At the end of last year, I was gifted a good handful of titles by Rae Foley, but for one reason or another, it has taken me this long to try one of them. The 70s artwork on the covers may have put me off picking one up sooner, as there was always a part of my brain going, well I’m not really in the mood for a romantic mystery. However, I finally took the plunge. Let’s see if I chose wisely.
‘Laura and Benton Field began marriage as the perfect couple. She was the beautiful and devoted wife of a handsome and gifted novelist. But Benton soon grew strange – given to bitter and violent moods. His love became a raging jealousy – a fierce possessiveness that threatened to engulf her and doom all chance of happiness. Then a brutal crime claimed the life of an innocent bystander – a crime whose intended victim was clearly Benton Field – and Laura was suddenly the prime suspect in a mystery that had her fighting her innocence, her sanity, her very life itself!’
My edition of this mystery calls Foley the ‘Grand Mistress of Romantic Mystery,’ yet I would argue that at least 70% of the story runs along unromantic lines, with a far greater emphasis being placed on possible small-town corruption. The romantic elements, which comprise all of the blurb are more bookends to this 70%.
Beginning with the first bookend, the mystery opens with Laura nearly killing Benton with a golf shot which goes wildly astray. As the blurb suggests Laura’s marriage is not going well and one of the key reasons for this is revealed in the opening pages. Her novelist husband is so inspired by his own experience and the observations he makes about others locally, that his fiction is embarrassingly autobiographical and in the past one of his novels reveals a lot of intimate details about Laura. Naturally this is a pretty big red flag, which does not encourage you to side with Benton. However, I didn’t find it made me automatically sympathetic with Laura. To be honest I started off indifferent to her and as time went on, I just found her plain annoying!
It came as a relief when she quickly fell into the background of the story, once the murder was committed and other seemingly secondary characters took centre stage. Characters such as Dr Clarke Turner, who is on holiday visiting his sister, have a much bigger on page presence than Laura and Benton. Turner in fact becomes something of an amateur sleuth, to help his sister.
In addition, I would say the author is more open in depicting the marital problems of other couples in the narrative. For example, there is the creepy and disturbing dynamic in the Gahagan marriage, in which the rich self-made husband withholds his wife’s jewellery until she earns them back through better behaviour. The narrative itself does not explicitly criticise this setup, which surprised me, given the gender of the author. This is not to say that character psychology is lacking in the book, as I think Foley very adeptly creates the world’s most awkward social occasion when a cocktail party takes place at the Gahagan’s home.
The opening of the story gives the impression that this mystery will be of the simpler variety, so I was pleased when the writer begins to throw in some unexpected complications, such as those concerning the identity of the victim. This novel is also my second in a row now which includes a jury who fight back and who do not go along with the coroner’s viewpoint.
Although we don’t see much of Laura until near the end of the book, she holds a lot of influence over the male characters, whose actions are shaped by the need to protect her against anyone interpreting the strong circumstantial evidence concerning her as proof of her guilt. The blurb makes it sound like she is going to be hounded by press and police, but this is a misrepresentation of the plot where the Lieutenant from the get-go is adamant she is not involved. Dr Clarke Turner also ends up in a moral quandary as he knows incriminating information. Should he tell the police? Should he let a miscarriage of justice take place? But oh he doesn’t want to be mean. Yes, he does have a bit of a Miss Pym moment. So it is a huge relief that this whole angle is dropped until near the end.
The new direction the investigation goes in, is an interesting one and one I had not expected. It is just a pity that it does not really connect to the narrative bookending it. In some ways it comes across as a detour to the solution. In the last 15% of the book the story seems to remember it is meant to be a romantic mystery, so Laura is pushed back on to the stage. Her return only increased my lack of enthusiasm for her, as she just acts very pigheadedly and rather stupidly. I had cottoned on to the solution early and in a different story I think it would have made a very powerful ending. Instead in this plot, it proves a weak and dissatisfying conclusion. The novel promises more complexity than expected, but unfortunately, the ending reveals that it does not live up to this potential.
So yes, it was a bit of a ‘meh’ read, but I am not completely put off and I wonder if a different plot will showcase Foley’s strengths more effectively. If there are any you have enjoyed that you would recommend, do let me know.