I am back for more from Bernice Carey in today’s review. Their Nearest and Dearest was also published as an abridged version a year later under the title The Frightened Widow and having now read the book I would say this is a much more apt title. Curtis Evans in his introduction to the Stark House Press reprint edition describes this mystery as ‘the author’s finest example of a classic murder puzzle’ and Anthony Boucher included it as one of his ten titles which he felt were the best mysteries of 1953. With the bar raised this high, my expectations were certainly buoyed, but were they met?
‘Salinas lettuce grower Stanley West is found murdered at his desk, shot in the chest with his own gun. At first the police are completely baffled. West had many visitors that day, but who dropped in on him that evening with such a grudge that could only be settled by murder? His wife Laverne becomes their first suspect, simply because she is his wife. Chuck Willet, a slightly shady real estate friend who wanted West to back him in a local political bid, could have been upset when West wouldn’t support his campaign. Hal Schmidt owed him a lot of money, and might have wanted to cancel a debt. But then Laverne’s daughter Patty tells the cops about a young man she had been dating, a young man from the worker camp whom her father didn’t approve of. And the cops know they have their man. Or do they?’
Since I first encountered Carey’s work in 2019 I have become a big fan of her writing style, really savouring her unorthodox approach to mystery writing. I was intrigued to see how she would handle crafting a mystery with a more traditional structure and how much it would differ from her other stories. One key commonality between the two types is that they both include core chapters which focus on a single pivotal character each time and through getting to know them, a light is shed on the present situation. This produced great results in The Fatal Picnic, but unfortunately I do not think that is the case here.
Two things were lacking in Their Nearest and Dearest: tension and compelling characters. In The Fatal Picnic or The Reluctant Murderer you are on the edge of your seat waiting metaphorically speaking for the bomb to drop or in this case for murder to occur. As a reader your eyes are firmly fixed forward anticipating what will happen next. This is not the case in today’s read, which starts with the discovery of the body and as such we are waiting for the solution, but the waiting this time around lacks tension. That said the ending manages to crank up the drama levels considerably.
In addition, moving on to the characters what we find out about them when they are homed in on, seems to be less dramatic than the revelations we discover in Carey’s other novels. Nevertheless, this is a great book for presenting a snapshot of 1950s America and for those less interested in mysteries, the character development seen within Laverne will be engaging. But I have to admit that I was not drawn into the fictional universe Carey created here, which is a first for me, as usually she engrosses me very quickly.
In keeping with other books she wrote, Carey still demonstrates, as Curtis puts it, a ‘sympathetic treatment of characters all along the social, racial and gender spectrum’ and a key theme of this mystery is a very insulated rich woman gaining a greater awareness of what life is like for other people. Furthermore, a black maid plays an important role within the narrative and Carey’s depiction of her eschews contemporary racial stereotyping.
So in conclusion I don’t think this as a good entry point into Carey’s writing and would recommend trying some of her other stories first.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)
See also: Reading California Fiction has reviewed this title here.