This is my fifth read by this author and whilst the quality of the reads has been highly mixed, I have been intrigued enough by McGerr’s experimental writing style to keep giving her one more go. This is despite the fact I think I have only read one really good book by her: Murder is Absurd (1967).
Today’s review is concerned with a successful New York newspaper columnist, Larry Rock, who decides to bump off, at a dinner party he is hosting, one of the four women in his life. But which one will it be? His wife Claire? His ex-wife Shannon? His mistress Maggie? Or his pregnant fiancée Dee?
One of the things which has kept me coming back to McGerr’s work is the strength of her writing style, which is good at reaching deep into her characters. However, the problem I have always had with her stories, bar one, is that McGerr has a consistent habit of setting up mystery plot expectations, which her narratives are then unable to deliver upon. Unfortunately, this habit has struck again in this book, so when the book opens with a nameless body having fallen from a penthouse terrace, I was able to decide in a matter of sentences who it was. I kind of hoped I might be wrong or that there would be additional surprises in store, but there was not. Perhaps the premise was a bit too simple.
The book naturally then moves back to the start of the dinner party when the various women arrive. We see their initial reactions to one another, and we also get a glimmer of why some of them could be potential murder victims. However, the majority of the narrative is not situated within the present day of the party, but instead mostly consists of chronological flashbacks. These flashbacks begin with Shannon when she first met Larry and how before and during their marriage his ego and ugly nature began to emerge and aggressively flourish as success made him a crueller person. The flashbacks then work their way through the falling apart of their marriage, his second marriage and then his picking up of a mistress and fiancée. Flashbacks are a common feature of McGerr’s work and in the case of Pick Your Victim (1946), they are used to enable the reader to decide who has been killed, whilst in The Seven Deadly Sisters (1947) they are meant to be used by the reader to decide who the killer is. Yet my response to this narrative device is conflicted. To be honest I find the flashbacks are used too extensively, to the point where the “mystery” element of the book falls by the wayside. These long periods build up the characters and the emotional notes of the piece wonderfully. But they do very little for the plot and the mystery factor. This is a pity as McGerr’s depiction of Larry’s character and his moral disintegration is well-conveyed, putting me in mind of The Great Gatsby. That and some kind of film involving Barbra Streisand, probably an edgy mash up of Funny Face and The Way We Were.
I haven’t been planning my reading very much at the moment, just picking up a book on a whim. So I ended up reading this story days after reading Bernice Carey’s own inverted mystery The Reluctant Murderer (1949), in which we know who is planning to kill and where they are going to do it, but we don’t know who out of the house party they are going to murder. Sound familiar? Surprisingly though I didn’t find McGerr’s book to feel samey and in comparing the two, Carey’s is much the stronger book. As I was reading Follow as the Night, I pondered why, and I think there are two key reasons. The first is that Carey keeps her book set in the present, with no extended flashbacks. By keeping the narrative in the moment, Carey maintains the tension as the killer’s murder attempts backfire and the reader is keenly analysing the conversations the killer has with people in order to identify which one they wish to eliminate. This puzzle element tends to evaporate in McGerr’s books because the flashbacks are too long and the urgency of identifying the victim is significantly weakened. In the case of my latest McGerr read the flashbacks only have a weak purpose of intimating something key about one of Larry’s relationships, but this could have been hinted at in another way. The second reason Carey’s book worked better was because we saw events from the killer’s perspective and despite their flaws, we could still become invested in their outcome. The same cannot be said for Larry. I don’t think anyone is supposed to like Larry. Most of what we see of him is from the outside, from the angle of his woman of the moment and when we finally get to see “raw” Larry at the end, there is no time for reader to become engaged in it. This is another pity as the final scene of the book is wonderfully cinematic and has a nice Francis Iles edge. Yet it’s power to impact the reader is diminished by the reader having to make their way through all the flashbacks first. It becomes a case of too little too late.
So will I buy another book by McGerr? I am sorely tempted by Death in Million Living Rooms (1951), as the premise sounds good. Yet my sensible side wants to remind me that despite being hooked by a premise and despite investing in the characters, I ultimately come away feeling a little short-changed by a McGerr novel. Starting to feel a little like Brad when he tries to justify his continued purchasing of Paul Halter’s books…
See also: Dead Yesterday has also reviewed this title.