As with McGerr’s other novel, Pick Your Victim (1946), this story is bookended with narrative frame, though this time it is a young newly married couple in England. Sally has moved to the UK from New York, yet 3 months in she receives a letter from an old school friend, who cryptically offers condolences for the news that her aunt has confessed to poisoning her husband and has subsequently committed suicide. The tantalising problem for Sally is that she has seven aunts, so she has no idea which one was the killer and who the victim was. Dismissing the notion of ringing up her family, they decide to go to London the next day to hunt through past newspapers to find out more details. Of course Sally cannot get to sleep so to while away the small hours Peter, her husband, has her describe her life up until he met her, detailing all of the highs and lows for her aunts, who in the intervening years get married. Oh boy do they have problems! One aunt is an alcoholic. Another causes extreme pain and distress to several of her sisters through her tendency to fool around with their spouses, the latter men being taken out of spite, for the one man she never fully stole. At the centre of this chaos is Aunt Clara, matriarch and queen bee, whose choice to railroad her sisters into marriages, could arguably be said to be the root of everyone’s problems. After all there is definitely one sister who should never have been pushed into matrimony, given that she would much rather just have a platonic relationship… One sister puts it well when she says to Clara: ‘You think you can solve any problem by getting people married off […] Then we’re supposed to live happily ever after. Well, we’re not living in fairy tales. Our troubles didn’t dissolve at the altar. They multiplied there.’
I think I had a lukewarm reaction to this book, though I can see how someone could get really into it. But first of all, there are the narrative bookends, which did not feel as convincing as the one setup in Pick Your Victim. The reluctance to ring anyone up to find out what happened boggles and of course Sally’s incredible memory for detail does seem a little too incredible. However, with this type of book you just have to accept these parameters if you are going to get anything out of it.
I like the concept of McGerr’s experiment in this book and Pick Your Victim, of having one character reveal a wealth of information on a group of people from which you have to identify the answer to whodunnit. It is armchair detection at its most extreme. Yet I think a key drawback this type of structure has, is that the bulk of the story is a near continuous flashback and consequently for most of the book the story doesn’t feel like a mystery, which is a little disconcerting. For me, I think McGerr needed to intrude Sally and Peter’s presence into the book more strongly throughout, rather than having them mostly at the beginning and the end. In some ways this book might be ideal for readers who would not consider themselves mystery fiction fans, as the majority of the story probably would allow them to forget that this book was amongst that genre.
I also have to admit that this was quite a depressing read, as the turmoil and despair of these 7 aunts does make for rather a sad tale. It very much makes the case for many women being far happier single, even if they are shackled with the label spinster, than marrying anyone. One thing that did surprise me was the fact the victim had to be one of the husbands, as quite frankly I think there were two prime candidates for the role within the huddle of sisters. Clara was definitely my top choice for obvious murder victim, seconded by Doris, the husband stealer.
If you pay a little more attention than me, you will probably pick out the victim of the mystery quite easily. I think at the key moment my concentration was interrupted so I didn’t quite finish thinking a plot element through, a thought which if completed would have shown me the correct conclusion to make. Though in terms of the killer I would say it is all to play for. The concluding pages shared between Sally and Peter work a little out of kilter with the intense tragedy of the narrative concerning the aunts. Their lack of emotional response seemed a tad inappropriate. However I guess this is the risk you take with experiments. I think it is a book which has much to interest readers, but I wouldn’t read it for its puzzle element.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Poisoning
Calendar of Crime: September (7) Book Title Word Starts with S