It’s a crying shame that these crime novels have been out of print for more than sixty years and once again aficionados have to thank Stark House for rescuing an author’s work from obscurity by bringing it to a new audience. 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, they are a break from the ‘golden age’, upper class mysteries. These stories are grounded in the growing, fluid working communities of California. However, although very different in style and character, they also pay homage to that earlier age with little vignettes and set ups reminiscent of, among others, Agatha Christie. Both novels are tightly plotted and tense, the plots are occasionally relieved with moments of humour to heighten the on coming punch, Carey knew how to draw on the readers sense of anticipation and foreboding.
I found the introduction here pretty useful as I’d never head of Bernice Carey before but when Evans says she writes in the vein of Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Miller I’m in. Californian Carey wrote eight novels between 1949 and 1955 and one short story that appeared in The Lethal Sex collection in 1959.
The Man Who Got Away With It (1950)
Ben and Beth are an ordinary white-collar couple, they’re having guests over for dinner and fretting about making a good impression. They’ve been married for twenty years and although Ben likes the cut of Dolores in the record department, he still loves his wife. Beth really doesn’t question Ben’s loyalty or her own role in their marriage. Shirley, their daughter, is seventeen and growing up and Ben wishes he had more control over the changes in her life. Shirley leaves to visit a friend with the instruction from her mother to be back by eleven.
Lucille and Clarence Merritt and her brother Roy Malley and his wife, Marian, are the dinner guests. Malley is head of Chicago PD Homicide, a stretch from Barney Grainger the local patrol cop. Beth imagines it must be exciting being a cop in the city so she gets him talking about it. Malley tells them there are two types of cases: the open and shut, easy, and the complete blank, never solved.
That’s when Lucille mentions the Inez Bailey case, the only local unsolved murder, it happened twenty years ago:
“Lord knows, there must have been motives enough. Jealous wives, husband scared they’d be found out, jilted lovers. You see, she wasn’t—well—a nice girl.”
They were all at the school with Inez, although she didn’t graduate. Word was she worked her way through all the boys. She was pregnant when she was strangled. It must have had some married man; the doctor who moved away, the chain store manager, the school teacher, the bank teller were all subject to rumour. Although the night she went missing a lot of the men were at the Legion dance, the small town mentality rules. Clarence, who worked at city hall, then says the police were stumped. Malley cast doubt on how good of a job the local cops led by Chief Jim Billings actually did. He would have solved the case. Ominously he says that that kind of killer might do it again.
The Man Who Got Away With It is cleverly plotted. Malley is a brilliant tool for opening things back up again. It’s no spoiler to say that it will happen again. The second murder finally leading to an explanation of what happened twenty years before. The story plays on the fear we all have for the young out there in the world and the tension is palpable. It also explores how people rush to judgement and that colours everything from the level of concern in the community to the investigation.
“Roy’s thoughts, in their glib generalisations about other people’s professions, suddenly came up short against the Public Conception of his own line of work: the blunt-featured, flat-footed, solidly heavy plain-clothes man chewing on a cigar and wearing a dark felt hat.”
Potent on themes that still bother us greatly today.
The Three Widows (1952)
This novel opens with an evocative and heart warming scene. A day at a Californian beach; rammed car parks, constant coach drop offs, sun-seekers from across the country, including one anonymous middle aged couple not attracting any attention. There are parasols, towels, crammed spaces in the sun, boats and bands:
“They were happy. All of them were happy—for the moment…”
The descriptions are complimented by sharp individual portraits:
“And there was the boy with stormy red acne scars cut deep in his cheeks….the boy who came along with his folks because he couldn’t get a date with a girl.”
“And the girl whose figure was adolescently thick and who wore a red-and-white crew hat with her name stitched on the brim and who was with three other girls because the boy she hoped would ask her to go with the gang had invited another girl.”
So domestic, so reminiscent of everyone’s seaside experience. This is Monterey Bay on the Pacific coast. As the beach clears and the crowds swarm the boardwalks and promenades Officer Ed Doty takes a break in White’s cafe. That’s when he spots the man still on the beach, even though it’s getting colder and the tide is coming in. Doty investigates, the man is dead, he has no ID. Mr and Mrs Bladeswell of Omaha, Nebraska are shocked but it reminds Mr. Bladeswell of a death when they visited Yellowstone two years before. A man fell to his death, no identity on him either. They all joke about the Bladeswells being middle-aged murderers. When the police look into things a similar event in Yosemite comes to light. The Bladeswells continue their holidays in El Valle Escondido. They meet up with a friend from back home, Chet. Single Chet is the focus of the attention for three widows: Mrs Ferguson, Mrs. Meadows and Mrs. Smith. As they get to know the ladies, Mr Bladeswell starts to get the idea that one of these women could be a murderer. He begins to investigate, placing himself in danger, the killer may not be finished.
I admit this set up requires a suspension of disbelief but it’s worth it. There’s an Agatha Christie-style ending, a big reveal, which brings a final twist. Carey enjoys playing with the untried proto-detective and generally this novel is sassier, the dialogue sharper and more comic, there is a great interplay between the characters. The ordinary is subverted by the above suspicion perpetrator.
The two novels here are subtle tales, neither takes a standard route to the investigation. The Three Widows is wittier but both play on our fears. There’s even a touch of the philosophical:
“When he was left alone to do as he pleased—to rest, to play, to eat and make love–not teased nor driven nor subjected to situations resembling the maze like contraptions with which scientist produced neurosis in rats–man was a harmless creature, a live-and-let-live sort of being.” [The Three Widows]
Bernice Carey is well deserving of a new audience and to be restored to the pantheon of crime writing history.
Paul Burke 4/4
The Man Who Got Away With It and Three Widows by Bernice Carey
Stark House Press 9781944520809 pbk May 2019