"You think," she said slowly, "they gossip a lot here?"
"Think?...I know....I don't know why it is, in a little place like this where everybody knows everybody else, they should be so willing to think the worst of everybody else all the time."
"I've seen enough of human nature, and most of the time it ain't a very pretty sight....It's the little mean, petty things. I tell you, I'd almost rather see 'em ram a real knife into somebody else than do the way they do, running around sticking knives in each other in ways it don't show."
"There's something about murder. You're so shocked at it, it being so unexpected in the first place, and then your mind gets all taken up with who might have done it; and it's sort of like you said...people forget about the human side."
--The Beautiful Stranger (1951), by Bernice Carey
|Too beautiful to live--in Conway?|
The mid-century dean of American crime fiction criticism, Anthony Boucher (who died 50 years ago this year), highly praised several of Bernice Carey's crime novels, including The Beautiful Stranger (1951), which concerns a brutal killing in a California company mill town.
Although he was always a devoted fan of classic mystery from the Golden Age, Boucher welcomed the turn in the middle of the 20th century toward more realistic, everyday settings, rather than the baronial country manors and posh urban penthouses so often found in classic-style mystery:
|Bernice Carey (1910-1990)|
The man from Mars, reading a year's crop of whodunits, would wind up with some strange ideas as to the prevalence of penthouses and country estates, and would never learn even of the existence of trade unions. (Which is particularly odd since most writers belong to a trade organization of some sort, the Mystery Writers of America or the Authors Guild.)
In 1930, Bernice and Walter were living in Ventura, California, where Walter worked in the oil fields as a rotary helper on a drilling rig. Later in the Thirties they moved to the company town of Spreckels Salinas Valley, once home to the world's largest sugar beet factory, where Walter was a factory foreman. Famed author John Steinbeck once worked in Spreckels, where he heard stories which ended up in his book Tortilla Flat (1935).
In 1940, Bernice and Walter were living to the east of the city of Salinas in Alisal, then known as "Little Oklahoma" on account of the heavy migration there of Oklahomans, or "Okies," displaced by calamitous dust storms in the American Plains. (The Okies experience was famously chronicled by Steinbeck in the 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath.) Bernice gave birth to two sons and published poetry in magazines. Both she and Walter were active in left-wing politics.
Bernice Carey's fourth crime novel, The Beautiful Stranger, reflects this labor background. The titular character is Terese, a young woman said to be even more attractive than Elizabeth Taylor who has come to the small company mill town of Conway, which is named for the Conway family, fabulously wealthy absentee owners who live palatially in San Francisco.
In 1951, the same year that Doubleday's Crime Club published The Beautiful Stranger, Kay Williams, fifth wife of Adolph Bruno Spreckels II, divorced her husband after six years of marriage and the birth of two children. Actor Clark Gable was named as a party in Spreckels' countersuit, which accused Kay of having lured Gable into intimacy on the grounds of the Spreckels mansion with the immortal line, "Clark, come down here, I want to show you the bougainvillea." For her part Kay claimed Spreckels was a drunk who once ripped off her clothes and chopped down the door of her dressing room with an ax in order to get at her. She later married Clark Gable and bore him a son. I'm guessing there was plenty of bougainvillea planted at the couple's digs.
I think Carey alludes to the adventures of the Spreckels clan in this passage from the novel:
|Kay William and her third husband,|
Some of the old-timers had actually seen one or more Conways, getting out of limousines at the steps of the front office, or flanked by worshipful attendants during inspection tours of the mill. Tom McGowan had actually had his hand shaken by old T. J. Now, of course T. J. seldom left the seventeen-hundred-acre ranch in the Peninsula hills below San Francisco....
The people of Conway took a casual, friendly interest in the doings of the family who owned their mill. If they read in the papers that Felicia Conway was being sued for divorce by another of the scions of the old European families whom she deemed to have a fancy for marrying, they would sometimes shake their heads in tolerant amazement at the size of the settlement reputedly made on the disillusioned ex-prince as the price of Felicia's freedom; but they didn't think much about it. Nor of how many of young Tyler Conway's race horses won prizes at Bay Meadows or Santa Anita.
They were, in fact, strangely indifferent to the Conways.....If word had come one day that the whole Conway tribe had been wiped out by an atomic explosion, the population of Conway would have thought, "That's too bad," and gone calmly ahead with its conveyor belts in the mill and its lawn-mowing on the East Side.
|Adolph Bruno Spreckels Mansion in San Francisco (left)|
now the home of Danielle Steel, 4th documents
bestselling author in history, after Agatha Christie
William Shakespeare and Barbara Cartland
To her dismay Terese finds that most of the women of Conway view her with suspicion, on account of her great beauty and seeming remoteness. Why would someone who looks like that ever come to this little place, is the prevailing view. Here we get another study in a crime novel of the subject of individualism vs. conformity, but less in the Gothic terms I discussed in an earlier post than in realistic ones. There are both social and political implications (see below).
