Helen Nielsen’s novels are inventive and suspenseful, her ability to ramp up the tension is a superpower. In Borrow the Night, an immensely impressive novel, you can hear the clock ticking down in your head as a young man faces execution – its so powerful. There are other devastating countdowns in the novel which coalesce with this central theme and really get the heart racing (more on that later, except for one I’m keeping to myself to avoid a spoiler). Nielsen is a consummate writer, her psychological crime stories rank her with the best and you can see the origins of many a modern writer in her work. She was appreciated in her life time, her books were generally well reviewed, a new audience will get to see why with these two novels.
Helen Nielsen (1918-2002) was born in Rosewood, Illinois, and is most remembered for her contributions as a TV writer, including Perry Mason, Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Alcoa Theatre. As is often the case with the noir writers of the period, she had an interesting hinterland. Nielsen did a stint as a draftsman for Lockheed during WWII working on the P-80 and for Convair after the war working on the B-36. She began writing crime stories in the 1950s, over fifty were published in magazines and during her career Nielsen produced eighteen novels. In 1956, Dorothy B. Hughes said this; “Helen Nielsen is one of the truly genuine talents of the past five years.”
I’ve mentioned Borrow the Night but the second story here The Fifth Caller, 1959, was adapted by Nielsen for the Dick Powell Show on TV. Julian Symons described the book in the Sunday Times as “absorbing and deliciously readable.” I’ve come across Nielsen before but I don’t think I realised just how good a writer she was until I read these two stories.
Borrow the Night (1956)
LA Superior Court Judge the Hon. Ralph G. Addison receives the first message on 22nd July, which meant it was posted locally the day before. He threw the letter in the bin before thinking better of it and retrieving it to throw in the fire. The last line read:
“…You will die when Messick dies. Until that hour, I will be watching you. Mr. Justice.”
Messick was the nineteen year old that Judge Addison had sentenced to death for the Christmas Eve slaying of Faye Harper, his execution was scheduled for 29th (seven days). It was a boiling summer:
“…and the mornings were like the foyer of hell.”
Addison studies the room and settles on the old clock his great-grandfather made in Europe all those years ago (it’s the first time that motif is introduced). Addison loves his wife Abbie but they owe a lot to her father, including the house. After fourteen years of marriage Abbie is pregnant, the last few years have been tough, a strain on the relationship. Abbie left Addison before they found out she was pregnant. Family friend and doctor, Stuart Wilder, has warned how delicate Abbie is and it’s that fear of upsetting his wife which causes Addison to hide the death threat, not even tell the police. When he visits her bedroom there’s a paper lying there with the headline “Christmas Eve Killer Dies Tomorrow” and suddenly you realise time has jumped forward there is only a day to the execution.
Same day. D.A. Halam Mills is listening to officer Matthew Coleman tell him about the death threats he has received, again it’s the Messick avenger – Mr. Justice. He didn’t see the letters until now because he was on holiday. Coleman arrested Messick trying to sell Faye Harper’s jewellery. When Mills calls in Judge Addison he admits he has been receiving the same threats. Mills wants to put the judge under protection but Addison still doesn’t want to alarm his wife. Coleman wants to track down Mr. Justice and Judge Addison goes along with him. There’s one small piece of evidence, a scarf that wasn’t mentioned at the trial and went missing at some point.
This intricate story masterly ramps up the pressure as time ticks by. We are unsure if Messick is innocent or guilty but things begin to emerge that the court never took into account. A number of suspects and scenarios come into focus. Every step in this story is entirely plausible and you will still be guessing at the end – the last second reveal. This is, as I’ve said, an immensely powerful piece of storytelling. It forces the reader to look at the issues of the criminal court justice system, stereotyping and labelling people (the victim and the supposed/real killer):
“Flotsam and jetsam,” the woman murmured. “That’s all a woman is to a man. A pretty face, a pretty body. Who cares where they end up?”
Most importantly, this is a passionate tilt at the death penalty. This is also remarkable character study, a complex psychological portrait of love, friendship and murder. A morality tale that works as well today as when it was written.
“Do you think I don’t know that?” the woman cried. “Sure, Walter dies tomorrow, but I don’t and my other kids don’t.” [the boy’s mother reflecting on the hardships of working-class life]
The Fifth Caller (1959)
A beautiful unconscious woman lies in a single bed cubicle on a hospital ward in Santa Monica. She was found on a beach, her wrists slit, near death. If it wasn’t for the intervention of Oscar Dunlap walking his dog…
By her bedside are Douglas Marshall an investigator for the D.A.’s Office and the patient’s physician, Dr. Huntziger. Anna Bardossy is a thirty-two-year-old immigrant from communist Hungary. Her employer, Dr. Lillian Whitehall, helped Anna to get US status and she became her nursing assistant. Dr. Whitehall’s practice is unusual, she has a degree from her own college and uses cobbled together psychological approaches and mysticism to treat her patients. As Anna comes round, Marshall begins interrogating her. Anna confirms her name and address but then things get a little sticky. Marshall wants to establish her movements for the day before. The police found expensive labelled lingerie in her car but she can’t remember shopping at Bannock’s and she doesn’t earn enough money for that kind of place anyway. Marshall accuses her of a blazing row with Dr. Whitehall but there is still no reaction so he drops the bombshell that the Dr. Whitehall was murdered.
“The death of Lillian Whitehall wasn’t the quiet passing her followers would have desired. It was lurid and ugly, and sensationalized in the press.”
Anna is the only credible suspect, a confession would tidy things up nicely, but Anna sticks to her story that she can’t remember anything. Marshall thinks a survivor from Europe and the war would know how to lie well – self-preservation.
“They didn’t know what strength can be left when all the strength should be gone. They hadn’t lived in the camps and learned.” [Anna]
There are others who saw the doctor on the day she was killed; the patient Mrs. Griswold (who found the body), her lawyer Harold Elrod (who called the police), her brother Byron Davies (they haven’t always seen eye to eye) and a repair man. The police want to charge Anna, Marshall would prefer a confession but Dr. Huntziger comes up with the idea of confronting Anna with the other witnesses to help get her memory back, filling in details of the fateful day. Mrs. Griswold instantly reveals her dislike of Anna and distrust of foreigners but as the interviews continue things do seem to be stacking up against Anna. Something is bothering Marshall:
“It was such a simple case: a woman had been found murdered in her study; another woman, known to have quarrelled bitterly with her, subsequently attempted suicide. There were witnesses to the hostility between them, there were motives, there was opportunity. And yet…”
Again, the tension is palpable and the pace snappy. There are a lots to themes running through this tale but again the rush to judgement on people stands out.
I think that both of these novels are cracking stories well told, they manage to disguise exactly what is going on until the denouement. Of the two, Borrow the Night is the more radical and original novel – I think it’s a ‘special one, not one of the bottle’. Change the setting and it could have been written today. Nielsen is an exceptional writer, intelligent and emotionally aware. I think this is a must read for fans of psychological noir.
Paul Burke 5/5
Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller by Helen Nielsen
Stark House Press 9781944520724 pbk May 2019