The two novels in this double header are perfect examples of just how good Potts was at writing intriguing dramas in which the darkness lurks in the shadows and the direction of the coming fireworks are not obvious – all the while, the portends hang heavy in the air. Potts creates a claustrophobic atmosphere, building tension through the interactions between the characters, from apparently innocuous conversations to bust ups, all ramping up the sense of anticipation around what is about to happen. The two stories also reveal how similar themes about characters who want the world to see them as they see themselves can be played out in very different scenarios. One ostensibly seeking truth to set the record straight, the other using a lie to avoid people finding out her life is a fraud.
Home is the Prisoner is about the return of a man released from gaol to his home town, nobody wants him back but there’s unfinished business as far as Jim’s concerned, trouble is brewing from the moment he steps down from the bus at the depot. The Little Lie is about a woman who just can’t bear the thought that people might sneer at her private life, see her as a failure in love and so she tells a lie to save face, it soon spins out of control and acquires a life of its own. One of the things that works so well in both stories is the way multiple view points enable the reader to get a sense of other perspectives on what is happening/has happened; the fears, secrets, attitudes and vested interests that make up the whole picture. Potts gets us inside her characters heads, we get their guilt, anger, anguish but never quite what they intend to do about it. In each novel the central character sets off a chain reaction that just envelops the people around them. Each tale is nuanced, capable of more than one interpretation and there is more than one possible outcome right up to the denouement. Neither drama is a straightforward crime novel but they have the key sensibilities of classic mystery tales and an edgy feel. I.F. Norris’s introduction describes them as the bridge between ‘domestic suspense and noir’.
Home is the Prisoner (1960)
The veneer of respectability, the folksy mentality and the rush to judgement of the small town are put under the microscope as Jim’s return from prison for manslaughter slowly reveals that he’s not the only one with secrets or reasons to feel guilty about the past.
Ernie Brewer runs the hotel, he hardly looks up from his desk when the bus arrives, no one ever gets off in Athena. He barely spots Jim Singley, fresh out of prison until he’s right in front of him. Ernie almost asks him how he’s been but settles for offering him a room instead. He’s the first person to wonder why Jim came back and he can’t wait to start telling people he just showed up:
“I mean, nobody figured on you ever coming back here. . .”
“I guess not,” said Jim. He smiled. Not very much, though; it occurred to Ernie that smiling didn’t come as easy as it used to. “But I’ve got a little unfinished business to tend to. So here I am.”
Ernie thinks Jim’s first ports of call will be Mack, now Judge McVey and his ex-wife Velma, now Velma Carson after reverting to her maiden name. Everyone knows Velma turned their boy, Wayne, against Jim. She wouldn’t even take Jim’s money from the sale of his share of the garage, which he wanted Wayne to get, when he was sent up for six years for the manslaughter of his business partner, Herb Fleming. Has to be bad blood there. Then there’s all those stories about Jim and Herb’s wife having an affair, some said it was that and not the business problems that led to the fatal fight.
Mack welcomes Jim home, he helped him at the time, stood for him in court, never believed the worst of Jim, but even he doesn’t know why Jim did what he did, what really happened when Herb died:
“.. . Mack, who of all people ought to know, did not know. Probably never would know, either. Jim showed no signs of having turned into a blabbermouth. And you simply did not ask a man if he was a murderer, a liar, and an adulterer.”
Jim tells Mack he wants to see Cleo, Herb’s daughter, if not for her testimony he might have facing a murder charge rather than manslaughter and no way he’d be out in six years. Then there’s Velma and Wayne, the family that disowned him. Home is the Prisoner has some of the feel of Bad Day at Black Rock about it. Only this time it’s not a stranger in town who stirs things up it’s an old acquaintance. Plenty of resentment, anger, and fear bubbling away under the surface.
The Little Lie (1968)
Another pop at the small town mentality only the social observation is even sharper, more claustrophobic. In this novel Potts talent for nailing a character in a few short lines is spot on:
“What a pretty dress,” Peggy was rattling away. “Did you make it yourself? I envy you, having the time to sew. Well, and the know-how. I’m hopeless at that sort of thing.”
The dress maker Erna beams with pride, unaware Peggy isn’t entirely genuine.
Mr Fly likes to eaves drop, Dee and Chad are his favourite subjects and they’re rowing again. They throw typical insults at each other; he should be grateful she lets him stay rent free after all, but, even as she says it she knows that ignores all the help he gives her in the shop without asking for a single day’s pay. Once things are said it’s very hard to take them back but when Fly hears Chad threaten to leave he knows he’s done that before, give him time he’ll come round. Fly, (fly on the wall?), has to leave the argument before it finishes but he’s not concerned he knows they’ll make up at some point until the next row, (know and truth aren’t the same thing). This time Chad has really packed up and left and Dee needs to get her story straight, she’s about to have a party and she doesn’t want to be the focus of a lot of questions about what happened. Specially with Peggy Bascombe there, she has a nose for sniffing trouble. So Dee comes up with a small lie to begin with: Chad has gone to New York for a job. That will throw people off the scent. She can hear the kind of things they would be whispering, he was a keeper, she shouldn’t have blown it, she always gets it wrong in the end. Dee can only bear it if she keeps the truth to herself. Her friend, Oliver, comes to her after the party and says he’s thinking about leaving because he’s had a letter from Erna’s cousin Gus about a repair shop for sale in in Florida and Erna is always talked about going home. Dee can’t stand being left again, so she points out Oliver has no idea about this place and she starts to poison him to the move. It won’t be long before people start asking about Chad visiting her so she moves him to California, but even then he’d come back sometime, that’s when she sees that a plane went down with someone of the same surname aboard. Now she’s telling people Chad is dead, a tragic accident. They feel sorry for her, how would they feel if they find out she’s lying?
Dee is a disturbed and unpredictable character, bad apple or mentally unwell, you decide, whatever she is truly memorable and darkly entertaining.
The Little Lie is a more inventive story than Home is the Prisoner and the character portraits are wittier, more barbed but I prefer the mood and unwinding story of the latter. Potts has a turn of phrase that cuts like a knife.
Jean Potts (1910-1999) is the writer of fifteen novels, mostly mystery novels, and more than twenty published short stories, there’s a bibliography at the back of this edition. She was a teacher and reporter before moving to New York and becoming a writer.
Home is the Prisoner 4*
The Little Lie 3.5*
~~(Not a group read.)~~
Paul Burke 4/3*
Home is the Prisoner and The Little Lie by Jean Potts
9781944520908 Stark House Press Paperback February 2020