Friday, 30 July 2021

Forgotten Book - The Diehard

In the 1950s, Jean Potts was one of the leading female exponents of domestic suspense. She specialised in low-key stories and slow-burning tension, and this style isn't to every taste, but she was very good at what she did. My favourite of he books (at least, of those I've read so far) is The Little Lie, but The Diehard, published in 1956, is an interesting example of her work.

The subtlety of Potts' writing is illustrated in a very good first sentence: 'All through his wife's funeral Lew Morgan wrestled with a nervous, unseemly urge to yawn.' This is a very smart way of setting up an intriguing situation while casting unforgiving light on character - in just fifteen words. Within the first paragraph we learn that the funeral is taking place in Turk Ridge, evidently a small American town, and that a yawn would be 'the final, outrageous signal of disrespect'.

Naughty Lew. He's superficially pleasant but fundamentally selfish and capable of acts of cruelty. He  has already lined up his next wife, with whom he's been carrying on for ages. Before long, it's evident that a whole range of people have good cause to wish him out of the way. What's more, elderly Aunt Chat has had a Sign that 'something terrible is going to happen'. This is a classic set-up for a whodunit. We expect Lew to be murdered, and the bulk of the story to be devoted to an investigation into the crime.

Except that isn't what happens. Instead, the tension continues to build. And when a death finally does occur, Lew is not the person who dies. Surely he isn't going to escape his fate? What's more, Lew realises he is at risk: 'nobody's going to try and kill me and get away with it.' For me, the tone was just too subdued to make me love this story as much as I wanted to; nevertheless, it's an admirable example of Potts' restraint and ability to depict character and present a picture of American life in her time.

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