Five narrators tell the story of the murder of Katherine Ballou; all of whom live next door to her and one of whom is her killer. The narrative begins with a more outside perspective, that of the domestic help June. She works for the Ayres family and from her not only do we discover the body, but we also get one angle on the blossoming romance between Bettina Ayres and Matthew Chaves. Chaves blew into the lives of Ayres family when he came to visit Katherine, a work colleague, soon to be ex-one when he ups and leaves his well-paying job to work as a deck hand on a ferry. Understandably Bettina’s mother fears Matthew is a fortune hunter and a wastrel; a point of view which is elaborated on when Bettina’s mother, Lucille, takes over the narrative. We also discover that Lucille’s husband, Harry was having an affair with Katherine. Following on from Lucille’s story, we then hear from Harry, Bettina and Richard. Each narrator pushes the story along a step further, with the local police investigation taking place over a day, whilst also providing a different slant on the events mentioned by previous narrators. Suffice to say life will never be the same for this family by the time the killer is revealed…
I really enjoyed this book as my rating below shows. Multiple narrators are not the rarest of things to come across, but Ellin’s adept handling of this element is. Ellin effectively uses his cast of storytellers to slowly, piece by piece, reveal the family, their past and what has happened recently with the death of Ballou. More importantly though the author is very good at using these different narrators to shape your views on characters, in particular the readers’ views on Matthew. In addition, whilst narrators do refer back to events previously mentioned they manage to do so in a new and refreshing way. There isn’t a sense of information being overly repeated, as each narrator is quite selective in how they talk about matters. In some ways I would this book is like a kaleidoscope whose central image, page by page, slots into place. Incidentally, this might just be me, but I was strongly reminded of J. B. Priestley’s Inspector Calls (1945), in the way the text moves from character to character, revealing inner imperfections; especially those related to gender and class ideals. From a plot and character point of view this is a gripping story which you feel compelled to read at a rapid rate of knots, yet I think it is also an interesting book to examine in light of the perspectives it raises on social class and middle class notions of respectability, as well as on the theme of women and how tyrannical the homemaker role can be made. I would equally say masculinity takes a bit of a pounding in the book, particularly when it comes to Harry who is depicted as rather weak willed and self-interested. Perhaps it is a sign of the changing times that in this story the issue of the extra-marital affair is given a far more in depth and central coverage than it might have done in earlier mystery novels, with both Lucille and Harry’s viewpoints being shown.
I’ve not checked yet what else Ellin has wrote, but if it is as good as this novel, then I can’t wait to try it. Recommendations, as always, are gratefully received.
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Book Made into TV/Film/Play (A Double Tour (1959), directed by Claude Chabrol)
Calendar of Crime: April (6) Original Publication Month