The Menace Within (1979) by Ursula Curtiss

This is my third read by this author and probably also my least favourite. But hey at least it’s no longer in my TBR pile, (which I think has had too much Christmas pudding, chocolates and mince pies – seriously when did it get so big?)

The story begins on the day before Christmas Eve, with Amanda Morley arriving at the local hospital intensive care unit where her aunt, Jane Balsam, is residing since her stroke. She is paralysed on her right-hand side and is unable to speak. Amanda is close to her aunt and promises to pop round and water her plants, feed her Afghan hound, Apple, as well as the palomino horse, Drougette. Curtiss very slowly ramps up the sense of unease through the limited movement in Jane’s face. Is she distressed due to her physical state? Or is there something else bothering her? What does she wish to communicate to Amanda?

The reader gets an inkling when the first chapter ends with Amanda ensconced in her aunt’s home, awaiting fresh attempts to figure out where Apple has gone:

‘Sixteen feet below her, in a steel-reinforced concrete room whose trapdoor was concealed by tranquil gray-blue shag rug, the man who killed Ellie Peale was beginning to pace dangerously, and to rage at the pain in his hand.’

At this point the story goes back in time a little to learn about this man’s brother, Harvey, and how various events led to him concealing his wanted sibling in the bomb shelter beneath Jane’s house. Of course, we now know that Amanda is in a heap of danger, yet this dilemma, which she hasn’t realised she’s in gets worse, as it just so happens that she is also babysitting a friend’s two-year-old daughter. What forces matters to a head is the increasingly short window of time Harvey has to affect his brother’s escape.

Overall Thoughts

The narrative goes through a series of stages. It is the reader who possesses the most information on the situation, anticipating the eventual collision of characters, who all have different agendas. We then have the central trio sequentially realising they’re not alone, with Harvey having the most informed perspective. The remainder of the book then charts the criminals’ attempts to make a clean get away, yet fate intervenes against both the plans of Harvey, Amanda and Justin – the latter being a love interest of Amanda’s, whose path eventually crosses her own. All of these stages make sense and the different narrative strands coherently intertwine. Yet for all that I didn’t find myself hugely engaged, and I think this might have been because as the reader I knew too much ahead of time, which meant there was little suspense. The only question left unanswered until the end was whether Amanda and the child would survive, but I don’t think that it is a particularly taxing problem to solve. However, the opening of the story and the setup of the problem the central trio land in is effectively managed, in particular having Jane struggling to warn Amanda was a nice touch. Nevertheless, the way the plot then develops felt a bit too B-movie-ish for me.

However, the pacing is relatively okay as the book takes place in less than a day and the setup provides an interesting variant on the concept of danger being inside a group. This book does not have a true closed set of suspects, nor is it set on a cut off island, yet there is still a strong sense of the characters being trapped with one another. Additionally, Curtiss also has an amusing turn of phrase such as the opening line: ‘No doubt because of her function here, the nurse on duty at the intensive-care unit desk has somewhat the appearance of a bulldog adorned with lipstick and glasses.’ It’s the sort of image that sticks in your head.

So, all in all, I’m not sure Curtiss is quite the author for me, as I’ve not been engaged or drawn to her stories as much as I have to other writers working in a similar subgenre. Though I won’t say I was completely adverse to giving another of her titles a go.

Rating: 3.75/5

10 comments

    • Sort of similar, though I think there is a greater emphasis on the psychological in Curtiss’ work, perhaps more in keeping with Charlotte Armstrong. Though I admit it is quite hard to differentiate those operating in the suspense subgenre. The more I read of 40s and 50s writers, the more I find the suspense label is quite vague and not fully able to encapsulates what each individual writer is trying to do.

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  1. Curtiss is one of my favourite writers; she writes beautifully, and for me there’s a moral quality in her work which is lacking in most crime novels. But this is probably the book of hers that I’ve liked the least, of the ones I’ve read.

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      • Well, I think our tastes differ somewhat, because I loved ‘The Deadly Climate’ and ‘The Noonday Devil’, which I believe you’ve read without being overwhelmed by. I liked ‘The Face of the Tiger’ very much and I would particularly recommend ‘Hours to Kill – Curtiss portrays the child in it brilliantly. I also liked ‘Voice out of Darkness’, ‘In Cold Pursuit’, and her last book, ‘Death of a Crow’ – though my daughter, who’s also a big fan, found it just too oblique. Of course all her books, or most of them, follow a similar pattern – there’s a woman in jeopardy and there’s a helpful man. I guess that’s not a good recipe as far as present day thinking is concerned, but I find that fairy tale pattern deeply satisfying.

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      • I’m not against fairy tale patterns and don’t mind the odd helpful man, but I tend to get more irked if the female is exhibiting excessive nincompoop symptoms. I’ll bear the titles you mention in mind if I give Curtiss another whirl, though the moment I am working on making a dent in my TBR pile.

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  2. I read Curtis a fair bit in the past – I think I have that exact edition you show above, and enjoyed them. You are inspiring me to take a look at her again. I haven’t blogged on her, I don’t think.

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