Wednesday, September 19, 2018

How to Succeed at Murder Without Really Trying: The Reluctant Murderer (1949), by Bernice Carey

I had never cared for detective stories, and for a moment I regretted it.  If I had read more of them I might now be familiar with different means of doing away with people.  I am not one to leave things to the last minute, nor to be vague about my plans; but somehow I had put off really getting down to business on working this thing out.  After all, one has a natural reluctance about taking human life....

--The Reluctant Murderer (1949), by Bernice Carey

pick your victim....
Bernice Carey's 1949 debut crime novel, The Reluctant Murderer, is a wickedly devious suspense tale where one of the characters, no-nonsense forty-year-old San Francisco career woman Vivian Haines, is planning to carry out a murder.  She doesn't want to do it, you see, but the idea irresistibly comes to mind while she reading a letter from her sister Anne inviting her to a weekend house party at Anne's cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains above Los Gatos.

With her new notion now firmly lodged in mind--"murder was the answer" she says to herself--Vivian departs for Anne's house with her phlegmatic salesman fiancee, Culbert, an old friend of the family's. 

At Anne's country place Vivian and Culbert encounter the war widow's handsome new boyfriend, Johnny Lloyd.  About Johnny Vivian expresses decided disdain:

I got his number the first time I ever saw him, lounging around on [Anne's] fancy outdoor furniture in sloppy slacks and huaraches, and no shirt--so he could show off his muscles and his nice, evenly browned skin, and the black hair on his chest....

He was, it seemed, going to be the next John Steinbeck, or maybe it was William Saroyan--I forget which.  He had a shack two ravines over from Anne's house, and I judged that he was at that time living off his discharge pay from the Army and his unemployment insurance.  She had known him for a year now and to my knowledge he hadn't done a day's work in all that time.

malice domestic in the Santa Cruz mountains
Also present at the cabin--a really cool-sounding shingled structure with multiple levels and decks--is Vivian and Anne's wealthy and eccentric spinster aunt, Maud Twilliger, of whom Vivian sourly observes:

Any northern Californian knows that the southern part of the state is populated almost exclusively by screwballs, and I do believe Aunt Maud is the epitome of southern California crackpots.

Anne and Vivian are Aunt Maud's heirs, though Vivian fears the influence on her odd aunt of her demonstratively doting companion, self-effacing Miss Pringle, and her chauffeur, Alphonse.  All the ingredients for a nice domestic murder--not the between-the-wars English country house type but rather the mid-century modern California country cabin sort.

But just who will be murdered?  Like in Pat McGerr's celebrated crime novel Pick Your Victim, published three years earlier, considerable suspense is maintained in The Reluctant Murderer over the matter of the murderee's identity.  It adds to the suspense when scheming Vivian begins to suspect that someone is trying to murder her!  Will this be the case of the biter bit?

This is a fine crime novel, arguably a classic of mid-century domestic suspense, with a pleasingly tangled (and untangled) plot.  It was an impressive debut indeed for the author, and it was rightly designated "something special" by Bernice Carey's publisher, Doubleday.  I have hopes this title will be reprinted in the not so distant future.  I will keep you posted!


  1. Definitely sounds like my cup of tea. Looking forward to hearing about the reprint news.

  2. Yeah, I’m hoping this and one other title will start the murder ball rolling.

  3. Judging by the slim pickings sprinkled around the interweb, Mrs. Carey's fasincating books seem very scarce indeed. Beautiful DJ's too.

  4. Yes they are rare—for the moment. I’ll keep you updated. Also am doing a post on the jackets.