No Known Grave (1958) by Evelyn Berckman

Despite the amount of time that has passed, the town of Rossiter still remembers the Guilfoy murder, which took 7 years ago. Coming home a day early for his leave, Lieutenant Vance Guilfoy is presumed to have beaten his wife to death, having disturbed her with a lover, and then disappeared. To the present day he has never been seen since. Guilfoy’s mother and brother want to submit Vance’s will for probate, given that the deadline is up, and he can be assumed to be dead. His will once realised would provide them with much needed funds, as the family bank balance has dropped precariously during the intervening years. Yet there is a problem, as Kate, Vance’s sister, says one night recently she heard him calling her and even had a short conversation with him. She is vehement that it was him. Her mother and brother believe she is either lying or mad and are furious that her testimony will jeopardise them getting the money. Only her uncle seems to be supportive of her. Kirk Halstead, a lawyer, is in town to wind up his deceased father’s affairs, and the Guildfoy clan share this information with him, wanting to know if they have to tell the police. He confirms that they do, yet his involvement in the matter is only beginning, as he is determined to figure out not only what really happened that fateful night 7 years ago, but also who was calling to Kate. But will his investigation endanger her life?

Overall Thoughts

Berckman sets up Rossiter as a town which has changed little on the outside. On the opening page we are told that the residents of this place: ‘were proud of the local colour of their district, and determined to embalm it, unchanged and unspoiled. This had resulted in the strange phenomenon that was Rossiter – a museum-piece on a large scale, full of American Gothic near-castles in grey stone…’ Later in the story it is said that this was a town ‘where time stood still as if preserved under glass.’ This static nature is therefore rudely interrupted by the resurgence of the cold case.

This is a cold case with two mysteries to solve. Firstly, there is the question of whether Vance is still alive and if so where has he been hiding all this time? The second issue is whether he committed the original murder. Although Kirk grew up in Rossiter, he has been far from home for a while, since the time he was involved in the Korean war. Therefore, he is acting somewhat as an outsider and his contact within the D. A. office is surprisingly hostile and uncooperative.

Cold cases invariably have slow beginnings, and this is to be expected, given the time that has usually lapsed. Nevertheless, I think Berckman takes this too far as the investigation makes little head way. Evidence in the present day comes very late in the book and is less something to be explained and merely delivers the solution as a fait accompli. New information trickles in incredibly slowly. The fact Kirk lacks Miss Marple’s conversational skills does not help. As the book progresses, since Kirk is operating alone pretty much, it feels like he is clutching at straws and working very theoretically, though Berckman conveniently has the facts later fit Kirk’s ideas. The hard part is seeing how he picks up on them in the first place. The final third of the novel includes a surprise for Kirk and the readers, yet I feel once it is the revealed the whole solution is tumbled. On the whole I think Kirk is very lucky to get the success that he does in this case.

So, all in all I was a bit surprised by my final rating. I didn’t expect to be awarding such a lower rating to one of Berckman’s novels, given that my other two reads by her attained 4.5/5.

Rating: 3.75/5

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