main target has been her sister-in-law Erna. Oliver and Erna met and married in her southern hometown, but relocated to his native Rushford to deal with a temporary family crisis. Eighteen years later, they’re still there, much to Erna’s dismay. Dee has been wonderful to Oliver and Erna, maybe a little too wonderful. After she went to so much trouble to set up an apartment for them in the family home, it would have been ungrateful to get their own house, even if that’s what Erna really wanted. Dee is always doing chores for them, tidying up the apartment. It leaves Erna with nothing to do all day—not a problem, since the icebox is always stocked with beer.

There was no forgetting the kindnesses; they weighed like a yoke on Erna’s shoulders.

So did the loneliness, the friendless, discontented years of feeling like an exile. But was any of that Dee’s fault? Of course not; if anybody was to blame, it must be Erna herself. Something blind and stubborn had risen up in her, a resistance against Rushford and everybody in it. Something cold, the bone-deep, bone-hard chill that had crept over her when she walked in and saw Dee for the first time, huddled in that little sewing chair, rocking back and forth.

What makes the situation so maddening is that Erna cannot deny Dee really has been a lifesaver in the past. Their relationship is a toxic stew of gratitude and resentment. Only in the aftermath of Chad’s departure is Erna able to find a crack in Dee’s iron self-control. Rather than frightening her, it exhilarates and empowers her. “Poor Dee, she thought—and realized, to her shame, that there was something exciting, even a little pleasurable, about feeling sorry for someone like Dee…The difference between being pitied and pitying…Erna had never seen it until today; how great the difference was, how much more blessed to give pity than to receive it.”

The Little Lie by Jean Potts Each of the major characters is refreshingly complex, their behavior relatable and infuriating by turns. The lodger Mr. Fly is always poking his nose into other people’s business. It eventually becomes clear, however, that Mr. Fly is facing serious difficulties and throws himself into his neighbor’s problems so that he doesn’t have to think about his own. Oliver’s passivity is annoying, but it is also understandable. He loves both his wife and his sister. Since it is impossible for any action of his to please both, it’s easier not to act.

Dee is the most complicated of all, constantly wavering between victim and tormentor. Love is her weapon, but it is also the agent of her own suffering, a need so great it can never be fulfilled. It’s hard not to empathize with her sheer panic upon realizing how deeply she is trapped in the lie, which leaves her feeling “cold and hollow. If only she had not had to lie to Oliver too! She could not back out now. She could not stand still, either. She had no choice but to go on.” Even Dee is sometimes startled by how easily the lie becomes a part of her life.

There was no rush. Chad wasn’t going to call, tonight or any other night. It wasn’t true. She had made it all up…Yet the urgency of the past three quarters of an hour had not been feigned. Not at all. The itch of impatience had been as genuine as if it were based on absolute reality.

At first, Dee embraces the lie because it gives her the illusion of control. Even if she can’t get Chad back in reality, she can live in a world of her own making, managing everyone else’s perceptions. As the border between fantasy and reality becomes shakier, however, Dee may no longer recognize the difference.

Dee is hypervigilant in her interactions with the other townspeople. Even the most innocuous comment can send her into a spiral of paranoia—though Potts also uses these moments to show that everyone has at least some kind of a dark side. It’s very easy to let a well-placed barb slip, whether through carelessness or the result of a moment’s cruelty. Sometimes the consequences are small, as when Erna tries to puzzle out whether an acquaintance was really complimenting her homemade dress, or insulting it. Other times, a chance remark may lead to far more dire results. Like Dee’s little lie, one small comment can start a chain reaction.

By the end, The Little Lie has gone from the simple story of a small-town scandal to something more like grand opera or Greek tragedy. The irony is that Dee’s lie about Chad is only one of many deceits she has built her life around. She is willing to take drastic action to avoid facing the truth, preferring to smash the mirror rather than see herself as she really is. For Dee and the other characters in The Little Lie, the biggest lie is the one they tell themselves.

Second Opinions

Pretty Sinister

The Little Lie is perhaps Jean Potts’ finest contribution to genuine domestic suspense. In Dee Morris Potts has created one of her most unnerving and deeply disturbed characters. The story hits all the right notes, focuses on the lives of women and their husbands (or in the case of Dee, her intended husband) with the perceptive plot gimmick, a seemingly innocuous lie, serving as the catalyst for all that follows. The final pages are fraught with tension, a neatly noirish touch in the revelation of Dee’s most creepy secret, which leads to a near operatic mad scene. Like the best of noir we know everything was leading to this explosion, that Dee was doomed when she uttered that little lie. 

