I was very excited when I received another Stark House twofer in the post and even better it was two more stories from Jean Potts. The icing on the cake was that there was another introduction by J. F. Norris. I enjoyed my first two experiences of Potts very much – Go, Lovely Rose (1954) and The Evil Wish (1962) – and the latter was even my second choice for the 2019 Reprint of the Year Awards. In keeping with his intros for these last two reads, John hits the nail on the head with this latest introduction pointing out Potts’ ‘fascination for the dark underbelly of American suburbia.’ It was also interesting to read John’s suggestion that ‘she is the bridge between the domestic suspense […] and […] noir crime fiction.’ This is an idea strongly evidenced in Home is the Prisoner. John goes onto write that this tale is ‘constructed like a detective novel’ yet ‘Potts is not solely concerned with ex-con Jim’s transformation into an amateur sleuth eager to solve the crime he never committed. Potts uses the solving of the murder mystery as a framework for plumbing the emotional depths of her characters.’
But before I share my thoughts on this story here is a quick synopsis:
‘Jim Singley has served his time. Accused of killing his business partner, he left a lot of bad feelings in Athena – but now he’s back. Back to a wife who hates him, a son who has been raised to despise him, and a town full of folks who wish he were dead. But Jim has some unfinished business. There is his former partner’s wife, Audrey, now married to someone else. And her daughter, Cleo, the only one who spoke up for him at the trial, corroborating his defence when no one else would. There’s Matt, his only real friend, harbouring a long-kept secret. And Wayne, the son who has been raised to hate, ready to explode with unanswered questions. Athena is a town that can never forgive, but Jim won’t leave until he’s confronted them all.’
In the way Celia Fremlin captures the social awkwardness people suffer around those who are recently bereaved, (catch Moira’s latest post on The Long Shadow, at her blog Clothes in Books,) Potts depicts in subtle and effective fashion how people are caught off guard when someone returns home having served prison time for manslaughter. Everyone, including those who are friendly towards him, are unsure how to interact with him and it is not long before Jim’s presence ignites a lot of animosity towards him – since of course most of the town’s inhabitants are sure he murdered his business partner deliberately, rather than it being an accidental death during a quarrel. Additionally, some of this aggression is partly a defence and fear mechanism as everyone wants to know why Jim has returned to Athena.
All of this is skilfully captured on the page and one of the narrative’s focuses is Wayne, who is struggling between the hatred fed to him by his mother and his dim memories of a father who loved him. There is an increasingly desperate desire within him to know what really happened that fatal night. In true Potts fashion the characters who are law abiding and respectable are the ones to be shown up in this text and those with a more tarnished character are revealed to have hidden goodness. Amongst all of this we have these moments which John describes as a ‘Potts Punch’: ‘Like a sudden left jab in a boxing match Jean Potts will give you a dainty description and then go in for the kill with a few perfectly chosen words.’
The truth about what really happened slowly seeps out, its flow interrupted by the arrival of other characters and telephone calls, with Jim’s pursuit of the truth muddied by the grievances of others. The pains of those closest to Jim tend to scream the loudest in this text and in contrast to these characters, we get inside Jim’s head much less, making him an enigmatic figure. Unlike The Evil Wish, I think this story lacked as chilling and stark a finale, though there is still a showdown where anything could happen.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)