Thursday, June 8, 2023

Continuing on in catch-up mode: Death of a Stray Cat/ An Affair of the Heart, by Jean Potts


Stark House, 2023
236 pp

paperback (my copy from the publisher -- thanks!)


I love reading the works of women crime writers of yesteryear.  Jean Potts is the author of fourteen novels in this genre, one "mainstream" novel called Someone to Remember (1943) and a huge number of short stories.  Quite a few of the latter were  published in  Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, and at least one in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.  In short, she was an incredibly prolific author; thanks to Stark House, her work is being brought back for modern readers to enjoy.  This volume contains two of her mystery stories:  Death of a Stray Cat from 1955 and An Affair of the Heart, published in 1970.

Very briefly, because there are two books at play here,  Death of a Stray Cat is a fine whodunit that begins as bookseller Alex Blair and his wife Gen arrive in the small New York community where they have a beach house: "on one side of the road W. Gertz, Meats and Groceries, and across from it the filling station and Rudy's Bar and Grill."  It's Labor Day weekend, and the two of them are looking forward to a happy, leisurely three-week getaway; along for the ride is "a preposterous pair," Mr. Theobald and Vonda, who will be staying at a cottage owned by Dwight Abbott, a friend of the Blairs.  When they stop for groceries, the proprietor lets them know that a young woman had stopped there earlier in the day, wanting to know where Alex's house was.  Neither of the Blairs can figure out who it might have been, and sort of brush it off, not giving it another thought.    Vonda and Mr. Theobald take the Blair's car to drop off the groceries while  Alex and Gen go to have drinks and dinner at nearby Rudy's, a local favorite.  They've just settled in at their table when Rudy's daughter takes a phone call that leads Alex, Gen and local police chief Ed Fuller to the Blairs' beach house, where they find the body of a young woman, apparently strangled. Gen has no idea who she is, but Alex recognizes her as Marcella Ewing.   He can't believe it --  of all the people in the world, he thinks, "it was hard to imagine anybody less dangerous than Marcella."  With only a small group of people as potential suspects, the focus is on the victim herself -- why would anyone want her dead?   I have to say that I didn't guess the identity of the killer, always a plus, but even more to the point, when that person was unmasked I had  a true "whoa!" moment.  The author's brilliant plotting shines through in this story, but even better is the way in which she managed to imbue her characters with such unexpected life. Mystery readers will LOVE this one.   Another thing:  while her Edgar award-winning novel Go, Lovely Rose was awesome,  Death of a Stray Cat beats that one by a mile.  Definitely very highly recommended.  

I really love these old, lurid covers.  This one's from Biblio

After finishing the second book, An Affair of the Heart, it dawned on me that the title can easily be taken as a sort of double entendre, especially because the dead man at the center of this novel has a heart condition.  By the way, this fact isn't a spoiler, since it's right there up front in the book blurb.  This book is much shorter in length than Death of a Stray Cat; although it comes in at less than one hundred pages, there's still plenty of whodunit mystery here to enjoy.  Kirk Banning is only forty-nine, but he's been told that he needs to take things easy in order to stave off another heart attack or an even worse fate.  For some time the younger Lorraine Walsh has been "the other woman" in his life, a role that once she had "leapt into so gladly and blindly," but lately she's had not only regrets, but since meeting Kirk's wife Hilda, she has also developed a conscience about the whole situation.   Things get intense when Kirk actually proposes, something that would have made Lorraine "raptuously happy" a year earlier, but not any more.  He plans on telling his wife about everything in three days' time.  The problem is that Lorraine can't find a way to tell him how she feels now, because the shock just might kill him, given his heart condition.  As she tells her sister Mary, that's not the worst of it -- suppose Kirk had another heart attack and died in her apartment?  How could she possibly explain everything?   As one might guess, on a day Lorraine is away, the inevitable ends up happening, forcing Lorraine, Mary and their good friend Teddy to go into cover-up mode.  All goes okay with the police, and Lorraine has a perfect excuse for his being there to offer to the family.  Kirk's daughter Isobel, summoned to the site of her father's death, realizes that he doesn't have his medication on him like he always does.   Lorraine also  notices that Kirk's medication isn't in the usual spot on her bedside table, leaving Mary to wonder whether or not she and Teddy "might have blundered into something quite different from what they had bargained for."  Evidently, someone wanted Kirk Banning dead, but who?  And how?  What none of the three could possibly know is that there will be a terrible price to be paid when all is said and done.   

a rather bland cover for this one: Gollancz UK first edition hardcover, 1970.  From Dead Souls Bookshop

Once again it's the characters that really make this story, and once again, the plot focuses on a small number of people at its core, all of them with closely-guarded secrets that add an element of tension and a darkish sort of intensity into the reading.  It's not quite on the level of Death of a Stray Cat in my opinion, but it's still pretty good story with more than a couple of surprises along the way. Unfortunately, I did figure out the who in this one, but I think it's likely because it wasn't nearly as involved or written as in depth as the other. Despite that, An Affair of the Heart still makes for a good read, and taken as a whole, this two-novel volume is well worth your mystery-reading time.  I enjoyed this volume so very much that I've just bought three more (so I suppose that makes six in total)  books by Jean Potts directly from the publisher.  As long as they keep putting them out, I'll continue reading them.

My many thanks to the powers that be at Stark House, along with major apologies for taking so long to get to this book and the others they've sent -- we've had a hell of a year here at home and it's only just recently that the pall has begun to lift.  Thank you so very, very much.

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