Last week saw various bloggers, including myself, posting up our first nomination for the 2020 Reprint of the Year Awards. If you missed those posts here is a link to my own, which contains links to all the other nominations.
Today we’re doing it all over again, with our second and final nominations. Tomorrow I shall be putting the reader nominations into a random generator and I will be drawing out three to include in the final poll. This poll will be going live tomorrow, and the results will be announced on the 30th December. So if you would like to make a suggestion you only have a short while to add your nominations, on this post.
Here are the links for the second nominations from other bloggers:
Aidan – Mysteries Ahoy
Bev – My Reader’s Block
Brad – Ah Sweet Mystery Blog
Laurie – Bedford Bookshelf
Moira – Clothes in Books
Puzzle Doctor – In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel
My second nomination is Bernice Carey’s The Reluctant Murderer (1949). Before I share why I think it is such a great book, here is the 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?’
This was Carey’s debut novel and it provides an excellent foretaste of the books which were to follow, with her writing strengths already coming to the fore. So what can you expect from a typical Carey mystery?
The most important thing to expect… is the unexpected! This tale and the others I have read by Carey, all show a writer who loves to create refreshing untraditional mystery plots. I say they are untraditional, not because they do not contain familiar ideas or tropes, but because of the way they are handled. Commentators such as Curtis Evans, regard this story as an updating of the country house weekend mystery and he also goes on to write that this particular title is ‘a classic of mid-century domestic suspense.’
The Reluctant Murderer is also a very well-written and skilfully crafted inverted mystery. Yet Carey’s brand of the inverted mystery ensures this is a puzzling and exciting read. Like Pat McGerr’s Pick Your Own Victim (1946), we do not know the identity of the person Vivian Haines wishes to kill. However, I think Carey’s novel improves upon this earlier work. Unlike McGerr’s title, Carey’s story is situated within the present, with only some shorter sections in which we learn something of our who-be-killer’s impoverished past. This bypassing of a respective mystery makes Carey’s tale a much more gripping read. Furthermore, since the story is told in the first person, from the murderer’s point of view, Carey delivers an interesting variant on the unreliable narrator. Her viewpoint on other people is not objective and there is a growing sense that maybe she has misunderstood some of the things going on.
You can regard this book as a descendent of Francis Iles’ Malice Aforethought (1931), an earlier text evoked by the opening lines of Carey’s: ‘It came to me while I was reading Anne’s letter. That murder was the answer.’ In keeping with Iles’ book there is also an enjoyable thread of dark humour which peppers the narrative and I feel that Carey has a similar skill in depicting the psychological state of her murderer. Part of the dark humour is in the way Vivian’s self-assurance and organised nature crumbles and I think it is her repeated failures which make an unlikely character quite endearing. These repeated failures also put me in mind of Richard Hull’s The Murder of my Aunt (1934), yet I feel Carey’s protagonist is definitely the more likeable of the two.
There is the idea that psychological suspense novels are synonymous with poorly plotted and poorly clued mystery novels. Now I am sure there are some which fit this bill nicely. There are also many traditional whodunnits which would also meet these criteria too. Unsurprisingly Carey’s book does not. Even though this is her first novel, Carey’s grasp of plotting is evident, and I felt her plot was tight and well-knitted together. The ending is very apt, yet completely unexpected as well.
Typically, with an inverted mystery the reader is told a lot of information about the crime and the interest shifts to finding out if the killer will get caught. Not so here. The reader has many questions to ponder over: Who is going to be the victim? Why does Vivian want to kill them? And who in turn is trying to murder her? (This last aspect of the plot provides a great addition to the inverted mystery structure). Along the way, in this narrative, Carey provides the reader with many clues and red herrings. These come in many forms. The first one is the letter which becomes the catalyst for Vivian’s criminous plans. Yet such a clue can be interpreted in many different ways, and it is easy to be wrong footed by it. Dialogue is another important way, and the reader has to use earlier conversations Vivian has with the other house guests to see if they can figure out who the victim will be. I loved the moment where Vivian is talking to her intended victim about their near-death experience. The conversation is completely natural, yet the reader has no idea who the victim being talked is!
So there are lots of good reasons for voting Bernice Carey’s The Reluctant Murderer and just in case you’re in two minds about it, here are some adorable animals who all agree you should vote for it. You can’t resist these endearing faces now, can you Brad?