Tuesday Night Bloggers: Helen’s Month: Sidney Carroll’s ‘A Note for the Milkman’ (1950)

Earlier last month one of our founder Tuesday Night Bloggers members, Helen Szamuely died and as a tribute to her the Tuesday Night Bloggers are featuring posts this month on some of her great interests in life: Europe, History and Russia. This week I decided to think a little bit outside of the box and have selected a short story to review which was published in the year of her birth, 1950.

Carroll’s story is narrated by a man who is planning on killing his odious wife and the writing style rather echoes the work of Francis Iles. I won’t say too much more about the plot as the story is only 9 pages long, though if you want to check it out for yourself it is part of the short story collection: 65 Great Murder Mysteries (1983), which was edited by Mary Danby. Something which immediately struck me in the opening paragraphs of this story was the powerful sense of criminal madness which Carroll creates. It is brought to us through the repetitive sentence style and structure, with the first person pronouns hammering into the reader’s consciousness as we see how he methodically prepares for his crime.

The narrative also has an eerie conversational tone, as the narrator is simultaneously insightful and ignorant about himself. For instance he says, whilst preparing his murder method that:

‘Only my eyes blinked needlessly and a tear would shimmy in the corner of the left one from time to time. An occupational disease. I dispose of these tears easily enough: I flick my head sharply; the tear is torn from my eye. You might say I have learned to expectorate with my eye. You might say it if you thought about it long enough.’

This is only a few lines but Carroll fills them to the gunnels with the narrator’s key traits. His attitude towards the irritating and annoying tear seems rather out of proportion and overly violent. Yet this shows in a microcosm his response to things which irritate and annoy him, such as his wife, particularly in words such as ‘dispose,’ ‘torn’ and ‘expectorate.’ Equally it is apparent in the final line that he spends far too much time inside his own head, which is not unsurprising given the lonely state of his marriage. Yet for all this insight into himself, he cannot see the greater ‘disease’ he is actually suffering from. In a way his murderous plans are ‘an occupational disease’ of an unhappy life and marriage.

Though a brief story Carroll does also set up a relationship between the narrator and his wife, which presents him as being the less dominant in the relationship. However, Image result for 65 great murder mysteriesinterestingly I wouldn’t say he is therefore a passive figure as the rest of the story goes on to show. This setup of power relations is also revealed in the narrator’s comments about himself and his wife as he when he says ‘my chin cupped in my free hand (it is a kittenish pose for a small man, I admit – but I can’t help it),’ it is hard to avoid the stereotypical feminine connotations. Yet later on he presents his wife in a much more masculine manner, such as how she eats her meals and leaves the table, leading to him calling her a ‘man-woman’.

You could also see this story as a monologue with the reader as the silent character and like any good monologue Carroll shows, rather tells the reader certain pieces of information about the narrator and his wife. There is lots for the reader to infer from indirect references such as in the line: ‘once my wife would bluster her way into slumberland nothing in the world could awaken her – except, perhaps, a dinner bell.’

Although a very short story Carroll conveys a complete mystery plot, with no rushed sections, which is no mean feat in 9 pages. In some ways such an anti-hero type of mystery structure lends itself to brevity, as too much time in the killer’s mind can actually become quite boring if not carefully done. The only niggle I had was with the ending, which needed a little more pep, though the understated irony was enjoyable and the murder method used is rather chilling and ingenious.

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About armchairreviewer

Qualified English teacher, with a passion for literature and crime fiction. On a random note I also own pygmy goats and chickens with afros (it doesn't get any cooler than that).
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2 Responses to Tuesday Night Bloggers: Helen’s Month: Sidney Carroll’s ‘A Note for the Milkman’ (1950)

  1. An imaginative way to approach the theme, and the story sounds compelling. I thought about what immediately attracted me, and realized that I love the title, I love a tale with the implication that something is going to hinge on something quite everyday like the note for the milkman. I must think of some more examples.

    Liked by 1 person

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