Last year, Stark House reprinted Carey’s The Man Who Got Away With It (1950) and The Three Widows (1952). Next month will see the release of this latest Carey twofer. Today I am reviewing the first title in the collection, which was the author’s second novel and hopefully in the next day or two I will be taking a look at the second, The Reluctant Murderer, (which so happens to be her debut novel).
‘A body is found outside the Grady home, a man whom they all know, shot in the back. There is no getting around the fact that someone in the family must have done it. Then the murder weapon is found, with several different family fingerprints on it. And what was once a fairly stable group quickly dissolves into suspicion and distrust. The police decide to arrest the son, Don, who seems to be the most likely suspect. His sister Pauline believes the crime was committed by friends of Don’s, a couple she does not approve of. Peggy was the last to see the victim, and is wracked with guilt. The youngest sister, Maureen, just wants to be left alone. And their mother, Mamie, is torn between them all. But which one pulled the trigger? And who will pay the price?’
Curtis Evans, as we have come to expect, writes a concise, yet entertainingly informative introduction to this reprint. When discussing Carey alongside other female authors of the time, Curtis remarks that:
‘Murder in their skilful hands was not merely a problem to be solved but an event to be experienced as real people experienced real crime – with intense feelings of terror, recrimination, agony, suspense and, in the end perhaps (or perhaps not), some measure of relief.’
This textual shift to focusing on the consequences of the crime on the killer and the suspects seems to be a consistent feature of post-WW2 mystery genre. What also perhaps gives this story a convincingly naturalistic feel is how the Grady family is made up. This is no parents and 2.5 children, but very much an extended family, composed of grown up children from two marriages, with at least one discarded husband making an appearance, along with the younger generation’s own spouses and offspring. You would expect Mamie Grady, to be pilloried for her erratic love life, and some of her children certainly harbour resentment over the consequences it brought them, yet the text is very even handed. It notes how Mamie’s behaviour did affect her kids, but equally doesn’t condemn her.
Yet as Curtis notes Carey was a ‘progressive thinker’ and this extends to her attitudes towards race equality. Don very much stands alone in his family, aside from his wife, in passionately believing in race equality and this issue weaves itself into the murder, which is quite literally on their front doorstep. Don’s decision to not tell the police that his black friends, Nell and Ernie Simpkins, spent time at their home the previous night, gives the family backbiting a ferocious edge. His sister, Pauline is convinced that the Simpkins must have done it, (“after all who else could it be?”), to the extent that she tells the police about them. Ironically this decision, made to push police suspicion away from her family, actually pushes Don straight into the spotlight and early on he is arrested. His enlightened views make him a suspicious character in the eyes of the police, and even to some of his family. After all, prior to his arrest and when the family are discussing the Simpkins Carey has one of the characters say that ‘everybody seems more worried about having people find out a member of the family associates with Negroes than at being suspected of murder.’ I wonder at this point what reaction contemporary readers would have made of this situation. Would they have sided with Don? Or would they have agreed with the others?
Curtis points out how ‘the author attacks and subverts the social biases of traditional mystery fiction.’ We not only see this with the Simpkins, but we also see it with Ramon, Mamie’s second husband, who has always striven to tone down his Mexican heritage. At the end of another family fight, he says to them all, ‘And they say it’s us Latins who are excitable.’ Again, irony pervades the text as it is the non-Latino characters who embody this cultural stereotype. Yet Carey is very clever in her handling of this issue in the book. Not only do we get to consider it through what the characters say, but also in their thoughts. We see into the minds of who have ingrained bigoted views, even ones which they think are complimentary, such as Jews being smarter and more shrewd than other people. We see this with Mamie who tries to correct her thoughts as they stray in that direction, remembering what her son Don would say, yet this attempt ultimately fails, as the ingrained attitudes have too deep a hold, established by the conviction that these attitudes are what everyone thinks, (so they must be right).
From the get-go the Grudy family receive no sympathy from the police, and their manner of delivering the initial information to Mamie is bluntly done. Despite being able to freely go where they want, there is a strong sense of this extended family being cooped up with one another. This near claustrophobic atmosphere at times adds to the growing and brooding tension as the family wonder who really did the crime vs. who it would most convenient to be guilty. Ramon, as an ex-husband, is in an interesting position. He is still one of the family, but also holds an outsider status to a degree, a status which enables him to see the case from a different point of view and also makes him seem like a suitably person to confide in.
This is no traditional whodunit. Physical clues will not aid you in solving this crime. This is a murder which is solved by assessing suspect reactions and behaviours. Bear in mind that given the late-night time of the crime, the witness testimony cannot be readily contested. No neighbour can vouch for you being in bed when you said you were. Nevertheless, I think the reader will be able to identify the murderer from the half-way mark and interestingly so do some of the others. Yet the hard part for them is knowing what to do with the information. The ending is not a tidy one, yet too much closure would have created a false tone and jarred badly with the raw emotion of the piece.
So all in all I very enjoyed this one and I hope to get to The Reluctant Murderer ASAP.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House)