Today’s read is a variation on the disputed will mystery. Two sisters, now middle aged, widowed and with grown up children are at loggerheads. It has been that way ever since their father died years ago and left an unpleasant and malevolent will. A trust fund is set to last for so many years, in fact it is ending in a month, and from this fund Pauline receives a pittance in comparison to her sister, Julia. When the fund finishes, Pauline again gets a mere $5000, Julia $10,000 and the rest goes to Elsie, Julia’s daughter, all $70,000 of it. Disputing this will has become a monomania for Pauline. It is all she lives and breathes for, hoping the money will be hers, so she can spend it on her son, who has never been right his service in WW2. She drags her daughter, Dana, to see the solicitor, who has wearied of her and passed the matter on to his son, Brook Carey Junior. She claims that the person purporting to be Elsie, is not in fact Elsie, the switch having been made in France during WW2, when she and her mother were fleeing the French sanatorium for a Swiss one. Dana is dismissive of the idea, there being no physical proof for it, but Brook decides to make a few inquiries. Pauline also moves forward with her own offensive of badgering her sister. In amongst all of this a love triangle develops, as Brook is torn between Dana who he falls for in an instant and Eleanor, the woman he is engaged to.
This is another success from Berckman on many different levels. Firstly there is the plotting and clues. The opening gambit of the disputed identity of Elsie is unfolded well and just at the point where you think something new needs to happen or a piece of news has to break, the author timely unleashes another series of events, which complicate the original case. When it comes to proof over whether Elsie is who she says she is, for much of the book, the proof comes more in the guise of reader hunches, based on character actions or dialogue. The physical proof arrives nearer the end of the tale, but it doesn’t feel too late. In fact one of the things I most love about the plotting of this book is the gold plated red herring, Berckman fools her readers with. Incidentally a couple of clues are based around a certain topic of knowledge. Readers who have this might pick these hints up more easily, but for readers like me lacking that info, it is still possible to guess the culprit, which I did, just in time for the solution to be revealed.
Secondly this book was a success for me because of the characterisation, which if you’re going to write a psychological crime novel, is a pretty important feature to have nailed. Starting with Pauline, her monomania over the will is nuanced in that it is not wholly selfish, though her lack of thought for Dana is still one of its consequences. Her problematic and dysfunctional relationship with her daughter is very well crafted, as Dana loves her, but is frustrated by her behaviour and cutting remarks, which she unleashes when she doesn’t get her way. Dana was a good choice for female protagonist, as she is independent and competent enough, for the plot to not be veered down too many familiar or stereotypical routes. Unusually she is a medical artist, who takes films or sketches of operations, a job I’ve not come across before in fiction. The way we get to know Dana is also effectively done as she is slowly revealed to us, mostly by outside eyes, in particular Brook’s.
As I mentioned earlier Berckman includes a romantic triangle in her story, yet I find it to be written in a very refreshing manner. Brook’s unreasonable attitude towards hearing Dana is already engaged is well achieved and in fact his original motivations for helping Dana’s mother with her claim is to get back at Dana’s fiancé. Yet his emotional dilemmas do not overwhelm the plot and psychologically speaking I felt this triangle was very well detailed. The conclusion to it is tinged with irony, giving this book a realistic feel to it.
Some elements of the book did make me think briefly of the work of Mary Roberts Rinehart, in particular the nursing amateur sleuth and the creepy dark house, which is explored at night. Yet in some ways I don’t think Berckman is trying to wholly align herself with such works, but in some respects is updating it. For instance the stereotypical cinematic gothic image of a heroine opening a door only for bats to come swarming out, is domesticated and modernised to a swarm of moths. The quick recourse to a spray gun soon puts pain to any gothic potential, which is no bad thing, as in fact the real danger is just around the corner… The ending is atypical. The reader gets closure on the case, but Berckman doesn’t go in for rosy, red tinted endings, which fitted in well with the rest of the book.
Unsurprisingly if you do see this novel in your book hunting missions, I would recommend picking it up.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Blunt Instrument
Calendar of Crime: January (6) Original Publication Month