"How very losable your identity was, Caroline thought, lulled and drowsy. Stripped of your social security card, your charge plates, that old, old reminder from your dentist, you became nobody, or anyone at all."
Caroline Emmett has been sent to a rest home in Wicklow, Massachusetts upon orders from her doctor. There she will recuperate from pneumonia and mental duress following her discovery of her husband's dallying with a woman half his age. Walking in the countryside she finds to be more therapeutic than any treatment from her nurses and doctors at the rest home. One evening she takes a detour from her regular path and climbs up a hill. She witnesses the brutal beating of a woman at the hands of a bulky figure wearing a man's raincoat. Or so she thinks. He shines his flashlight on her leaving it there for several minutes and Caroline flees. Bad weather -- rain and wind -- force her to seek shelter before she can return to her room. She manages to gain entry to the home of the Olivers where she tells her story while they listen with a mixture of disbelief and curiosity. She'll remain here for the next twelve hours while the killer in the raincoat tracks her down.
This is familiar territory to be sure -- the eyewitness to a crime who seems to have imagined everything. Of course no body is found where Caroline said she saw the attack. But don't expect the story to fall into the trap of a well-worn formula and an obvious unfolding of events. Enter Carmichael, the editor and owner of the local newspaper, with a nose for news and a healthy dose of common sense. He is the only one who believes Caroline. With the permission of a lackadaisical and skeptical policeman named Trunz the newsman heads out to the crime site to do some real work. He quickly finds two sets of footprints in the mud and a woman's patent leather shoe. Size 9. Something bad has happened he is sure. And he begins his dogged search for the woman with one shoe. Or her dead body.
The world Curtiss creates is also one of arbitrary happenings, oddities and the just plain weird. While Caroline is attempting to gain allies in the Oliver family two strangers interrupt the night's already chaotic events. A young man appears selling storm windows and a middle-aged woman comes collecting donations for the Red Cross. Coincidence or devilish design? Everyone who makes an entrance in the story is questionable in their apparent innocent motives. Who sells storm windows during a storm? Only the most opportunistic of salesman, right? Is he even a salesman? Why does a woman go ringing doorbells in the rain asking for charitable donations? And why does Lydia insist that the woman is not Mrs. Vermilya as she claims she is?
This book so skillful in its building of suspense and tension not surprisingly proved tempting for scriptwriters. It was adapted and filmed for television twice in Curtiss' lifetime. Once for the 1950s anthology program Climax! with what sounds like a great cast -- Nina Foch as Caroline, Kevin McCarthy as Carmichael and Estelle Winwood as Mrs. Oliver. It was done again in 1968 for the British anthology series Detective about which I know nothing.
The Deadly Climate in the words of Anthony Boucher is "a throat-clutcher in the absolute, tightly and economically written." A better summation I could not devise myself. Copies of the book are readily available in both hardcover and paperback (four reprint paperback editions at my count) in the used book market. I'm sure her books will be found in your local library. Curtiss was quite popular in her day and was the kind of writer that librarians loved to keep on their shelves. None of her books, to my knowledge, are currently in print. More's the pity for lovers of excellent crime fiction.
Thanks! I've put in a reservation for this at the library straight away - sadly they only have it translated to Swedish but it'll give me an idea anyway. :)ReplyDelete
More is the pity as she sounds like a good read. Just bought a used copy.ReplyDelete
Another great prospect and great to hear that it is readily avaiable - off to find this out for myself - thanks chum!ReplyDelete
Just ordered it - thanks again John, I have been meaning to sample her work for ages. Sadly very little of the the BBC series DETECTIVE is now available to see as half of it was junked (that is to say, shot in the studio on tape rather than film as was the custom for nearly all drama in the day, the video masters were wiped and re-used). There is a terrific guide to the series here: http://www.startrader.co.uk/Action%20TV/guide60s/detective.htmDelete
I have wanted to read something by this author for a while, ever since I read about her while researching Helen Reilly. I am not sure I want to read stories with "mounting dread and terror" but I am still going to try some of her books. Great review, John.ReplyDelete
Gee, that cover of Pocket 1077 is beautifully done. The unusual orientation of the artwork would make it stand out on the shelves, and the silver spine and blue-white colour scheme really make the red type pop out. That Red Badge jacket is also quite attractive.ReplyDelete
As far as her ability to create suspense, absolutely agree; I just read her "The Second Sickle" not long ago and was definitely impressed by the way she built the tension.
Great review! You really explain why her work is soooooooo good. If you want to learn more about her life I wrote this blog a while ago:ReplyDelete
Thanks, Polly. My focus is always on the books rather than the writer's life. In the case of Curtiss I read up all about her life and her family but tossed in only a few biographical tidbits in the post above.Delete
Are you related? Or is it just a coincidence that the spelling of your last name has the unusual second S?