The Body on the Sidewalk and The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey
I’m going to start with something I said in my review of Stark House Press’ 2019 Bernice Carey double header The Man Who Got Away With It and Three Widows* which still seems apt. Reading these two novels I get the same vibe I did with last year’s brace, Carey is a top notch psychological crime writer who holds her own with the best, such as Dorothy B. Hughes:
‘The two novels here illustrate that Bernice Carey was an original writer, her career in crime writing was woefully short and her output limited, but there’s real quality here, fantastic storytelling. These psychological hard-boiled novels plough their own path… Bernice Carey is well deserving of a new audience and to be restored to the pantheon of crime writing history.’
The Body on the Sidewalk (1950) and The Reluctant Murderer (1949) are subversions of the country house mystery that was so popular in the ‘golden age’ era of British crime writing before WWII, epitomised and immortalised by the work of Agatha Christie. There’s even a hint of JB Priestley’s collective guilt:
‘they were all simple fundamentally innocent people meaning no harm only trying to find a way to live comfortably with themselves and with other people so where they all wound up beaten and bruised on that one moment when xxxxx’s feelings, which they all helped to create, went out of control?’
When Carey adds her own twists the tropes and scenarios have a new frisson. In The Body on the Sidewalk the country house becomes a city tenement, in The Reluctant Murderer it’s a family gathering in the mountains. It’s about family, about class and race and social status, as well as mystery.
In the Body on the Sidewalk a cast of suspects is assembled, their actions and attitudes examined; the complex family relationships seethe with tensions and motives for killing the man on the sidewalk surface. It’s fun, specifically urban, working class, it’s an acute analysis of societal norms and physical and emotional boundaries.
The Reluctant Murderer is an altogether different beast. The would be murderer, Vivian, identifies herself as such immediately so the question becomes; who does she want to kill? That’s not at all clear, even after her first tentative failure to commit murder. Soon a new element is introduced to the story, Viv believes someone is also trying to kill her. Even later in the novel when the name of the potential victim is revealed the reader is still not fully aware of what is really going on. Over the weekend tables are turned, misunderstanding proliferate, relationships are exposed, characters laid bare. For a debut this is remarkably accomplished, sharp, complex and emotionally engaging novel. Anyone thinking the psychological novel with the devious twist was invented in the twenty-first century would soon see it’s origins here. The Reluctant Murderer would make a great film even now. A little about the scenario of the books:
The Body on the Sidewalk, 1950.
A body is discovered on some house steps in a city street, a passer-by fetches the police. San Francisco PD sergeant Ferris takes charge. The guy has been shot in the back, the body’s been there hours, how did nobody hear the shot? Ferris rouses the households, matriarch Mamie Grady opens the door, she realises the dead man is Hank Grueber. Ferris assembles the family – Mamie, her three daughters, Maureen, Peggy and Pauline, their step father Frank, and her son, Don and his wife, Lola and their children. As the story progresses there’s also the extended family to consider, Mamie’s ex-husbands, one, Ramon, is still in touch with the children. When a gun is found in a drawer, one round fired, everyone realises the murder is in the family.
Hank had been seeing recently divorced Peggy, they were out last night, got back about one, others in the house were still up at the time. Don worked with Hank, they hated each other. Don and his wife were entertaining Ernie and Nell, a black couple, yesterday evening, something they don’t want the cops to know, they are sure to be suspected. Pauline hates the thought that the scandal might reveal that her brother has black friends, it would harm her career, that bothers her more than the fact that one of them is a killer. The politics of the workplace, social climbing, race and family relationships are all under the microscope. The family question themselves:
“If you should prove to your satisfaction then that it was, say, one of the girls, or your mother, would you expose them to save yourself?” [Ramón asks Don]
This is a social drama in which motives emerge as relationships become strained, its claustrophobic:
“Oh, Don, I don’t like this, having to suspect your own people-almost hoping it’s one of them, to save yourself.” [Lola to Don]
The Reluctant Murderer, 1949.
“It came to me while I was reading Anne’s letter. That murder was the answer.”
Even seventy years on the tangled weave of family relationships in The Reluctant Murderer are electric. Viv has worried and brooded for weeks, never thought about murder before, it just flashed into her head, the only answer to a long vexing problem. Of course, it’s a repulsive idea, but she can’t be squeamish, Anne has poison in her garden, perhaps that’s the answer, it’s a relief for Viv to have made a decision.
‘I have never cared for detective stories, and for a moment I regretted it. If I had read more of them I might now be familiar with different means of doing away with people.’ [nice little in joke]
Anne’s letter said Aunt Maud is staying so she has organised a family get together for the weekend. Her new beau Johnny will be there, Maud might not approve as Anne is only three years divorced, and Culbert can come with Viv. An old family friend, Culbert and Viv reconnected when he came to San Francisco a year ago.
On the way to Anne’s house in the Santa Cruz mountains above Los Gatos Culbert proposes to Viv, she replies; ‘we-ll, if you insist’. They can announce it this weekend.
Aunt Maud has money, she thrived during the crash, Anne and Viv’s parents are dead, Anne husband also died during war, now she has Johnny. Maud has brought her assistant, Miss Pringle, and her chauffeur, Alphonse, with her. Who will be the target? Anne’s feckless boyfriend, the gold digging servants, the rich aunt Viv isn’t close to?
‘Any northern Californian knows that the southern part of the state is populated almost exclusively by screwballs, and I do believe Aunt Maud to be the epitome of southern California crackpotism.’
The novel explores class, the way people pass judgement on each other, how misunderstanding can come from honest intentions, how people jump to conclusions, how family secrets poison relationships, and where guilt exists but it shouldn’t. There’s plenty of sleight of hand and red herrings in The Reluctant Murderer.
Both novels are tightly plotted and tense, but often relieved with moments of humour, Carey expertly draws on the readers sense of anticipation and foreboding. The themes are still potent today. This is classy writing, The Body on the Sidewalk, eminently readable, a fun mystery with plenty of turns and a serious edge of social critique. The Reluctant Murderer is nothing short of a masterpiece.
There’s also a very useful and interesting introduction to both by Curtis Evans.
*That review can be found here: https://nbmagazine.co.uk/the-man-who-got-away-with-it-and-three-widows-by-bernice-carey/.
ISBN 9781944520946, Stark House Press, paperback, 25/5/20