Two men, each of them burdened by a wife who is no longer loved, but who refuses a divorce. How can they rid themselves of the inconvenience, and make the most of life. The two men do have a slight acquaintance, but it isn't widely known. They confide in each other, and one of them has an idea. Why don't they help each other out, by killing each other's wives?
Sounds familiar, doesn't it? This is an idea that has cropped up in crime stories time and again over the year. Of all the variations on the theme, Patricia Highsmith's Strangers on a Train is by far the most renowned, though other good examples have been produced by the late Sheila Radley and the American thriller writer Peter Swanson. The book I'm referring to, however, is Stalemate. It was written by Evelyn Berckman, an expatriate American based in London, and published here in 1966.
My interest in Berckman was fired when I watched a film based on one of her books, Do You Know this Voice? It prompted me to acquire some of her other novels. And although the premise of Stalemate isn't original, it's handled in a fairly original way. The key twist is foreseeable, but it becomes clear by the end of the book that Berckman's interest is in character rather than puzzling her readers. And she is pretty good at characterisation.
I was particularly impressed by the quality of the writing in the first half of the book. Berckman has a pleasing turn of phrase, and there's an intensity about her prose which is appealing. In the later stages, there are one or two scenes which are perhaps over-wrought, and I was slightly surprised by the way she shifts focus from the main actors in the drama to a member of the supporting cast. So despite its familiar premise, it' becomes quite an unusual story. Not a masterpiece in the Highsmith class, but interesting.