The Noonday Devil (1951) by Ursula Curtiss

It is a chance encounter in a bar, which leads Andrew Sentry onto the path to unmasking his brother’s killer. A stranger, who notices Andrew’s surname, remarks that he knew a man of that name in the army. That man of course is Andrew’s brother Nick. Nick had died 6 years, having been killed by his captors when he tried to escape from as Japanese prisoner of war camp. However, the guard who caught him shouldn’t have been at the place Nick tried to escape through and the man at the bar says that another of their group blamed a fellow prisoner, called Sands, for betraying Nick to the guards. It just so happens that Nick and Sands were overheard the previous day, with the former threatening to reveal something disreputable about the latter when they got back home. Equally Sands was distrusted in general by the other prisoners for his tendency to fraternise with the enemy and the fact he was slow to respond to people calling his name. Andrew regards Sands’ presumed actions as murder and is determined to find him and bring him to justice. Yet as with many a cold case, Andrew does not have much to go on: A few names of fellow prisoners, the hope of a postcard Nick sent to his fiancée Sarah. It also goes without saying that Andrew’s probing into the past does more than ruffle some feathers, bringing violent consequences instead. It quickly becomes apparent that Sands must be one of a closed set of suspects and even those ruled out by gender cannot be wholly trusted. The most suspicious of accomplices for Andrew, is Sarah. What game is she really playing? Why is she so reluctant to help?

Overall Thoughts

Curtiss picks an unusual setup and backdrop for her cold case mystery. So very often with this type of story you wonder how the protagonist will be able to solve something buried in the past. Sometimes this is less than plausible, but I think Curtiss makes a good job of that angle in the story, providing an interesting background and motivation. Though in a way she does cut a corner by having Andrew lure the killer into coming out into the open, unsure of his identity, rather than having him figure out who he is exactly beforehand. For me, I would have liked it to be more feasible for the reader to pick out the identity of Sands before the revealing moment.

Curtiss’ style is a little tricky to pigeon hole in this book. Her use of the postcard clue defies the golden age mode, but the story definitely has a hardboiled/Chandler-esque twang to it, which you can see in lines such as ‘It was, at the moment, nearly deserted. It didn’t look at all like the place where destiny, set in motion by the incalculables, would place violent hands on Sentry’s life’ and ‘Sentry stepped out into a night that curled coolly around him like giant leaves of silk…’ Andrew also embodies some elements of the isolated stand alone private investigator, with a distrustful and complicated relationship with the opposite sex. However, I think Curtiss is very playful with this component of the book, as Sarah is introduced into the story as an anti-heroine, a woman who was seemingly caught cheating on her fiancée, the day the news of his death is delivered. But is there more to her than there seems?

SPOILER WARNING FOR NEXT PARAGRAPH

Yet for all the darkness of this book, Curtiss also tries to incorporate a comedy of misunderstandings element as well. This works perfectly fine, but part of me thinks it cleared up the ambiguity surrounding Sarah a little too early for the reader, who is privy to more information than Andrew. In a way this extra info earmarks Sarah’s role too soon for the reader. Personally, I think the reader should have been left more unsure about her for longer.

SAFE TO RESUME READING

Like in her books, such as The Deadly Climate (1955), Curtiss is a dab hand at maintaining tension and suspense and today’s read is no different. She builds up the idea of a cat and mouse game between Andrew and Sands very effectively, especially in the way their roles keep switching. I enjoyed the way Andrew tries to build up a picture of the man who contributed to his brother’s death and in a way his surname made me think of the folklore figure, the sandman. Although of course Sands is more of a reverse sandman, bringing troubled dreams, rather than nice ones: ‘As he had the night before, Sands came like a mist to take possession of his dreaming brain.’

Curtiss deals with a lot of sensitive material, in particular death and the prisoner of war life for Japanese captives. However, she doesn’t allow the reader to become depressed or overwhelmed by it, as she uses the topic material in a sparing and concise fashion. Though the tone of this book in general does not lean towards sentimentalism; violence and death, is precisely and briefly disclosed and not over-emotionalised. I think that was the right tone for the piece and fitted with the steady pace of the plot, which doesn’t drag.

So, another good read from Curtiss, which thankfully is not too hard to procure second hand. Are there any other books by her that I should get my mitts on?

Rating: 4.25/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Title with a literary allusion in

Calendar of Crime: March (8) Month Related Item on the Cover (Something Green)

Miscellaneous: A character description which struck me during my reading of the book, which also exemplifies Curtiss’ enjoyable writing style:

‘he bore the air of having been carved out of soap, nicely tinted, and set up as a convincing dummy for Mr Farrar who was unfortunately unable to be present.’

14 comments

  1. I’d be interested to read what you think of THE FORBIDDEN GARDEN (US paperback retitled Whatever Happened to Aunt Alice? to capitalize on the 1969 movie adaptation). It falls into the “badass biddy” subgenre which is my own made up term for crime fiction about matronly murderesses. I have a perhaps altogether unhealthy penchant for them, my guilty pleasure subgenre in all of crime fiction.

    Another one you ought to try out is OUT OF THE DARK, a crime novel that uses the premise of teen girls making prank phone calls gone terribly wrong as its chilling plot springboard. I don’t think kids make prank phone calls anymore because they’re too busy texting each other and disappearing into the online world of videos and social media to ever think about randomly making phone calls to strangers and saying ridiculous things. In fact I think online pranks are far more cruel and insidious (rather than playful and silly as prank phone calls were) because of the near total anonymity they provide. Curtiss’ book is probably a novelty and a curiosity to anyone not born in the age of rotary telephone. Try to find a copy of OUT OF THE DARK. Severn House, a UK publisher who primarily sold to libraries, reprinted it in 1986. You might be able to find a copy in a local library in your part of the world. I think you’re young enough to have a very fresh take on it without being nostalgic as I would be.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the Curtiss recommendations. They do sound suitably intriguing. Still chuckling at your subgenre of badass biddies! They’re not impossible to buy second hand so I will probably take that route, as unfortunately my local library’s crime section is somewhat pithy and only holds less than a handful of what we could call “vintage” crime reads.

      Like

    • Nice phrase, badass biddy. I just finished Tursten’s An Elderly Lady is up to No Good, which is a pleasantly droll example.

      According to rumors the ultimate b.a.b. is Jane Marple in Sarah Phelps’s coming adaptation of Pocketful of Rye, where Miss Marple, drunk as usual on Canadian Rye Whisky gnaws the liver out of her bound and gagged BDSM lover, who is also the murderer. “Mrs Flowers, the parson’s wife, used to get children in St Mary Mead to confess by gnawing on their kidneys you see, which is what gave me the idea. There is more cannibalism in your typical English village than in the greatest metropolis.”

      Like

  2. This was the one that made me a Curtiss fan though, as I realized later, it isn’t a typical of book of hers. My favourite however is the (unsurprisingly) lesser-known but extremely good THE STAIRWAY which happens to be both easily available and cheap – two qualities rarely associated with my recommendations! 😉

    If you are curious and want to know more, you may want to read Curtis’ review at The Passing Tramp – I even have a cameo in the comments!

    Like

Leave a Reply to prettysinister Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.