The Reluctant Murderer by Bernice Carey
Originally published in 1949
Collected with The Body on the Sidewalk by Stark House
We know that Vivian Haines intends to commit murder this weekend. She tells us so. But who is her intended victim? Could it be her wealthy aunt, who is supposed to leave her half her fortune one day? Or her frivolous sister and her seemingly penniless boyfriend? Or perhaps her aunt’s mousy companion, or her long-suffering chauffeur? Or Vivian’s own fiancé, the fastidious Cuthbert? All we know is what Vivian tells us as her efforts to plan and execute the perfect murder are constantly thwarted. Now Vivian is beginning to panic. Could one of them suspect her? Could one of them be planning to kill her before she can murder them first?
I never quite know how best to handle writing about the collections of novels and novellas done by publishers such as Stark House. I am aware that most readers coming to The Reluctant Murderer will be curious about the value of the package overall and yet I bristle a little at the prospect of writing about them as a pair, particularly as they were not conceived in that way (and, in this case, they are presented out of publication order). The plan then is to tackle them separately but I will try and get to the other by the end of November so that those who want to know what I think of the volume as a whole will have a better sense of that.
So, why did I start with The Reluctant Murderer? It is not, as you might suspect, that I wanted to start at the beginning or that I simply enjoy being contrary. I was attracted to its rather unusual premise which seemed to offer a slightly different take on the inverted mystery than I have come across before.
Vivian Haines receives a note from her sister Anne instructing her to get on a commuter train on Friday afternoon and spend the weekend with her. Their Aunt Maud has paid an unannounced visit to her home, prompting Anne to organize an impromptu family reunion. While Anne acknowledges that the weekend will be ‘deadly’, given Maud’s various strong opinions about matters like drinking and smoking, the sisters are also aware that as they are likely to be the only heirs to Aunt Maud’s fortune they need to put up with it to keep her happy. After all, as Anne notes, ‘half a million is still half a million – especially with prices like they are!’
Anne’s first reaction to this invitation is not to express her dread but instead it prompts her to realize that murder might be the answer to her problems. What we are not told at this point however is what the problem is that she is trying to fix and who she intends to kill. In the chapters that follow we will observe her actions as she tries to carry out her plan and try to deduce the answers to those questions and work out what she is trying to achieve. In other words, this is a blend of a whydunnit and who’dyawannadoitto. Yes, I am open to a better name for that latter one…
The novel is narrated by Vivian herself which was a smart choice, not only because it allows us to hear her internal monologue and understand her character better but because it makes it easier for Carey to obfuscate her meaning at times without it feeling like the reader is being cheated or manipulated. To give one example, Vivian is able to describe an early attempt to kill that goes awry without mentioning exactly who she was aiming at – with a third-person narration style it would feel odd for us not be given all of those details whereas in the first person it reads a little more naturally because our focus is on Vivian’s feelings – her fears and hopes – rather than describing the physical action.
The other advantage of this style is it allows us to really explore Vivian’s psychological state as she responds to what she perceives happening around her. I felt the depiction of her growing sense of fear and paranoia as she wonders if others are onto her is really effective and, once again, the choice to stick close to her and experience events from her perspective means that we are not afforded the comfort of a dispassionate third person perspective on events. Like Vivian, I found myself thoroughly suspicious of everyone else as the story went on as I wondered exactly what each character had in mind.
One of the other aspects of this setup I admired is that Vivian is shown to be a complex and dimensional character worthy of our interest. It quickly seems clear that she is quite sharp, independent and resourceful which had me wondering just what could have prompted her to feel that she needed to carry out the murder at all. This only served to increase my interest in understanding the different relationships at play within the house and learning more about the other characters.
As with Vivian, I felt that Carey does a good job of fleshing out the other characters who make up the house party. While some feature more prominently than others, I felt that I had a pretty good grasp of each of the individuals, their various secrets and relationships to one another by the end and I enjoyed the process of discovering that information.
My only complaint really with the setup is that I think the author is a little too effective in laying the groundwork for the reveal of who Vivian’s intended victim might be. There was a sentiment expressed early in the novel that stood out a little too much and so while I had some suspicions of what other characters may be up to, I felt pretty clear from the beginning as to who the intended victim was. Happily the question of why was a little harder to solve and I found the eventual explanation to be quite satisfying.
I felt that the clueing to that solution was fine overall, though I would suggest that this book reads better as a work of suspense rather than detective fiction. That reflects that there is more of a focus here on intent and exploring our would-be killer’s mental state than there is on the action taking place. Similarly I think that the resolution will feel more satisfactory when looked at through that psychological lens than viewed through a criminous one.
Overall I enjoyed this first taste of Carey’s work which struck me as a rather ambitious debut work. My plan is to tackle The Body on the Sidewalk as my next Carey read but if anyone has any recommendations for where to go after that I’d be glad to read your thoughts!
The Verdict: An intriguing and unusual variation on the inverted form making for a wonderfully suspenseful read.