Husbands beware in The Three Widows (1952) by Bernice Carey

In some ways this is part 2 of the review I posted on Saturday, as the Stark House reprints have the bonus of including two stories in one book. Today’s read is Carey’s 5th novel and Curtis Evans, in his introduction, notes that this book ‘has a more satirical, mordantly humorous tone,’ which definitely sounded like my sort of thing!

Synopsis

‘The Bladeswells are on vacation, travelling by car from Omaha to California. While in Santa Cruz, they hear about a man found dead on the beach, which brings to mind a similar event which occurred while the couple were vacationing in Yellowstone – a man found dead with no identification on him. When Mr Bladeswell hears about another similar case in Yosemite, he begins to wonder if there isn’t someone on a select killing spree. The next night finds them at a cabin resort in Escondido, where they join their hometown friend Chet. The unmarried Chet is enjoying the attention of three older women vacationers, all recently widowed. This sets Mr Bladeswell to thinking – three dead men and three widowed women – that perhaps there is more than coincidence at work here… that maybe one of them is a murderer.’

Overall Thoughts

If you want to get a feel for 1950s America, then the opening of this book is essential reading. Carey brilliantly conveys en masse, tourist/holiday consumer culture in the first few pages with passages such as this:

‘All day the cars had shooting along the broad road, which, like an assembly belt, passed them over the crest of the mountains […] When the flow of traffic had swept them as close as possible to the shore and dropped them in a broadening mass like delta sands, the doors opened, and the people poured forth like brightly coloured birds suddenly released from cages.’

Yet these moments are more than local colour or excursions into travelogue writing, as in fact Carey creates a crescendo of description which emphasises innocent holiday fun, only to then have it crash down like a big wave. Hordes of holidaymakers, after all, make great anonymity for an elusive killer…

Melvin Bladeswell’s entry into the book and his learning of the three deaths of unidentifiable middle-aged men, is well-handled. Whilst it is convenient for him to have made friends with a local policeman and a ranger, Carey doesn’t go overboard and so this convenience of connections is not excessive. I really liked how this set of circumstances begins to get under Melvin’s skin, as he considers how his own wife could go about bumping him off. As he decides that there could be a woman eliminating her husbands for their money, his reaction is one of impotence, as well as fear that there could be some kind of mariticide epidemic. His insecurity here is played mostly with gentle comedy and returns in full force at the conclusion of the novel, though perhaps with a darker tinge.

Once Melvin encounters the three widows: Mrs Smith, Mrs Fergusson and Mrs Meadows, all of whom are competing with one another for Chet’s attentions, his imagination is further fuelled, worrying that his friend might be one of the widow’s next victims. Carey deploys this part of the plot effectively, as we cannot be sure whether Melvin is on to something or whether he is imagining horrors which aren’t there. His wife, Elsie, is not kept in the loop with his ruminations. Yet, whilst she appears to be a docile wife, Carey sometimes uses her in quite a subversive manner and she is definitely not a character to be written off by the reader, despite her more minor role in the book.

We get to encounter Melvin, Chet and Elsie’s thoughts on the three women, and I think at times it is the latter’s whose is the sharpest, though of course outwardly she is the embodiment of politeness and civility:

‘Mrs Bladeswell smiled in response. Mrs Bladeswell felt that someone should tell Mrs Meadows that she was past the age for giggling. It was even more obvious in the daylight – her being past the age, that is.’

The uneasiness and tension in this book increase as the plot unfolds, so initially there is more comedy than terror, with both of the Bladeswells mentally chalking up points for each of the widows, trying to see who is likely to win the heart of Chet and hoping their favourites will win.

There is also a wonderful section in the book in which Melvin decides to read a mystery novel, thinking it might help him with his current concerns. Yet in some ways I think this is more of an opportunity for Carey to have a cheeky poke at whodunnits and hard-boiled mysteries:

‘A little frown grew between Mr Bladeswell’s eyes as he penetrated deeper into the book. The characters seemed to spend an unconscionable amount of time and energy spying on each other […] A good deal of this behaviour was practised in the dead of night, embellished by ominous creaks of doors and ghostly footsteps on stairs […] The irritatingly knowing detective whose presence in the party was somewhat improbably explained outdid all the others in snooping, ransacking bedrooms and drawers and suitcases and even the ladies’ handbags with perfect immunity and – as it turned out – with perfect success. Not of course, without several close shaves, and not without having been knocked unconscious three times from blows on the head any one of which would have produced concussion in an ordinary skull with a resultant period of hospitalisation […] By the time had had finished the last page Mr Bladeswell had forgotten all the clues laid out in the first fifty pages and couldn’t even remember whom he had first suspected nor why he had done so. He just dumbly accepted the author’s involved but glib explanation of motives and methods.’

Yet perhaps the final irony is that the book does influence Melvin to go and do some snooping of his own, albeit with mixed success.

In keeping with The Man Who Got Away with It, the clues are less certain, though the culprit does become identifiable. Yet I think Carey in both books, is steering away from the concept that a mystery novel is solely about who did it. For her it is more a case of whether people will get away with their misdeeds and how fate and strained nerves might instead entrap them. There is a Greek tragedy edge to the piece and one place in which this is felt, in particular, is when the reader has access to the minds of the three widows, who are mulling over their married lives. Men who are too timid or too bossy are aggravating, yet perhaps it is the man who is excessively dull who has had the most negative impact on his wife. This is a theme which is picked up at the closing of the novel in an effective but quite surprising way.

This is not a mystery in which an amateur sleuth can go all guns blazing. Social niceties have to be observed. Hands are tied on what actions can be taken. Yet all of this gives the narrative a more naturalistic vibe and I enjoyed how the tension increases, leading you to wonder how and in what direction it will finally erupt.

So all in all I’ve very much enjoyed my first two encounters with Carey’s novels and I definitely think I will be looking out for more in the future.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House)

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