The late Robert Barnard was a discerning reader of crime fiction as well as an entertaining novelist, and he was a fan of the American writer Jean Potts; it's thanks to his influence that I've become a fan of hers too. I have a couple of Penguin paperback editions of her books that used to belong to him. One of them is The Man with the Cane, which dates from 1957, illustrates her considerable strengths as well as one or two of her limitations.
Potts was a low-key writer whose particular specialism was the study of domestic relationships. In this novel, the main protagonist is Val Bryant, a likeable ordinary guy. He is divorced from the high-achieving Doris, who has married a successful businessman called Monroe, and finds himself attracted to Barbara, who is herself recently divorced from Doris's brother Clyde. Val remains on good terms with Doris's mother Maudie and is also friendly with a neighbour, Helen, who is always known as Hen. Val and Doris had a young daughter, Annabelle, and when Val is reunited with the little girl after a long time apart, she tells him some tall stories, including one about a man she calls Cane.
These are the players in a tightly-knit drama. The plot thickens when Val and Hen discover the body of a man with a cane. He has been murdered and it soon becomes clear to Val that someone in his circle is responsible for the crime. I was pretty sure from early on who that someone would be, but the precise motive (one I found interesting) came as a surprise.
The strengths I mentioned include a sharp yet compassionate eye for character. Her insights into psychology are convincing, and in this book she makes subtle use of the hackneyed trope of poison pen letters. As for the limitations, I have a quibble about the regular shifts of viewpoint in this novel, which seem to me to reduce rather than to increase suspense. On the whole I think it's fair to say that Potts isn't the most exciting of writers. This is a good story, and not excessively long, but even so it does drag in the middle, with a good deal of time devoted to family squabbles that didn't set my pulse racing. Potts is sometimes compared to Margaret Millar and Helen McCloy, but I think they manage dramatic action more effectively than her. But if you're looking for a well-made, thoughtful mystery with a sound portrayal of human nature, you won't go far wrong with Jean Potts.
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