Saturday, January 6, 2018

Murder's Little Helper: Hours to Kill (1962), by Ursula Curtiss

"Kids are different today," I hear every mother say
Mother needs something today to calm her down.
And though she's not really ill, there's a little yellow pill.
She goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And it helps her on her way, gets her through her busy day.

"Things are different today," I hear every mother say
Cooking fresh food for her husband's just a drag.
So she buys an instant cake and she burns her frozen steak.
And she goes running for the shelter of a mother's little helper
And two help her on her way, get her through her busy day.

"Doctor, please, some more of these."
Outside the door, she took four more.

                                        --from "Mother's Little Helper," by the Rolling Stones

it helps get her on her on way--to where?!
But she went on wondering, while she put potatoes in to bake, took frozen vegetables out of the refrigerator, swept up some cereal Hilary had poked under the radiator....

Hilary was, loosely speaking, another human being, a voice and a full set of complaints to keep her occupied.  "Would you like some apple-sauce--that goes down easily--and milk? and I'll bring my coffee in, shall I?"

She felt caught in a dangerous spiral from which only activity, any kind at all, could release her.

Margaret could never remember having spoken aloud to herself, in whatever extremity; when she had heard people do it on stage, it smacked of self-consciousness.  Now, hands still tight against her face, she said to the neat blue and white pantry, "Oh God, what shall I do?"

A year after the publication of American crime writer Ursula Curtiss's novel Hours to Kill (1962)--quoted in the four excerpts above about the novel's angst-ridden protagonist, Margaret Russell--Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique--a non-fiction book about the angst-ridden lives led by many American women--appeared in print.  Having been asked in 1957 to conduct a survey of her former Smith College classmates for their 15th anniversary reunion, Friedan had concluded from the responses she received that dissatisfaction with their lot in life as housewives was rife among them.  This shocking finding--perhaps not so shocking to Friedan--led her to begin researching her book, which became the bestselling non-fiction book in the US in 1964. 

Two year later NOW (the National Organization for Women) was founded, with Friedan as its first president.  The group's professed aim was bringing women "into the mainstream of American society now in fully equal partnership with men.

The same year that NOW was founded that noted feminist British rock group (sarcasm!), the Rolling Stones, rose to #8 on the American pop charts with Mother's Little Helper, a catchy, snarky little ditty about Sixties wives and mothers popping Valium pills to get themselves through their days. 

Critics of The Feminine Mystique saw the book
as a society shattering attack on domesticity and
those who practiced it, while defenders saw it as
a legitimate and overdue airing of criticism of
a cruelly self-effacing social system--yet
however you see it yourself there is no doubt
but that the book was hugely influential

Social conservatives denounced all this as an attack on the sacred sex roles of wifedom and motherhood.  As late as 2005 the magazine Human Events even included The Feminine Mystique, in an interesting melange of  books devoted to expanding state power and expanding personal liberty, with The Communist Manifesto,  Mein Kampf, Quotations from Chairman Mao, Das Kapital, The Kinsey Report, John Dewey's Democracy and Education, Auguste Comte's The Course of Positive Philosophy, Freidrich Nietzsche's Beyond Good and Evil and John Maynard Keynes's General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money, as one of the Ten Most Harmful Books of the 19th and 20th Centuries. 

Feminism and the Holocaust, Friedan and Hitler--it's all pretty comparable to the folks at Human Events, evidently (Hitler comes in at #2 and Friedan at #7, that dynamic ideological duo Marx and Engels claiming the top spot as world harmers of the last 200 years). Tellingly, perhaps, the only woman Human Events apparently managed to find to serve on the panel of "15 scholars and public policy leaders" who served as judges was the late Phyllis Schlafley, the feminist-battling late president of Eagle Forum, whose last political act before her death was enthusiastically endorsing Donald Trump for president.

Meanwhile The Feminine Mystique rolls triumphantly on, over a decade after Friedan's death. A few years ago Norton published a special 50th Anniversary Edition, complete with a cover blurb by the Huffington Post's Arianna Huffington, drawn from O, the Oprah Magazine.  We are a divided country still.

Putting all the controversy aside, since this is, after all, a mystery blog, I couldn't help being reminded of all the above by the subject matter and the cover of the English edition of Ursula Curtiss's marvelous little (I mean this literally, the book at 160 pages is less than 60,000 words, and none the worse for it) 1962 suspense novel, Hours to Kill.

The artful jacket, by Christopher McCartney Filgate, depicts a jaded looking, orange-hued woman holding between her fingertips a little greenish-blue pill (actually a blue and yellow capsule in the book).  Though not in fact a Valium, the sinister pill, which is prescribed to a woman, plays a major role in the nightmare of horror that unfolds over a few days in the life of imperiled house-sitter and child-minder Margaret Russell.

mornidine: making cooking fresh food
for her husband fun again
When the novel opens, single, New York working girl Margaret Russell (the informal book flap description names the book's principals by their first names, omitting surnames entirely) has flown to a town in New Mexico to mind the rented house of her recently married sister, Cornelia, who is leaving on holiday with her husband, Philip, in order to recover from a recent serious bout with flu. 

Once arrived in New Mexico, helpful Margaret, who once had been engaged to Philip herself (awkward!), is tasked for a few weeks with caring for the attractive adobe house that Cornelia and Philip rented from a certain Mrs. Hadley Foale, as well as for the rambunctious eight-year-old little girl, Hilary Reverton, who was dumped on the  couple by her carefree, Greenwich Village denizen parents, who are said to be trying out a marital reconciliation in Mexico City. 

