Today’s book was one I was kindly recommended when I threw out a plea for help with my dwindling TBR pile last week. I’ve received a lot of good suggestions from that post, which will no doubt be popping up on the blog over the next few months. Curtiss was not an author I was familiar with so the foreword to my copy of this book by Gwendoline Butler was very helpful for placing her within the mystery genre. She began her career in the 1950s and according to Butler ‘offered a new blend of suspense, straight detection, and romance that had no competitors until Mary Stewart came on the scene.’ Butler goes on to say that she had ‘no rival for suspense. Nor, for that matter, in the sense of the mystery she could evoke: she never forgot what one might call the detective side of her plots.’ I think this final comment is a fair one, as in comparison to some suspense novels I have read, there does seem to be more tangible evidence leading to the killer, with the various sources of information to be followed up. It was also interesting to read in the foreword that many of Curtiss’ relatives were also mystery writers to varying degrees, including her mother Helen Reilly, her sister Mary McMullen and her uncle James Kieren.
The plot revolves around Caroline Emmett. She is in Wicklow in Massachusetts at a nursing home recovering from pneumonia after being jilted at the altar. But during a fog laden walk in some local woods, Caroline is witness to a murder, not enough to identify the face of the killer, but enough to know what has happened. Unfortunately for her the killer has a flashlight, a flashlight which has given them a good look at Caroline’s face and in fear of her life she tries to find help. She eventually finds refuge in the home of Maude Oliver, where her grown up daughters and son also live. But unsurprisingly she is not out of the woods, (metaphorically speaking), just yet, as it becomes increasingly apparent that the danger is within… In keeping with suspense fiction tradition, the weather soon turns stormy and of course there are many late night visitors to the Oliver residence: a seemingly helpful neighbour, a woman collecting for the Red Cross and even a storm window salesman! But are they all who they say they are? In the midst of this the police are half-heartedly investigating the matter of what Caroline has seen, but thankfully local newspaper editor Carmichael takes an interest in the case too.
Like Celia Fremlin I think Curtiss does a very good job at creating ‘terror in the midst of safety,’ making her characters increasingly distrustful of one another – yet also using this aspect of the story to fool the reader based on certain expectations she seemingly builds up. She creates an eerie atmosphere from the very first lines as Caroline is lost in the woods:
‘The mist gathered secretly and very suddenly. It began as a blow-away thing over the long rough grass, a faint smoky pooling where the land dipped. In a startlingly brief time it turned a late April afternoon into a soft white dusk.’
Yet the tension levels are not allowed to escalate too soon. Instead there is calm before the storm literally and figuratively, as Caroline’s lines of support are cut off. I liked how the story doesn’t become hysterical and melodramatic, which can happen with some suspense stories with female leads. Caroline is a reasonably balanced protagonist, as she is vulnerable in terms of her feelings, but doesn’t lack common sense. In ways she becomes more terrified the more time she has to think about the situation, no longer having ‘the advantage of bewilderment and unreasoning panic.’ For her increasing knowledge of predicament makes her feel more afraid. One character who definitely needs mentioning is Julia, Maude’s widowed elder daughter. She is an invalid, (after the shock of losing her husband and baby), yet she is so delightfully dry and cutting in her comments, making her few appearances very memorable. She is not very welcoming towards Caroline with one of her first comments being about the danger she has probably brought to their door: ‘It’s nice to be Good Samaritans and so forth, but there’s very little future in being dead Samaritans, is there?’
The story takes place over less than a day, mostly at night, which works well with the plot, as does the small town setting and the way the narrative switches between Caroline and Carmichael’s actions. The short time frame keeps the pace well maintained and offers up quite a few opportunities for surprises, though having said that I did have a hunch about who the killer was about half way through. Yet of course there was no way for me to confirm this until the end, so I was the second half of the book was still interesting. So on the whole I’d say this was a pretty entertaining read, which gives us a handy reminder on not going for random solitary walks in woods.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Nursing Home
Also apologies for the lack of a cover on my next read. If anyone can track one down I would be very grateful, as not sure enough of the plot yet to even contemplate making one of my own.