Originally published in 1958.
His name was Andrew. He had married seven women and attended their funerals – each time a little richer. At first that was all they knew about him. But they wondered…
Then they thought of using bait. An eighth wife? A lonely, sulky, attractive girl who needed the money they were willing to pay.
It was a good plan. It began to work. The bait was taken. Too late they realized they could never know how or when she was due to die.
This past week my wife, daughter and I decided to take advantage of our schedules aligning to enable us to get away for a few days. We spent a lovely few days in Greenville and Asheville (South and North Carolina respectively, visiting the marvellous Downton Abbey exhibit at Biltmore) and amazingly I even found time to actually read a couple of books.
The Eighth Mrs. Bluebeard was one of the selections I received as part of my last month’s Coffee and Crime shipment. I had not heard of the story before, nor was the author particularly familiar to me (though I have heard of Last Seen Wearing and suspect I even have a copy of that boxed up somewhere), but I was intrigued by the allusion to the Bluebeard folktale in the title.
For those unfamiliar with the story, it generally goes something like this. A woman marries a powerful noble whose previous wives have all mysteriously disappeared. He then departs on a trip but before leaving he gives her the keys to his chateau, allowing her to go anywhere except for one mysterious room. Inevitably, driven by curiosity, she breaks that rule and upon entering she finds the bodies of each of his previous wives hanging from hooks.
The story is an interesting one that has been frequently reworked over the years and I was curious whether the references would be incidental or if the folk tale would be utilized in a more direct and meaningful way by the novella.
A key difference between that folk tale and this novel is that here we begin the story in the knowledge that Andrew is a killer who is murdering his wives for the insurance money. While we may not have a definite confirmation until later in the story, there is enough evidence pointing to that conclusion from the facts presented to Jack Graham, the insurance salesman who was responsible for selling him his most recent policy, for us to have no doubt of that.
What this means is that our characters are knowingly engaging with a dangerous killer and so, rather than building to a moment of shock, Waugh is building suspense as we see these characters working themselves closer to Andrew. This prompts us to wonder whether he will get wise to their plan and, if so, whether they can keep themselves safe. This is the stuff solid thrillers are made from and unsurprisingly it works well here, particularly once the tensions within the group become clearer.
Jack is pressured by his boss, J. B. Stanford, to run a sting operation to try and snare this insurance fraudster. This, we are told, is not because he thinks he can recover his money but because he feels a sense of anger at being defrauded. It is almost a point of honor for him and he is willing to spend well beyond anything he can hope to recover if he succeeds to make this happen.
Jack’s role is to confirm the identity of this serial wife-murderer based on his memories of the meeting he had with him in the past to sell him that policy. A private investigator, Charles Miles, tracks down some likely individuals and then, once their identity is confirmed, the plan is to entice him to marry Gene Taylor and then to try to catch him in the act of attempting to murder her.
Clearly this plan is both irresponsible and inherently runs a high risk of failure and I would not blame readers for feeling that it seems unlikely. Waugh’s solution is to make a conscious statement that we are throwing logic out of the window. Everyone acknowledges that this plan is foolhardy but they also know that their boss, Stanford, will be driven to seek his revenge regardless.
One of my favorite parts of the book is when the story is told of how Stanford refused to hand over his wallet in an armed robbery, essentially daring the criminal to shoot him, only for it to transpire that he had less than five dollars in there – an amount he could easily afford to lose. I feel that story perfectly sums up this character and explains his personality and obsession with catching this man. While that does not exactly excuse some of the more far fetched plot elements here, it certainly goes a long way toward making the characterizations feel pretty logical and consistent.
Rather inevitably complications occur, not least as Jack and Charles are each drawn to Gene and become extremely competitive with each other. This rivalry is largely destructive, not only causing friction as they work to set up their plan but also causing them to become distracted and sometimes to take risks in the hope of blocking the other man’s advances.
At first Gene appears to be more of a plot device or lure than a fully dimensional character and yet I think she is actually one of the most interesting characters in the book. One question that looms over the early part of the story is why she would take the very high risk that she might be murdered and I am pleased to say that when we finally do get an explanation it both makes sense and also helps make her more relatable and likeable. Waugh frequently reminds us that for her this is far from a game – this is a life or death situation – and in doing so draws an interesting comparison with the other characters involved in the scheme.
Jack is arguably a less pleasant person, often seeming quite dismissive of what Gene is telling him that she wants. This is not a particularly pleasant attribute in a character, particularly when there is an allegedly romantic subplot on offer, though he certainly is easier to like than Charles who comes off as a pretty sleazy individual.
The sequences in which they set up their trap for Andrew are really quite fascinating and while the idea of avoiding going to the police feels very dangerous and foolish, the plan they develop and the psychology it relies on convinces. I enjoyed following them as they set things up and wondering just how Andrew would protect himself and escape from danger.
Things get even more compelling once the pair are married and I found myself gripped by the tension whenever it seemed that discovery was inevitable. It builds to an exciting and rather powerful ending that utilizes some other elements of the folk tale in interesting and rather clever ways.
Of course the other character we need to address is Andrew, our killer, who makes for a rather interesting specimen. As with Gene, he initially appears to be a rather simplistic creation who exists to create trouble rather than to respond to those problems. While he is given some character traits, he is often presented more as a looming or threatening presence than as an actual, three-dimensional man. In other circumstances I might be frustrated by the seeming blandness of the antagonist, particularly in an inverted-style story, but here I think it works well because it places the focus on the tensions within our group of protagonists.
The romance between Jack and Gene is treated more as a plot point that affects the plan rather than being developed as a convincing, deep connection between the two characters. That is not unexpected given the compact nature of this story but it did mean that I was not as invested in that relationship working as I could have been, keeping some moments from later in the story from having the sort of impact they might have achieved.
Similarly, I would note that the ending does feel rather rushed given the considerable build up that takes place. That being said, I was satisfied by the mechanics of those final chapters and felt that it hit the most important points, resolving everything.
That brevity and speed is both this story’s greatest strength and its flaw. It is fast-moving, interesting and compelling. I certainly had no difficulty remaining engaged with the story and I wanted to see how it would all be resolved. The least satisfying aspect for me was its underbaked romance but as a mixture of a thriller and heist story it delivered.
The Verdict: A clever story that blends the best features of the inverted mystery and heist styles.
JF Norris @ Pretty Sinister Books reviewed the book noting that Waugh delivers a few tricks that elevate this from ‘a routine B movie plot’.