Nightmare Honeymoon (1963) by Rae Foley

Earlier in the summer I began my reading project to review vintage crime fiction significantly featuring weddings or honeymoons. I set out with five titles and so far I have completed three. However, last week I received an unexpected addition to the project, which I am reviewing today. I decided to place it within the “Something Blue” category due to its blue font. This title is one of the rare exceptions in my project in which the bride does not get bumped off, so definitely a more comfortable read for me! Nightmare Honeymoon was also published under the name of Back Door to Death.

A Dell edition of Rae Foley's Nightmare Honeymoon. There is a man and woman on the cover and they look like they have had a disagreement.

Synopsis

‘When lovely young Theresa Graham wed Clifford Hardin, she didn’t realise she was marrying his family as well. But their honeymoon visit to the Hardin home proved otherwise, and Theresa felt family ties tightening into a stranglehold. There was mother Hardin, so sweet, so evil… brother Sam, his genius twisted by a secret torment… sister Judy, whose ravishing beauty could not conceal her terror… Then suddenly, there was murder, and Theresa had no place to hide, no one to trust and only a dangerous intruder offering help.’

Overall Thoughts

The blurb very much seems to want paint a melodramatic picture of the book, almost to parodic levels, yet this portrayal of the story belies the down to earth nature of the female protagonist, Theresa Graham. Theresa is a character I found more engaging and likeable than the heroine of Wake the Sleeping Wolf (1952), which I read back in April.

The mystery opens on the night the before Theresa’s wedding to Clifford Hardin. She has only known him for four weeks, and he is a TV script writer whose show has just folded. However, Theresa is a resourceful woman, not phased by such financial insecurity. I see her as a literary descendent of the Jane Eyre type of heroine, a kind we also sort of see in Ethel Lina White’s Some Must Watch (1933). She is used to living from pay check to pay check and at the start of the book she reflects on her ‘vagabond lifestyle’:  

‘A vagabond. A girl without roots, moving on to new cities and new people. Garnering new experiences but gathering no moss. No moss at all.’

She is an independent woman who enjoys adventures: ‘With a whole world to explore and only one lifetime in which to experience it, she couldn’t afford a single empty day that led nowhere.’ She and Clifford decide to get married at City Hall in New York without family or friends, (something Theresa lacks on both counts anyways).

However, this whirlwind romance is riddled with potential issues, so I think the opening of this book has probably been the richest for gleaning life lessons from…

Life Lesson No. 1

In a classic crime novel, it is a good rule of thumb to never rush into marriage, as when murder strikes and there is money involved, it is hard not to look at your new spouse in a suspicious light. This situation crops up in Conyth Little’s Black Honeymoon (1944). In the case of Foley’s story Theresa only learns a week after she got married that John Roach (Clifford’s brother-in-law), who she met once, died the night she saw him, and that Clifford was living in Roach’s house (something he had never mentioned before) and that he did not hear about Roach’s demise before leaving to go to City Hall. It could be true, but it produces seeds of doubt within Theresa. Suspicion often creeps in as you realise you don’t actually know that much about the other person, which is a truth that dawns on Theresa within days of marrying Clifford:

‘And yet she knew him no better now than she had before they were married. For all his incessant talk, her husband revealed little about himself. His conversation was invariably gay, often starred by wit, but it didn’t tell anything about himself. When she questioned, he answered readily and honestly but she felt they weren’t progressing very fast toward real knowledge of each other. either Cliff wasn’t given to introspection or there was a “no thorough-fare” sign of which she wasn’t conscious.’

Life Lesson No. 2

Something you will want to do before you get hitched is meet your in-laws so you can see what you are letting yourself in for and be prepared if necessary. If Theresa had known the glue-like quality of Clifford’s family, then she might have kept on driving straight back to New York.