Crossexamining Crime

Potts’ work is a testament to the truth that you can plunge the darker areas of the human psyche in an engaging way without recourse to extremely graphic descriptions. You can’t help but keep reading this tale, keenly wanting to know how ‘a seemingly innocuous lie’ will end and what carnage will follow in its wake.

Availability

The Little Lie is available in paperback and ebook formats from Stark House Press, in a double volume with Home Is the Prisoner.

Deadlock (1952) by Ruth Fenisong

Deadlock by Ruth Fenisong

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“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 paint 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.

Deadlock by Ruth FenisongAs 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.

Second Opinion

Crossexamining Crime

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. 

Availability

Deadlock is available in paperback and ebook formats from Stark House Press, in a double volume with Dead Weight.

 

Marilyn K (1960) by Lionel White

Marilyn K by Lionel White

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Life is filled with new experiences, but this was one I could have gotten along without. Two dead men in one day is a little hard on the system at best; it makes it sort of rough, when you end up with one of them in the trunk of your car.”

Most men would stop if they saw the luscious Marilyn K. stranded by the side of the road. Sam Russell is no exception. Marilyn’s traveling companion has just been killed in a car crash. He’s a married man, and she doesn’t want to get involved in a scandal. When she begs Sam to drive her to a motel, flashing a suitcase full of cash, it all seems too good to be true…and it is. In the beginning, Sam wants the girl and the money. By morning, he’ll settle for escaping with his life, but it may already be too late. Continue reading “Marilyn K (1960) by Lionel White”

The House Next Door (1956) by Lionel White

The House Next Door by Lionel White

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Listen, baby,” he said. “I don’t think you quite understand. There was a dead man there, a man that I have every reason to believe was murdered. Someone murdered him. And someone saw me there in that house.”

Fairlawn Acres is a typical American suburb, full of average, ordinary families. Howard McNally has a beautiful wife and child, but can’t stop thinking about the teenage babysitter. Len Neilsen stumbles into the wrong house after a drunken dinner with his boss, only to find himself “in a strange house, in a strange bedroom, with a man who was very dead.” He doesn’t even know which house it was, since they all look alike.

And Gerald Tomlinson has just stolen $48,000 from the South Shore Bank in a bloody shootout—money he’s determined to keep by any means necessary. Continue reading “The House Next Door (1956) by Lionel White”

The Snatchers (1953) by Lionel White

The Snatchers by Lionel White

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I know about your kind of man. You’d as soon kill as not. You, and those others in there, you’re all of you alike. All of you cowards and killers.”

The kidnapping went off without a hitch, but pulling a job is one thing; getting away with it is another. Cal Dent has been planning this caper for years and he’s willing to do whatever it takes to make a clean getaway—even murder. But the more time he spends around one of his beautiful hostages, the more reluctant he is to let her go. As his perfect scheme starts falling apart, how far will Dent go to save his own skin? Continue reading “The Snatchers (1953) by Lionel White”

The Three Widows by Bernice Carey (1952)

The Three Widows by Bernice Carey

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Elsie seemed to be very calm about the whole thing. She had figured out the reasons—you might even say the excuses—with an astonishing lucidity.

The idea of a woman ‘feeling like murdering her husband’ was not at all inconceivable to her.”

The city of Santa Cruz would rather that no one hear about the dead man on the beach. It is strange that he died of an overdose, yet was found with no pill bottle or personal effects. Still, why disrupt tourist season for what is surely a suicide? The Bladeswells are just passing through town when they happen to overhear a conversation about the death, and two others that have taken place in Yellowstone and Yosemite. “Always middle-aged men an’ no identification, always summer, and in vacation spots, where there’s thousands of tourists coming and going.”

When Mel and Elsie Bladeswell reach the tourist cabins where they have planned to meet their friend Chet, they are amused to find him the target of three husband-hunting widows. The more Mel thinks about those other deaths, however, the less funny it becomes. One of these women may be a little too fond of widowhood. Continue reading “The Three Widows by Bernice Carey (1952)”

Go, Lovely Rose (1954) by Jean Potts

Go Lovely Rose by Jean Potts

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Aren’t we ever going to get rid of Mrs. Henshaw? Hasn’t she done enough to Hartley and me without this. She might at least have the decency to die a natural death. But no. She’s got to get herself murdered […] Nothing can stop people like Mrs. Henshaw. I ought to know. I grew up under her thumb.”

Since they were children, Rachel and Hartley Buckmaster have been terrified of the family housekeeper, Rose Henshaw. They can’t even pretend to be sorry when she’s found dead at the bottom of the cellar stairs. But it turns out that Rose may have had a little help falling down those stairs. When her brother Hartley becomes the prime suspect, Rachel must probe the town’s deepest secrets to learn why so many people were so afraid of Rose. Continue reading “Go, Lovely Rose (1954) by Jean Potts”