Today I am reviewing the second mystery within the Jean Potts twofer reprint I began yesterday.
‘When Val discovers the body of the murdered man lying on the church steps, the first thing he notices is how much he resembles the man with the cane that his young daughter had described earlier that day. But how could she have known this anonymous man? She’s just a little girl, living with her mother and her step father, blocks away from here. It’s too much of a coincidence—yet Val is convinced that this man must somehow be known to them. So Val sets out on a bit of detecting, querying the family members about what they know. First, there’s Maudie, Val’s giddy ex-mother-in-law; his argumentative ex-wife, Doris, and her perfect husband, Monroe. And Doris’s affable brother, Clyde, formerly married to the beautiful, sensitive Barbara. Clyde wasn’t even in town at the time… or was he? Each one seems to harbor a closely-held secret, but which secret will unlock the motive behind the murder of the man with the cane?’
Whilst Jean Potts’ tends to adopt female characters as her protagonists, or lenses, she did from time to time deploy a male perspective instead. This is one of those occasions and although the narrative pans around the core characters, Val’s viewpoint is one of those returned to the most. I would say the story begins with the viewpoints of those who are arguably the ‘outsiders’ of the piece and I found it interesting that Potts chose Val as the first character to introduce to us.
Problematic relationships and marriages, which are under strain, or have completely fallen apart, are not unusual in mid-century psychological suspense fiction. You could say they are the bread and butter of such stories. But often the male partners tend to be portrayed more negatively, in the sense they can be drunkards, violent or at the very least uninterested in their offspring. Yet the opening pages of The Man with the Cane show that Val is committed to his little girl and anxious she will have forgotten him, since they have not met for three years. I found this positive start quite refreshing and I think it gets us on side with Val and you find yourself quickly rooting for him. Having said that Potts does not depict relationships and family dynamics in black and white terms, there is an awful lot of grey and whilst Doris and Monroe initially seem the most unappealing characters, later events help you to see them in a more sympathetic light. At the start of the book, they are presented as having the perfect marriage, the perfect house, and the perfect jobs. So naturally the reader is counting down the time until we begin to see some cracks in this perfect image. Oh boy does Potts throw some big sticks of dynamite into their lives!
The “man with the cane” is brought into the story in an effective way: a child’s excited prattle and after that we see hints and traces of a male figure plaguing various characters in the book. It is like darkness is creeping into all their lives and it is only once Val and Hen a.k.a. Helen find the corpse on the church doorsteps’ that a thread begins to be woven through these initially disparate events.
The truth is hard won in this mystery and it takes many attempts for it to all be revealed, with some wrong turnings along the way. In one explosive scene the truth comes spurting out of characters like a severed artery. Subterfuge is hounded down yet it takes more than that for the misunderstandings to be finally cleared up. I felt this was a lynchpin moment in the book and I liked how I could not predict how things were going to pan out and what the characters would do next. I did alight upon the solution before the end and anticipated one surprise, but not before I came up with a grand theory for the murder, which proved to be completely wrong!
I think Potts crafted a more compelling story in today’s read and I felt her handling of tension in the piece was up to her usual high standards.
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)