Carey digs in deep into the town's social attitudes, and it makes very interesting reading, filled with insight. "In Conway people never really expected to get the Best, in women or in anything else about life," Carey observes. "Somehow in Conway you just accepted the fact--without even thinking about it--that there were all kinds of things that were too good for you, things that only people like Mr. Faber and the almost mythical Conway family could have."
|1920 3br/2ba craftsman house in Spreckels|
(today's asking price $623,000)
When the would-be town wolf, Les Coleman, starts flirting (futilely) with Terese, rumor alights from the idle tongues of housewives (who seem often to have too much time on their hands) that Terese must be somethign akin to a floozy. When Les is found beaten to death in an alley, suspicion focuses on Jim, though blame for Les' death is placed firmly on Terese. If Jim killed him, so the view runs, Terese must have driven him to it.
But is there an alternative explanation for Les's death, one having to do with the recent drive to expand union membership? The CIO has come to town, we learn, wanting to unionize every worker at the mill, and the owners and management aren't happy about that at all. In addition to being a wolf, it seems, Les had also been something of a stool-pigeon....
|1946 2br/1ba ranch house in Spreckels |
(today's asking price $399,000)
Anthony Boucher praised The Beautiful Stranger for achieving "an unusually successful blend of a study of union difficulties with a purely personal plot" and concluded that it "makes a movingly real novel." I have to agree that Carey does a wonderful job of bringing the town and its people to life in what constitutes a fascinating variant on the English village mystery, one however that happily sheds classic mystery's often condescending attitude toward the working class.
The labor issues couldn't be more timely for readers in the U.S. these days, with the attitudes of the white working class having become a much discussed topic from the 2016 presidential election. Conway seemingly is almost an all-white town, though the Fabers bring in a black maid from San Francisco, Dora, and there is a major second-generation Mexican-American character, Johnny Rodriguez. How much, readers may ask themselves, have popular attitudes changed since the 1950s, as portrayed in the novel?
|True Romance, February 1947|
(so that can't be Nicole Kidman on the cover)
This 1951 novel provides a great snapshot of the postwar years in the U.S., when women were being urged to shed wartime jobs, get married, keep house and raise kids, all for the good of the good old USA. Most of the women of Conway seem to have fallen in with this way of thinking. I immediately thought of the various Betty Friedan critiques from a decade later. (See this Ursula Curtiss blog post of mine.)
Wives tend to be more cautious about pushing the union issue, being fearful of jeopardizing their economic security and their tidy homes filled with "automatic" appliances and labor-saving devices. ("You men. Always taking things so seriously," chides Jim's mother about the union squabbles.) Yet they often are bored too. ("There was only so much housework one could find to do.") Jim's younger sister, Florence, idling in her life after high school, is addicted to romance magazines, her mother reflects.
Here's an example of some of the novel's social observation that accompanies the murder, as the author discusses Terese's modest dreams for her life in Conway:
|But can it rinse away guilt?|
Somehow, even when they wore clean, starched house dresses, most wives seemed to look slightly bedraggled until early afternoon. During the course of dishwashing and bedmaking and scrubbing out the bathroom washbowl, your lipstick faded and face powder mysteriously vanished and your hair separated and the starchiness departed from your skirt.
Lorraine did not stay long, but Terese went back to her ironing with a new buoyancy, thinking already of what she would wear the next evening and dreaming ahead of the days to come, when the rigidity would relax between her and Lorraine, and Lorraine would come and sit in the kitchen while she went right on with the ironing and they talked over all kinds of intimate things, like how soon they wanted to have babies and how much they had paid for their washing machines and whether an automatic was really the best....
This really is the essence of a crime novel, i.e., a study of how a murder impacts people's lives and, as such, it is a very good one indeed. People expecting the twistiness of a Margaret Millar or the British Crime Queens will be disappointed, but this novel, the first by Carey which I had then read, made me want to read more by the author. More soon to come on the author and her mysteries.
The crime novels of Bernice Carey:
The Reluctant Murderer 1949
The Body on the Sidewalk 1950
The Man Who Got Away with It 1950
The Beautiful Stranger 1951
The Three Widows 1952
The Missing Heiress 1952
Their Nearest and Dearest 1953
The Fatal Picnic 1955