Margaret knows those Village Bohemian types, of course, who are frequent ill-favored stock characters in mid-century crime fiction: "Margaret had never seen Hilary's parents, but she was suddenly and uncomfortably sure that they were legendary Village types: sneakered, turtleneck-sweatered, so casual...."

It isn't long before Margaret has been left alone with Hilary at the house that she starts imagining all sorts of things, and that a sense of mounting unease slips in unbidden, whispering to her a series of insinuating questions....Where exactly is Mrs. Hadley Foale, anyway?  Why do these strange visitors keep coming to the house asking about her? 

Although naughtily inquisitive Hilary has been told to leave Mrs. Foale's possessions alone, she has a knack for snooping and finding the most cryptically unsettling things....

And why does she not hear from Cornelia and Philip?  Why don't they ever call?

in Hours to Kill
little Hilary Reverton
ties Margaret Russell
all up in knots (figuratively)
I hate to say too much about the plot of this splendid suspense tale, for fear of spoiling it, so I will leave it at that.  But to me it is a fascinating exploration of "domestic suspense."  This does seem to be a novel where domesticity becomes a snare for one woman, where thick adobe walls (Curtiss excels at making this unusual setting as menacing as any Gothic castle or old dark house) shut out the world, entrapping a woman in the home with horror--and an eight-year-old hellion, who adds to Margaret's headaches when she comes down with something like flu herself.

Margaret only ever manages to leave the house a couple of times, once to take Hilary to the movie theater, where--in an act that doubtlessly would be considered child endangerment today--she leaves the girl unaccompanied to watch a film so that she can get an hour of two of comparative peace.

Margaret becomes increasingly dependent on her phone, fretfully waiting for call that don't come, leaving her prone to fearful imaginings.  She occupies her time with domestic tasks, which start to overwhelm her, despite having "all the modern household conveniences," like jars of  instant coffee (now there's something scary to modern readers!) and bags of frozen vegetables in the fridge. Although even somethign as simple as making instant coffee can be a trial when you're...unsettled:

It was the kind of morning on which catastrophe seems built-in, a smell of smoke hovers just around the corner, cups and glasses topple of themselves.  Margaret had begun it by opening a fresh jar of instant coffee and, in her distraction, forgetting what happened when vacuum seals were punctured at high altitude. A geyser of brown powder shot up and then settled down over her hair, her dress, her hands.  It was somehow, at just this point, the most natural thing in the world, and after the merest washing of her hands she wore the powder as grimy as a hair shirt while she waited for water to boil.

another of mother's little helpers
Betty Friedan has been accused in The Feminine Mystique of ignoring the plights of women who weren't middle class and white, and, interestingly, in Hours to Kill Margaret gets no help from her demure and circumspect Mexican-heritage occasional maid, Lena, and is frankly fearful of a Mexican-heritage handyman she can't understand who pounds insistently on her door a couple of times. (Margaret pretends not to be home.)

"These people are gentle as a rule--courteous to an extreme," a (white) doctor, come to treat Hillary, tells Margaret.  "I suppose now and then one of them gets a wine-drinking streak on...."  There does seem to some distance, doesn't there?

To be sure, one can push this Friedan scenario too far.  Readers can judge for themselves just how feminist the resolution to Hours to Kill is.  In all the Ursula Curtiss books I have read there remains that stock figure of so much mid-century domestic suspense fiction: the handsome (and ultimately eligible) male who helps get our heroine out of her jam and promises pleasant romantic diversion in the future.

I suspect that Betty Friedan, a critic in The Feminine Mystique of the lulling content of mid-century women's magazines, would have been pretty dubious about these sorts of fictional happy endings. Among women domestic suspense writers in the English-speaking world, I think Margaret Millar and Celia Fremlin pushed a bit harder against comforting conventions.

Like Friedan, some of Curtiss's readers may well have found domestic life dull and dreary (and desperately unfulfilling), but I don't know that they all were willing to go as far along with Friedan in the search for prescriptions to ease that sense of personal malaise.

don't be deceived by appearances--danger lurks inside


  1. Fascinating post here. I taught a course a year or so ago at Mason on "Women of Mystery" where we tried to look at texts against the backdrop of changing attitudes toward gender roles and responsibilities--the tensions that fiction explored, the ways in which stories/novels reflected and/or commented on prevailing attitudes and expectations.

    Anyway, that's the context in which I'm reading this post--and looking forward to the book itself. Thanks for the essay here.

    1. Thanks, Art, glad you stopped by to say you liked the review, with it’s context. I definitely was struck by how the novel seemed to be reflecting some of the issues roiling the times.

    2. Kate Wilhelm, Kit Reed and Carol Emshwiller were always ready to take on these kinds of issues...Wilhelm still is, I suspect (Emwhwiller isn't writing these days, and Reed, unfortunately, has died). Such heirs as Elizabeth Hand and Kathe Koja do much better work than our Gone-ing Gals.

  2. I've just finished it and I'd say it has a great build-up with nice atmospheric touches and some extremely suspenseful moments but a let-down of a resolution. I was aware I was not reading a Millar novel but I expected some shocking twist that never happened. Overall however it is a great book and a bravura performance in that Curtiss manages to sustain reader's interest with only two main characters that never or rarely leave the house and nothing much happening until the final chapters. Also poison kid Hilary is a great creation which I suspect was rooted in real-life experience.

    1. Yeah, I really enjoy Curtiss but on my readings I would not put her in Miller’s class. But then Millar is the very top! I’ll try to do another soon!