Potts is an author I’ve read reviews for, such as on the dead yesterday blog, I’ve included a number of her books in my Coffee and Crime boxes, and I’ve even read a short story by her in the short story collection: The Lethal Sex, but today is the first time I have got around to reading one of her novels… Well I got there eventually. That’s what counts.
My reading copy is a reprint from Stark House, and this is an extra special edition, as it includes an introduction from the highly esteemed vintage crime fiction blogger John Norris. John certainly has a talent for intro writing and I enjoyed how he concisely, yet very effectively considers the thematic content of the book, commenting on Potts’ ‘insight into the dark recesses of human imagination and its powerful hold’ and the way ‘thoughts imprison her characters.’ John draws upon Potts’ short story work, as well as some of her other novels, giving the reader a helpful snapshot overview. Returning to the intro after reading the novel, I can definitely say it doesn’t just hit one nail on the head, but a series of them and I agree that Potts’ ‘showed no mercy for her troubled, complex and ultimately fascinating characters.’ But now let’s hear what the book is about…
The story begins with the announcement of Rose Henshaw’s death. To begin with it is decided it was an accidental fall down the cellar steps. Yet when her sister comes for the funeral, she is soon adamant that it was no accident and when another doctor examines the body, it seems she has a point. But when it comes to who is the guilty party, is she also right? However, the narrative primarily stays with Rachel Buckmaster, who returns to Coreyville when she learns of Rose’s death. After all Rose was the family housekeeper, who raised her and her brother Hartley when they were children, and she was still keeping house for Hartley now in the family home. Yet Rose is no beloved family retainer. Instead she is the figment of nightmares, her iron fist still ruling the roost and making its mark on the psyches of the Buckmaster family. She is not even a loss to the town as whole, being a rather unpopular sort. However, her death becomes a problem when Hartley is arrested for it. From the start he doesn’t help himself, as even before the arrival of Rose’s sister, he was seen going around asking people where he was during that fatal afternoon; his memory of it having vanished. It is also well known that he had a big argument with the victim when she had maliciously burnt all of his drawings. Thankfully his sister and girlfriend are made of sterner stuff and they are determined to see Hartley proven innocent.
This is a very accomplished debut novel by Potts, which in its characters and its narrative voice, doesn’t pull any punches. Having an unpleasant person as a victim is not unusual in crime fiction, but I think it is more different that Rose, who has the overbearing control and power of a rich family matriarch, is in fact the housekeeper. The roles in that household seem to be reversed, with the family members living in fear of their paid employee. A servant with clout did also give the setup a Dickensian like feel. Yet whilst the reader will feel sympathy for Hartley and Rachel, they are not presented as infallible or perfect people.
The narrative is partially an indirect discourse, as I think some of Rachel’s attitudes towards certain characters, bleed into the narration. None more so than when it comes to Bix Bovard, Hartley’s girlfriend, whose rough and ready manners and bad habits make her not entirely popular with Rachel. Our first description echoes this critical attitude:
‘Her eyes were, in fact, beautiful, and always had been […] But her lipstick was smeared on with a fine disregard for the natural boundaries of her mouth. And her hair! It was straight, light-brown in colour, and Bix had apparently cut it herself. In a poor light. With a dull pair of scissors.’
Those last two short sentences reveal Potts’ proficiency as a writer, showing her talent for making an impact with her use of language. Interestingly whilst Bix’s faults don’t tend to go away, I think the reader becomes more sympathetic towards her as Rachel’s own attitude thaws out and becomes more tolerant and appreciative of Bix’s good qualities. Though Potts before this point does let Rachel get in the odd sassy comment, which is quite enjoyable.
Character psychology is exceptionally well-crafted in this tale, especially in the final sequence of the novel. The psychological unhinging of the killer and their moment of downfall is captured brilliantly on the page, leaving the reader with a startling and unsettling ending, which has more than a hint of the Greek Tragedy about it.
From such a beginning I can’t wait to see how her talents and skills developed with practice over time, so stay tuned for another Jean Potts review next!
Source: Review Copy (Stark House)
Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Won an award
See also: This is the link to John Norris’ review of the novel.