I’ve only experienced Carey’s work in its short story format, so it has been brilliant to finally get the opportunity to try one of her longer efforts. Today’s read is the 2nd of the 8 novels that she wrote and in this Stark House reprint, I also got the added delight of an introduction by Curtis Evans. One of the key points I took away from the introduction was Curtis’ idea that ‘the most significant contribution of Bernice Carey to mid-century crime fiction was her commitment to exploring realistic social conditions in her novels.’ And for me this point was substantiated by the story under review today, but more on that later.
‘Twenty years ago, young Inez Bailey was strangled to death, and the killer was never found. On a trip to California to visit his sister, Chicago police inspector Roy Malley finds this old crime intriguing. He’s sure he could have discovered the murderer if it had been his crime to solve. Busman’s holiday or not, he starts to dig. And uncovers more than he intended when he sets the wheels in motion in this small community. Because the killer is still among them, a respected member of society, a family man and business owner. He is in tight control of himself, has been for years. But with just a little push, he could let himself go. But letting go is the one thing he can’t let himself do.’
Social realities emerge from the get-go in the opening scene in which a party takes place. We see a middle-aged couple, who are aware of how they’ve changed physically over the years, and who have a teenage daughter desperate to go out. There is the social anxiety over serving beer rather than cocktails. Yet these early seemingly inconsequential bricks of information ultimately help to construct a wall which comes tumbling down on at least one character at the end. In fact, this character even goes as far as blaming this very innocuous looking middle-class setup for their actions and I found this form of self-justification or internal rationalisation of consequences interesting. This recrimination against social constructs reminded me of the short story I read by Carey in the short story collection The Lethal Sex, where another culprit expounds an external locus of control, which points the finger at society.
Carey portrays the small-town mindset well and in recalling the cold case, the party guests reveal their own prejudices and social attitudes. Inez is quickly demarcated as a someone to be pitied, with “she couldn’t help being the way she was” type of sentiments. Yet in tension with this she is also seen as having had a bad reputation and as someone who had it coming to them at the same time. Her out of wedlock pregnancy is used to reinforce this point. However, full vilification is steered away from as a third of the way in, the narrative branches off in a bit of a different direction. Nevertheless, whilst we might see Inez in a different light today, I still think Carey was using this part of the plot as a vehicle for critiquing the milieu she was adopting.
One of the biggest red herrings of this story is the role of Roy Malley. He is the head of a homicide squad in Chicago, and as he begins to ferret out the story of Inez from the locals, we expect him, naturally, to then go and uncover the solution that the local police failed to find all those years ago. However, as I said above Carey’s narrative changes tack. Once Roy has fulfilled his role as the outsider getting the details on the cold case, he very much fades into the background, disappearing altogether three quarters of the way through. Instead of a conventional cold case mystery, such as The Five Little Pigs or Sleeping Murder, Carey switches the text into more of an inverted mystery. The culprit’s identity is discernible very early on and I think Carey meant this to be so. Rather than this being a whodunnit, Carey shifts the narrative into looking at the present day of the story, focusing on the environmental factors which needle someone into murder.
Having really enjoyed the character of Roy, I felt his absence was a bit of a shame, though I can completely see why he had to go from the story in order to achieve Carey’s aims. Nevertheless, I enjoyed Roy’s time in the novel. Despite his job title, his physical appearance does not live up to expectations, ‘not [being] beefy and tough and gimlet-eyed.’ Yet I probably liked him all the more for that. I would even say he presents a number of Miss Marple qualities. Firstly, there is his age and desk job role within the force, which move him away from the physically dynamic and active sleuth. Consequently, he relies a lot on using casual, gossipy conversation in order to unearth information. Remind you of anyone?
‘She had one weapon and one weapon only, and that was conversation.’ (A Caribbean Mystery)
Miss Marple is also echoed in this domestic description of Roy: ‘he’s a regular vacuum cleaner about getting dirt out of people.’
However, one point at which Miss Marple and Roy diverge is that whilst being a spinster is considered by Miss Marple to be ‘good camouflage,’ (Nemesis) as old ladies are expected ‘to ask questions’ and be ‘inquisitive’ (Nemesis), Roy is hampered by the expectations his job engenders. Police officers are also expected to ask questions, but this expectation does not encourage confidences to be shared, and instead Roy has to work at dissembling his police persona, in order to gain information that Miss Marple could probably ask for more easily.
I also found it interesting that book provides a gendered re-writing of experience and intuition. In The Murder at the Vicarage, Miss Marple describes these skills as ‘like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can’t do that because it has had so little experience. But a grown-up person knows the word because they’ve seen it often before.’ Conversely, in Carey’s more male voice dominated story we see intuition being dressed up in more professional garb:
‘It was part of his training and his long experience. You got so you sensed things; felt them without bothering to trace the tiny, almost imperceptible stimuli which gave you the hunch, the awareness that you were getting onto something […] There was nothing mystical, nothing actually mysterious about it. It was simply that a man’s brain and all his senses became unusually acute after being directed for years towards observation of other men. Nuances of behaviour, inflections of speech impressed themselves on the delicate perceptive apparatus of the mind, made associations which did not have to be followed precisely by conscious mental processes.’
In reading this book I hoped to gain a better understanding of what to expect from Carey’s work, yet in some respects I think the answer to that question, is to expect the unexpected. Her narrative resists predictable paths and I found the sinister ending of unconventional justice very effective. I can’t wait to try the second story in the Stark House reprint – The Three Widows, the plot for which sounds very exciting.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House)