Deadlock (1952) by Ruth Fenisong

Earlier this week I reviewed the first story in the Ruth Fenisong twofer recently released by Stark House and now it is time to take a look at the second one. Deadlock was declared by Anthony Boucher as ‘one of the ten best crime novels of 1952,’ according to Curtis Evans, (who writes the twofer’s introduction). So, my expectations for this one were certainly raised. But were they met?

Synopsis

‘Glen Williams is dead, shot through the chest. Lieutenant Gridley Nelson, Acting Captain of Homicide, has more than enough suspects since Williams had a large circle of friends to whom he offered hope and encouragement. To Joss and Morgan Woodruff he promised patronage for Morgan’s song-writing talents. To Tom Gaudio, help in promoting his photography. To Sarah Thrace, a has-been actress, he offered the chance of a comeback. And to Fred and Dora Storch, he promised care for their [son who has Downs Syndrome]. Williams gathered them all around him like a guardian angel. But did he intend to deliver on his promises? Could one of his dear friends have had a reason to kill him?’

Overall Thoughts

Deadlock has a deceptively powerful opening. The story begins by describing the ‘indications of violence [which] were isolated in the large room’ and then our attention is shifted to the man smiling on the sofa. Is he indolently alive, or is he dead? The narrative is slippery on this point until a girl enters his apartment and confirms the cessation of life. Her first words are telling: ‘Just my luck […] Just my luck.’ The story then moves from group to group: two couples and an actress and her young escort, who is a photographer. Most of these characters are stamped with the mark of poverty in one way or another, which sharply contrasts with the opulent surroundings of Glen Williams, the dead man of opening scene.

Anthony Boucher puts it well when he wrote that Fenisong is adept at achieving the ‘extraordinary task of fully characterising [someone] who never appears alive.’ Each comment made about Glen by his social circle casts a light upon him, sometimes more so with what the comments do not say. I think Fenisong deploys the trope of the manipulative philanthropist very well in this story, mainly because a lot of the dead man’s generosity was hot air and empty words. His youth also makes him an unusual victim, as normally rich patrons tends to be on the older side. His naivety adds a certain slant to his character. The narrative moves around the various “flies” Glen has caught in his web, though it is a web of an unusual construct and it doesn’t take long to find out that some of the flies were getting restless. I felt the passage below was quite revealing when it comes to Glen’s personality:

‘He had been a man who wanted desperately to stick his fingers in other people’s pies, who interpreted a normal desire for privacy as base ingratitude, whose need was not for people but for puppets he could manipulate to his own greater glory.’

This desire to intrude in people’s lives makes an intriguing variation on the annoying busybody we often find in crime fiction. Fenisong is very engaging in the way she shows the effect Glen’s death has on those around him, at times creating distance between characters.

Fenisong is quite sensitive in the way she depicts the couple who have a child with Downs Syndrome, intensely portraying at times the emotional agony the parents go through. They fully love their child, but that doesn’t make the day to day care of him easy to manage, especially given their financial difficulties. The child’s role in the story is a moving one to say the least.

Tom Gaudio is also an interesting character, as his sorrow over Glen’s death is more to do with his own selfish reasons. Furthermore, in an intoxicated state, Tom thickens the mystery plot by throwing out assertions as to who killed Glen, as well as information that Joss was Glen’s lover, which certainly seems to be news to her. But is she telling the truth? Tom is something of a loose cannon and one wonders whether he is spreading suspicion to hide his own motive for ending Glen’s life.

Lieutenant Gridley Nelson arrives on the scene in chapter three. He proves adept at enabling secrets to fall out of suspects, though he is not infallible, getting the wrong end of the stick at times. Though this case is quite a difficult one, emotionally speaking and I think Gridley handles that side of things very well. He is sympathetic but no push over. In terms of the mystery I would say there is one aspect that the reader will anticipate ahead of Gridley, yet when it comes to the most crucial elements Fenisong thoroughly lead me up the garden path. Just when I thought I had solved the case very early on too!

So this concludes the Fenisong twofer and I think both stories have whetted my appetite for more by this author. Her tales are not cosy, with the more painful aspects of life being carefully woven into the fabric of the text, but neither are they gory, nor overwhelmed by despair – even when the ending avoids fairy-tale-like closure. I look forward to seeing what Stark House bring out next!

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House)

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