Saturday, September 8, 2018

Woman Alone: The Beautiful Stranger (1951), by Bernice Carey

[Terese] noticed that the women who talked the most about how busy they were, how they just never got caught up with their work, were the very ones who spent the most hours having morning coffee in one anothers kitchens and standing on the path talking when they met coming to and from the store. Talking. And there had to be subjects for the talk.
"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?
Bernice Carey was born in 1910 on a farm near the small town of Chetek, Wisconsin, the child of farmers. (Her mother was the daughter of Norwegian immigrants.) She moved in 1923 to California, where between 1949 and 1955 she wrote eight highly praised crime novels.  At the age of only 45 a curtain fell over Carey's crime writing career, however, though she lived for another 35 years. 

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)
There's a belief among publishers and editors that American readers prefer, in their escape entertainment, a "nicer" sort of life than that which they themselves lead.  I'm not sure how justified this belief is; but it results in the fact that the lower middle class and the working man are almost completely absent from the detective story, save for incidental witnesses, comedy-relief bit-parts and an occasional Pegler-type labor racketeer.[This is a reference to right-wing curmudgeon journalist Westbrook Pegler, who won a Pulitzer Prize in 1941 for his work exposing racketeering in Hollywood labor unions.] 

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.)

Bernice Carey and her husband Walter H. Fitch, whom she married in California at the age of 18, not long after graduating from Long Beach Polytechnic High School (where she was a classmate of future mystery writer Floyd Mahannah, about whom more is coming soon).  The couple knew all about trade unions. 

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,
Clark Gable
Of course they [the townspeople] all knew, when they stopped to think about it, that there was a higher authority centered in an office in...San Francisco, where presumably there were flesh-and-blood Conways sitting at mahogany desks Making Decisions. 

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
The greatest strength of this novel is its depiction of life and attitudes in a mid-century company mill town.  The Conways not being an actual presence in the novel, its focus is on the mill "boss," Miles Faber, and his family (especially his daughter, Marguerite), and the various workers in the mill and their womenfolk, especially Jim McGowan and Terese, Jim's stunningly beautiful new bride, a former shopgirl from San Francisco. 

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)
Carey doesn't neglect the women, though--far from it.  Terese is an extremely well-rendered portrait, as are several more minor female characters in the novel, and the social observation of these women is on the level we find in the best Golden Age British mystery (though with genuine interest in all the classes, and not rendering the working class at the level of caricature).

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?
Terese was wearing a yellow sun-back dress with only straps over her shoulders, and even at ten in the morning she looked fresh as a daffodil.  Lorraine noticed that, and it fretted her a little. 

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


  1. Thank you for this article, first because it sounds exactly like the kind of mystery I'm currently after and second because I thought I was the only person on the web to have heard of Ms. Carey. Information about her is scarce online, and she isn't well-remembered in the mystery community despite Boucher's praise (reminds me of the similarly fated Jean Potts) The only book of hers that I read, The Reluctant Murder, was very good and is to my knowledge the only "whodunin" not written by Patricia McGerr. I find it both intriguing and fascinating that the Fifties despite their apparent embrace of patriarchy were such a glorious time for female crime writers - they were pretty much ahead of their male colleagues be it on thematic, formal or "literary" grounds.

    1. Did you write the French language Wikipedia entry on her, I have noticed their mystery entries are so much more comprehensive than the English language.

      John Norris has written about Jean Potts and she’s going to be reprinted by Stark House. I was meaning to blog on her, but John beat me to it. Will soon though, I hope. I read her Death of a Stray Cat six months ago or so and thought it superb.

      More to come on Carey!

  2. French Wikipedia crime fiction entries are indeed more and better researched than their English-language counterparts and I used to contribute a lot, but I didn't write the Bernice Carey one.

    That's great news re Potts, and I'm glad you liked Stray Cat as it's my favorite of hers. Will it be part of the Stark House reissues? I've read a lot of post-GA crime fiction lately and it puzzles me that so much of it has fallen into oblivion as its focus on character clearly announced modern tropes in the genre. Maybe they were "right" too soon, or people just prefer their mysteries to be plot-driven after all? I'll have to mull it over.

    1. Yes, it will. I think a narrative set in that there were two sorts of crime fiction: classic or cozy, which was feminine, and hard-boiled/noir, which was masculine. I spent a lot of time in Masters of the Humdrum Mystery challenging one side of this and of course today that narrative is being smashed all over the place these days. Sarah Weinman's book brought a lot of attention to domestic suspense and a lot of mid-century crime fiction, much of it by women, is being revived as well. I hope Carey will be too.

    2. Oh, yes, the French Wiki is better (and more comprehensive) on a lot of 20th century American crime writers than the American Wiki!

  3. Based on this critique Carey reminds me of Dorothy Salisbury Davis. Thanks for being Carey to light, so to speak. She's yet another woman crime writer whose books I'm sure I would devour with the eagerness I did when I discovered Jean Potts.

    Speaking of -- Currently, only two Jean Potts books are lined up as a two-in-one volume just like many of the Stark House Press reissues. Death of a Stray Cat is not one of them...yet. The hope is for more if the first volume sells well. I'm involved with the production of the first book and will contribute a foreword. It should be ready for Jan or Feb 2019.

    1. Good luck with it! I thought you told me Stray Cat was one of them, darn.

  4. This is fascinating, I'm surprised you didn't spread all this over several entries! the 'true' story and the Clark Gable connection are amazing. And I love the sound of this book: woman-focused, authentic domestic settings, and proper left-wing politics - right up my street.
    I had not heard of Bernice Carey before.

    1. Nothing by her seems easily available?

    2. I have strong hopes a few of her books will be reprinted next year, will keep you posted! I would love to hear what you have to say about BC! I don't know that she was ever reprinted in the UK, she was in France.

    3. I was talking to my Mom, who is still doing chemo, about this book the other day, and when she heard the name Spreckels she immediately announced, Clark Gable married a Spreckels! So, lol, yes, l'affaire Spreckels was a big thing back in the Fifties in the US.

  5. I hadn't noticed it when I read this article the first time, but Boucher's praise of the book as being a "real novel" suggests that for all his love of crime fiction Boucher still subscribed to a hierarchy of the genres with the psychological/realist novel at the top. This reminds me of his French colleague Thomas Narcejac who always maintained that crime fiction was not proper 'literature' because in it the plot takes precedence over the sacro-sanct character. Alas not much has changed since then.

    1. Yes, Boucher always had a fond place in his heart for the puzzle but I think he put a premium on the mid-century realistic crime novel. This certainly is one! For people who like pure plotting, I think they would prefer The Reluctant Murderer.

  6. I am Bernice Carey’s great-granddaughter :) it made my day to come across this thread and see that her books are still enjoyed!

    1. Hi! So glad you stopped by to comment. I do enjoy the books!