Originally published in 1975
Garth Sullivan lives in the same brownstone as his brother Howdy and his wife, Pamela. Garth once had a career as a woodworker, but that ended when Howdy accidentally caused the slicing of his two fingers. He once had Pamela, too. But now all he has is hate. A festering hate that only grows stronger with each dinner date. But Garth has a plan. It’s a great plan, a wonderful plan. All he has to do to rid himself of Howdy is to fake his own death, and wait for the perfect moment to kill him. Unfortunately, he doesn’t take Eunice into consideration. Eunice is their less-than-attractive neighbor, and she is in love with Garth. So when she sees him outside the building after everyone else thinks he’s dead, she vows to keep his secret. But some secrets just can’t be kept…
Garth Sullivan has resented his happy-go-lucky brother Howdy since they were children, in part because their mother seemed to favor Howdy and excuse the various injuries he dealt Garth. Since then Howdy has caused several more serious injuries including the loss of several fingers in an act of drunken carelessness, rendering Garth unable to pursue his passion for woodworking. For Garth however the deepest cut was how, when his relationship with his girlfriend Pam was floundering in the aftermath of the accident, Howdy seemed to steal her from him leading to the pair eventually marrying.
What adds to Garth’s problems is that he cannot seem to get away from Howdy as the pair live in the same building and he is frequently asked to socialize with them. Howdy, seemingly oblivious to Garth’s upset, has even taken to suggesting that romance might be in the offing with their awkward neighbor Eunice, trying to throw them together. What transforms Garth’s sentiments from sibling resentments to a murderous rage is an incident involving an item which, unbeknownst to Howdy, has a great significance for Garth…
My Brother’s Killer, the last of Jean Potts’ crime novels, is a story told in an inverted style in which we follow Garth as he schemes to bring about his brother’s murder as a prelude to starting a new life for himself. After carefully setting out how those tensions came about, we then see Garth starting to execute his scheme though we have little sense of what he exactly he is planning at that point – only his end goal.
As a storytelling technique this is quite exciting as it certainly creates a sense of mystery concerning the significance of his preparations. Much of the early intrigue lies in trying to understand just what his plan entails as we also get to know these characters better and understand the complex emotional dynamics at play in the various relationships, not only between the brothers but also the other residents of the brownstone in which they live.
After the first stage of Garth’s plan is pulled off however our focus on his actions is relaxed and he begins to operate in the background with our focus falling instead on those in his brother’s orbit. This can be quite effective, particularly in exploring the ways in which they react to what he has done, but with this shift in focus I think the piece loses some of its energy and bite. There is, of course, still plenty of tension and suspense but the awkward introduction of several new characters, Lenny and David, at this stage in the story slows things down and threatens to draw our attention away from the novel’s central conflict.
The introduction of David in particular feels odd as it attempts to graft a more sympathetic hero-figure onto a story featuring more nuanced, complex characters. Potts has to work hard to integrate him into the story and I struggled at points to understand why that character would choose to get involved in the way he does here.
I was more interested in the reactions of those who had known Garth well, particularly Eunice who we know nursed an unrequited love for her neighbor. Potts does a fine job of showing the complexities and contradictions within her character and I appreciate also that there are some moments that show her resourcefulness and explore her feelings towards him.
Perhaps the least developed of the characters, at least in the way he is presented to us, is Howdy. Of all the characters in the brownstone, he seems to be given the least to do and he seems oblivious to the dangers facing him for most of the story. This is perhaps necessary for the purposes of the plot but it also means that while we come to understand Garth’s perspective about Howdy, we know far less about how the latter feels about his brother. That is not necessarily a problem as our focus is really on Garth’s perceptions of that relationship and how that motivates him to want to murder but it does feel like we learn about his character primarily through others’ thoughts and actions rather than his own which isn’t as tidy as it might have been.
While I found that the plot seemed to slow as David comes to the fore, there are still some moments of excitement though the book’s conclusion felt a little rushed and anticlimactic after so much buildup. There are certainly some interesting emotional notes generated by its ending, but though I think Potts provides a really compelling resolution to that story, I couldn’t help but feel that we might have got there sooner and that this moment might have benefited by less unnecessary buildup and a greater focus on the brothers themselves.
The Verdict: I enjoyed the scenario Potts creates and her exploration of Garth’s character and resentments but I felt that the storytelling lost a little focus after the novel’s midpoint. While this may have been necessary to stretch out the story, I would have preferred it be shorter and more tightly focused on its compelling central relationship.
Second Opinions: Martin Edwards @ Do You Write Under Your Own Name? recently featured the title as one of his Friday Forgotten Books. While the review is not exactly a rave, it describes the book as a good example of Potts’ craft as a storyteller.
Elsewhere, A Hot Cup of Pleasure featured a short review of the book in a post about three of Potts’ works. One point made that interested me was the suggestion that we can understand Garth’s anger toward his brother, which I agree with, those I think we are bound to lose that sympathy with him later in the story.
Interested in purchasing this book to read it yourself? This book was recently reprinted by Stark House in a twofer edition along with The Diehard, another novel by Potts I have yet to review on this blog. Your local bookseller should be able to order you a copy with the ISBN 978-1-951473-74-7.