Today’s review concerns the first story in this latest twofer by Stark House Press. I enjoyed my first encounter with her work, which was in a previous twofer by Stark House, in which Hitchens playfully revisits the Hound of the Baskervilles in Terror Lurks in Darkness (1953), and delivers an intriguing on-the-run-thriller in Stairway to an Empty Room (1951).
Nicholas Litchfield has written the introduction to this reprint and I enjoyed how he has eloquently put into words, vague ideas I had jostling around in my head. In particular Litchfield comments on the way Hitchens’ work combines aspects of female suspense fiction with ‘hard edged characters and gritty situation.’ I equally agree with the further point he makes about the freshness of Hitchens’ writing style, which made a change from those in the 1950s, who ‘came across as derivatives of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler.
Hitchens’ work is hard to neatly categorise as it blends various subgenres together. However, Litchfield’s description of her books as ‘psychological mysteries,’ is probably the label which reflects her stories the best and ties in with her original handling of familiar plot tropes.
‘The Southern California land had been in Dronk’s family for years, but he sold most of it to developers, and that’s how Dellwood came to be. Once a few new houses went up, they flocked to buy… Miss Silverter, the repressed spinster with a hidden passion. The brash, young Arthur family, including their stubborn old grandfather. The Holdens, a curious couple who feed each other’s weaknesses. And the tightly-wound Bartletts, with their beautiful young daughter, who immediately befriends Dronk’s crippled teenage son. When she disappears one evening, the Bartletts naturally assume that the son is involved. But Dellwood is so full of secrets that the son is only one of Sheriff Ferguson’s suspects. They’re all guilty of something…’
At the end of his introduction, Litchfield expresses his praise for ‘Hitchens’ dexterity in vividly conjuring up an abundant community of interesting if tarnished principal characters.’ Looking back at today’s read this is something else I find myself in agreement with. In a typical mystery novel, the detective has to uncover various secrets about the suspects to discover which one led to the crime. This is a standard aspect of mystery fiction, yet I find in Hitchens’ hands this task is achieved in a highly nuanced way. Not only do we become aware of the characters’ many failings, but the characters themselves are not unaware of them. In fact, for several they experience a growing fear that others, beyond their household, will find them out. Moreover, in the case of the Holdens, we have a couple within which one mentally tortures the other, using false concern and accusation to make their spouse pay over and over again for a wrong they might have committed in the past. It is with such characters that Hitchens problematises, in an interesting way, the notion of reader sympathy. This also occurs with the parents of the girl who goes missing, as interestingly they are not hugely sympathetic as people.
Nevertheless, those who are redeemable, in particular I am thinking of the Dronks, father and son, are the ones who bookend the tale. Kim Dronk, like his father, has a club foot and Hitchens very skilfully depicts their painful, though loving, relationship – with grievances left unspoken at the start of the book. Kim’s foot is a source of conflict in their dynamic. His father wants to overlook it, pretend it is not even there, whilst Kim feels the need to express his experience of having it, of the social mockery he has faced. Whilst the other characters will use his foot as a way of vilifying Kim, it should be noted that the overall narrative does not support this attitude towards disability and in fact builds up a solid sympathy base for him, which is not patronising pity.
Like in Ethel Lina White’s The Wheel Spins (1936), the various members of the four households, in the main, delaying giving information which will mar their own reputation or inconvenience them and instead they are keen to fuel the accusation that Kim must have done the deed. In some cases, we even have witnesses being pushed into saying inaccurate, damning statements by their relations. It is actions such as these which provide some moments of misdirection in the book. I found as the plot progressed there was an increased tension, on the reader’s part, with worry starting to mount for Kim, as so many people are making him into a scape goat.
Jumping back to earlier in the story, Pamela’s disappearance is intriguingly very abrupt and occurs quite soon in the story. However, by that point Hitchens has already provided hints of the plot’s various narrative threads. But which one has ensnared Pamela? Hitchens is able to subtly incriminate through little details all manner of people living in the area. Added to which since all the occupants at the new building development do not know each other, they can only go on what crumbs of information they know about the others; information which is malleable and easily distorted.
I find stories like this one, written in this style, to be very effective time capsule texts and Hitchens’ novel depicts a thoughtful, though perhaps troubled picture of how American society was developing post-war. Her portrayal of the family unit is far from idyllic, with family members often turning on each other, accusing the other of having been involved in Pamela’s disappearance. Perhaps we could even say that the dismantlement of the security of the family home is a hallmark of crime fiction after the second world war?
The disappearance of Pamela certainly leads to unexpected consequences, which leads to an engaging ending. I found the motivation for the crime to be one of circumstance and as the truth about the fatal night emerges, it is interesting to see the intersecting trajectories of the characters and how unplanned collisions bring about a dark result. However, it is therefore intriguing that Hitchens then decides to conclude her story on a brighter note.
With this latest Hitchens read under my belt I am looking forward to trying the next story in this twofer, Beat Back the Tide (1954), so stayed tuned!
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)