The Reluctant Murderer (1949) Bernice Carey

Having very much enjoyed my read by Carey yesterday, I dived straight in to the second story in this latest collection by Stark House.

Synopsis

‘We know that Vivian Haines intends to commit murder this weekend. She tells us so. But who is her intended victim? Could it be her wealthy aunt, who is supposed to leave her half her fortune one day? Or her frivolous sister and her seemingly penniless boyfriend? Or perhaps her aunt’s mousy companion, or her longsuffering chauffeur? Or Vivian’s own fiancé, the fastidious Cuthbert? All we know is what Vivian tells us as her efforts to plan and execute the perfect murder are constantly thwarted. Now Vivian is beginning to panic. Could one of them suspect her? could one of them be planning to kill her before she can murder them first?’

Overall Thoughts

This was Carey’s debut novel and having read some of her later work, I found it interesting to see which components she would continue to use. Dark humour is definitely one of them, as is the preference for an untraditional mystery plot. As you can tell from the synopsis this book is an inverted mystery, in the manner of Patricia McGerr’s work, as despite knowing who intends to the do the killing, the identity of the victim is withheld from the reader, (see McGerr’s Pick Your Victim (1946)). I am probably being rather risky here, but I would say that Carey’s tale is the more satisfying of the two. Perhaps because it is written in the first person, from Vivian’s perspective. Moreover, Carey’s use of dialogue is very cleverly done, with the intended victim at one point talking about their near-death experience. All naturally done, yet the reader has no idea who is talking. These moments are also well-crafted as they do not make the narrative confusing for the reader.

Carey’s tale raises a lot of questions for the reader to ponder. Not just who is Vivian going to kill, but also why does she need to kill them and who wants to kill her. The story opens with lines reminiscent of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought: ‘It came to me while I was reading Anne’s letter. That murder was the answer.’ Again, Carey utilises the letter element effectively as the reader gets to see it, and yet it throws up many subtle reasons for who Vivian would want to kill.

This story is also interesting for the way it portrays Vivian’s psychological state. At work she is the overly efficient and faithful employee, who has known real poverty in the past, the sort of person who is normally overlooked in mystery fiction. At one point she says, ‘Efficiency, not personalities, is what counts with me as far as the business is concerned.’ So it is fascinating to watch her self-confidence crumble as her attempts to kill someone repeatedly fail. In order to try and achieve her goal she has to go against her organised nature and act on the spur of the moment, which suffice to say does not work well for her.

Despite perhaps being quite a critical person, I don’t think the reader is completely alienated or repulsed by Vivian. Her difficult time in the hungry thirties helps us to see her personality in context. Her definite views on people and situations make the narrative an interesting one as she builds up theories as to what is going on at the cabin. Yet, unsurprisingly, as the plot unfolds, we see these ideas tumble around her, as the situation keeps changing. You are left wondering whether she can keep up, as well as whether she can avoid losing out on her aunt’s money and on her own life. Due to the skewed depiction of events the reader is equally unsure how much they can trust the other people at the cabin, and I agree with Curtis Evans who felt this story was an updating of the country house party mystery.

I honestly had no idea how the tale was going to end, which certainly contributed to the fast rate at which I read the story. On the whole I thought it a rather good ending, which demonstrates Carey’s tendency to veer away from more conventional and routine endings. So I feel I can safely and warmly recommend this Carey twofer and thankfully you won’t have long to wait as it is due to be released next month.

Rating: 4.5/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House)

7 comments

  1. Thanks for the review. I daresay the book sounds like it has an intriguing premise: not whodunit but whowasdunin, with multiple spanners thrown in the work. But I’m hesitant if this might appeal to my puzzle-oriented taste. Then again, the next book sitting on my desk, awaiting to be opened this afternoon, is something by Evelyn Berckman. 🧐

    Liked by 1 person

    • Well if you are feeling adventurous enough to try a Berckman novel, then I think this one might also be of interest. Carey keeps the identity of the victim concealed well for most of the story, as she makes various individuals very likely candidates. The motive for her crime is also a good one. Built up to in a good way – so it isn’t revealed too fast, but nor does it come out of nowhere at the end.

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  2. […] Vine’s « debut » is known in France as Véra va mourir, which roughly translates as « Vera Is Going to Die » an admittedly less striking and « literary » title but one that fits the book and its mood much better. Like Rendell’s earlier classic A Judgement in Stone, A Dark-Adapted Eye is devoid of any suspense as to its conclusion: Vera is indeed going to die and more specificially to hang in the end. Rendell/Vine makes it crystal clear from the onset. Still, unlike Judgement in Stone that « spoiled » the whole book in its first sentence, A Dark-Adapted Eye retains a mystery element: Why is Vera going to hang? Who did she kill? Rendell/Vine is thus echoeing, probably coincidentally, the earlier works of Patricia McGerr and Bernice Carey. […]

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