The Fatal Picnic (1955) by Bernice Carey

Bernice Carey wrote 8 novels, of which today’s read is the last, and once I have completed reading this latest twofer from the Stark House Press, I will have read 6 of them. It’s weird but due to the fact I have been reading her work in twos, it only feels like I have read 2 or 3, not 5. So it makes having nearly read all of her work feel all the more odd.  

Synopsis

‘The Mallory family gathers for a picnic at the park. It looks like a perfect day for it, and they all start to arrive, ready to feast and play. Then Uncle Maurice shows up. Maurice of the sadistic tongue and crude humour. His wife Esther puts on her usual brave face, but no one is pleased except the kids, who love his antics. Most of the family have good reason to hate Uncle Maurice. He swindled Jocelyn and Marvin in financial deals. He found out about Fred’s affair, and holds it over him. he torments Alison every time he sees her, belittling her unmercifully. Even his son, David, hates him, and with just cause. Maurice has spread so much poison among the Mallorys, it really comes as no surprise when the shots ring out…’

Overall Thoughts

Fans of traditional puzzle plots should probably look elsewhere, not because this mystery lacks clues, (physical or psychological), but because 90% of the story is devoted to the characters, in particular exploring the toxic personality of the victim and the way he infected the lives of his family and in-laws. Instead of having the murder at the start of the novel, we instead have 7 or so chapters which put 6 key characters under the microscope and through flashbacks, (interrupted by the present day), we find out in beautiful, yet at times painful prose, the destructive impact Maurice had on people. This get-to-know-the-characters-first approach to structuring a mystery is not unique to Carey’s work by any means, but her handling of it, to me, seems far more engaging than it can be in the hands of say Ngaio Marsh or Georgette Heyer, (ducks for cover….). We definitely lose the weakness of being told information several times. Moreover, Curtis Evans, who writes the introduction to the Stark House Press reprint puts it well when he writes that:

‘In Bernice Carey’s fiction, however, readers refreshingly got to see crime as it more genuinely might impact them – not with ingeniously convoluted or viscerally violent killings solved variously by flippant men-about-town or wisecracking private dicks, but with simpler crimes committee out of quiet desperation, solved by plain – though never, in Carey’s hands, prosaic – people.’

Impact is a key word for this story, as even once Maurice is dead, his death provokes interesting and varied responses. Maurice’s murder does not provide the clean release people might have thought it would.

The Mallory family is a large one and normally as a reader I feel uneasy knowing this about a book going in, panicking that I won’t remember who’s who. Yet this was not the case here. The core characters you need to have fixed in your mind are well established by Carey and I felt she was skilful in the way she brings Maurice into the book. His arrival is unexpected and our initial glimpses are from a distance, whilst other family members comment on him turning up and how that might effect other people. Yet this distance does not dampen or weaken Maurice’s malevolence and disarmingly jocular unpleasantness, which oozes off the page. What Carey is clever to do with Maurice, is to show how on first appearances his manner wrong foots others and makes them keen to excuse any off-colour behaviour or comments. It is only once you have been bitten by him, so to speak, that you realise how cruel a man he is. As such the children of the family often find him to be very fun and it is adults who struggle to be civil to him.

After the opening chapter the reader is introduced in more detail, as I have said previously, yet before that Carey throws out some tantalising comments which make you want to keep reading to see if the later narrative throws any light on them. The flashback chapters begin with family members who have been financially cheated, saving those who were hurt more psychologically and deeply to later. I know some readers are not fond of narratives which involve flashbacks, as they can be used quite lazily by some writers, but here that is not an issue. Rather than the narrative feeling repetitive, we instead get a highly nuanced and interesting picture built up of the Mallory family and as each new piece is filled in, the tension mounts, as the reader is increasingly anticipating the point when the situation will explode. It is due to Carey’s adept utilisation of cinematic dialogue and character psychology in the piece which makes me think this story would do well as the basis for a TV series, with one episode focusing on a given character, until the final episode or two in which everything comes to a violent end.

In addition, what also makes this a strong example of the psychological crime novel is that Carey complicates notions of guilt and responsibility and Maurice’s wife becomes an increasingly intriguing figure. How can she and why does she put up with Maurice? The way her other family members treat and regard her is also interesting as they often feel that they cannot oust Maurice from their lives completely because of her – hurting him means hurting her.

So all in all another great read from Carey and I look forward to reading Their Nearest and Dearest (1953) next, which puzzle fans will be pleased to know is described by Curtis as being ‘the author’s finest example of a classic murder puzzle.’

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)

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