Today I am returning to one of my favourite authors. I have read four stories by her to date and there are two standout titles: The Little Lie (1968) is a masterclass in the unconventional mystery novel, whilst The Evil Wish (1962) delivers a pitch perfect chill-you-to-the-bones ending. If you want to read top notch psychological suspense, then these are two books you need to pick up.
Today’s story, along with The Man with the Cane (1957) were reprinted in a twofer by the Stark House Press last year, and this edition comes with an introduction by Bill Kelly. If you are new to the work of Jean Potts, then Kelly’s introduction does a good job of summing up her approach to mystery writing, asserting that she was:
‘an author who, if she dreaded anything, dreaded repeating herself. All her books do bear “Pottsian” traits: superb characterisation; sympathy for humanity, noble and fallen alike; intolerance for pretence and pomposity and an ironic detached humour that never crosses over into satire […] Unlike many of her contemporaries however, Potts eschewed the idea of authority figures (including that literary authority figure, the “main protagonist”) stepping in to solve problems for those who are emotionally involved in the crime and its solution.’
This last point is strongly brought out in today’s read, where the solution is not doggedly pursued by one or two key characters but is more brought to the surface through the actions of several separate parties whose activities become catalyst-like. I found this an interesting way of structuring the narrative because as readers I think we are used to or maybe even conditioned to expect a key character to follow.
‘When Louise gets to magazine office on Monday morning, she discovers that someone has murdered Fern Villard, the only good secretary that editor High Dudgeon has ever had. High on the list of suspects is Max Sutter. He and Fern were seeing each other and had argued that Friday night before he left the office. But, then, W. J. Robinson had reasons to be jealous of Fern as well because she was angling to replace him as editor of the Questions and Answers Department. And then there’s sullen Donna Hirsch, who clearly has a personal interest in Max. Could she have decided to remove the competition? Certainly Archie O’Brien must know more than he’s telling—he stayed late in the building that night at a party on another floor. Someone in the office had wanted Fern dead, but who wanted her dead enough to kill her?’
As I have come to expect from this writer, Potts opens her story with an effective and engaging introduction to the office staff of The Compleat Angler magazine. I felt this introduction gave us a good sense of what people are like and the author is good at infusing narrative events with little character details. For example, one staff member called Patty is said to be ‘rather like a lamb,’ a ‘plump, mindless little creature in a fuzzy blue sweater and a shamelessly tight skirt that did not quite cover her knees.’ So of course it is her who discovers the body on the parapet outside, with a pair of scissors as the weapon. Due to the way this character is set up it is only natural that it takes those around her a while to cotton on to why she is so suddenly frightened. Yet whilst the source of her fright is not clear to the others, the fact she is scared is beautifully depicted:
‘Having moved obediently to the other end of the window sill, she now stood facing the window, and while her feet in their shiny patent pumps remained rooted in one spot, she seemed at the same time to be vibrating violently. The fuzzy sweater shimmered, the short skirt jounced and quivered. And as she vibrated she squeaked, not loudly but shrilly, the nerve-racking sound of chalk skidding on a blackboard.’
When Patty’s colleagues realise that there is a body there, I liked how their reactions shift through a sequence of shock, confusion and then action. Potts uses such moments to portray character without explicitly hammering points home. This is a skill I really appreciate and one modern writers could certainly do better at. For example, we get a strong sense of what Louise’s boss, Harry Dudgeon is like when upon seeing the body Louise whispers: ‘“Don’t” […] for he seemed on the point of rapping on the window and ordering Fern Villard back to her desk where she belonged.’
It is hard to point to a particular fault in this book, yet upon completing it I found it to be story which hung together but which lacked impact. I hadn’t felt drawn into characters as I usually do with Potts’ novels. I wondered if it was because the narrative covers many different characters and no one group solves the case.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)