Life Lesson No. 3

When it comes to the wedding itself, it is worthwhile taking time to investigate what different options look like. Asking other couples about their experiences is valuable. Just going with the most expedient option might not always be the best one and if your spouse-to-be is not keen on any of their friends or family attending the ceremony, it gets you wondering why… Both Theresa and Clifford regretted their choice:

‘Perhaps they had been wrong to have the ceremony performed by a bored and hurried official at City Hall. Clifford expressed her own feeling of discomfort when they came out of the building. “I don’t feel married. I feel as though I’d been processed.”

Life Lesson No. 4

Finally, if you feel drawn to kiss another man the night before your wedding, it is probably best to take a minute to think about whether you want to marry your fiancé or not. Although in a classic crime novel you do have the option of going ahead with the original wedding, as by the end of the book you will be able to be with the other man, your husband having become a murder victim or the actual killer.

This is a paperback of the alternative title to this novel, Backdoor to Death. It has a city scape scene.

I enjoyed the run up of events to the first death of John Roach, as seemingly he died in a car accident due to icy road conditions, but his death occurs at a very convenient time, as he was about to give over 80% of the profits he earns from his business back to the company employees. His wife and family are said to be unconcerned with money, but they have lived off his earnings for quite some time, so this raises a possible motive from the get-go.

This early part of the novel also introduces a friend of Roach’s a bridge builder called Geoffrey Pauling, who has just arrived from South America. I think Foley was fond of bringing in characters from that continent as in Wake the Sleeping Wolf, the love interest of the story, Dr Clarke Turner, is a scientist who has returned from a research expedition. Perhaps the writer thought this added some exoticism to them? He and Theresa get thrust together for the evening and kiss, but who was in the shadows watching them? This love triangle also has parallels with Wake the Sleeping Wolf and in this respect Foley’s work reminds me of Patricia Wentworth’s, the love subplot being a little obvious.

Nevertheless, I think Rae Foley effectively depicts the strong bond between the Hardins and how Theresa Graham feels excluded from the group. They all seem like strangers including Clifford and the longer they stay there, the more disinclined Clifford becomes about leaving and getting a new job. He is not bothered about living off his mother or sister, who is now a wealthy widow. This goes against the grain for Theresa who wants to be independent and so she goes out looking for work and in turn this pushes her back into the path of Geoffrey Pauling, who believes that John Roach was murdered.

It is Geoffrey who is the driving force behind finding out the truth and it is because of him that Mr Potter, an amateur sleuth of some kind enters the picture. It appears that Mr Potter has operated in the area before and in a previous book, Repent at Leisure (1962). I have not read this one and I don’t know how many more books he appears in. He is not at the forefront of the story, which is taken up by other characters, so it was hard to get much of a handle on him, other than his go-to option of drugging Theresa with a truth serum to find out what she knows. Everyone, including Theresa, seems remarkably blasé about him doing this. I found it rather odd, but I guess at least it does indicate that not everyone automatically thinks Theresa is a reliable or innocent character. Things certainly get very dark for Theresa as more and more incriminating evidence emerges, as the body count rises. The number of deaths was surprising, as I had not anticipated such a development and I feel it did change the trajectory of the mystery, as you have to consider who would need to kill this many people to achieve their goal.

A hardback dust jacket of the alternative title to this mystery, Backdoor to Death. It depicts a woman injured by skiing into a tree.

Whilst this does not have a complicated plot, I still got the whodunnit aspect wrong. There is a good red herring in one sense but in another the actual killer needed to be better clued. This is a mystery with a solution where we are told what’s happened, with not much linking to tangible evidence. I think Foley has yet to show she can surprise like Jean Potts or Charlotte Armstrong. This is a shame as this time I found the setting and characters much more engaging. The writer provides a compelling cast of characters, within a well-drawn small-town America setting (and without annoying renditions of local dialect). The setup of the first death and the subsequent actions of the criminal also had a lot of possibility, but I think the investigation into the case was found wanting, which impacted the denouement.

Rating: 3.75/5

For Better or Worse: I think this book was better in some respects than the previous read I had by Foley, but still not sure I have seen her at her best. So in that respect it would get a for worse rating, but I would say it is pretty borderline.

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