Friday, July 21, 2017

FFB: Dead Reckoning - Bruce Hamilton

"Well written, but most unpleasant tale" -- penciled remark by a Previous Owner left in my copy of Dead Reckoning

THE STORY:Tim Kennedy is a successful dentist and happily married to Esther. Until one evening his vivacious, attractive wife goes chasing after her hat on a busy roadway. She is struck by a car and suffers multiple injuries. Her recovery is a painful and disheartening one. She is left horribly disfigured, crippled on one side of her body, and drained of her lust for life. Taking care of Esther becomes a burden to Tim, his love and devotion dwindling, eventually finding himself drawn to the much younger Alma Shepherd. Tim begins to daydream of how easier his life might be without Esther leading to what he thinks is the perfect murder.

THE CHARACTERS:The original title of Dead Reckoning (1937) in England was Middle Class Murder. That title is a good cue to the kinds of people to expect in its realistic rendering of a dentist, his patients and friends. But it is Hamilton's juxtaposition of mundane homelife and a routine workplace against the secret criminal plotting of our anti-hero that make the book more than just a mainstream novel which in the first half it very much resembles. From the very first page we know Tim Kennedy is planning on killing his wife, one of several half-started, then abandoned plots that will come back to haunt him in the final chapters.

The story is told in third person but everything is viewed through Tim's perspective. He at first seems like an amiable man, well respected in his profession and well liked among his small circle of friends and acquaintances. As the story progresses he gradually transforms into a figure of pathetic desperation. Aching for the sex life he once had, longing to be desired, suffering through the worst kind of middle age crisis and coming to the most heinous decision on how to transcend his depression and unhappiness. Remarkably, it is Hamilton's skill in turning our sympathies toward Tim when he becomes the victim of a nasty blackmail plot that make this book a unique British version of a James M. Cain tale of infidelity and murder.

We know poor Esther is doomed from the start and yet she never becomes sentimentalized. Her recovery is painful to read of while her burgeoning friendship with Alma, Tim's object of desire, is an ironic high point of joy in her brief post-accident life. Tim's business partner Adam, who becomes his nemesis in Book Two, is a fine portrait of a little man attempting to live a life of big dreams yet revealing instead nothing but amoral corruption and small-minded greed. The lack of police throughout the story highlights another world of Hamilton's creation fraught with omnipresent danger, paranoia and near lawlessness.

INNOVATIONS: Hamilton's brother Patrick is best known for his playwriting skills, but Dead Reckoning shows the elder Hamilton to have a similar gift for drama played out in skilled dialogue sequences that reveal character. There is a excellent section devoted to a tennis party ostensibly thrown together for Esther's benefit but in reality a way for Tim to get to see Alma. Hamilton uses the tennis party to introduce a few minor characters who will reappear in other functions in the second half of the novel as well as allowing us to see Esther experience the joy of her former self. The dialogue is cleverly rendered with innuendo between Alma and Tim; we know Tim's thoughts as well as his words, but can only guess at Alma's thoughts and feelings based on ambiguous remarks. A later scene where Tim takes Alma on a private tour of his home leads them to a room with a rocking horse. Alma sits down and rocks herself while Tim continues his veiled flirtation with her. It's a remarkable piece of writing that shows the older man pursuing a younger woman while at the same time ridiculing him as we see her acting in such a childlike manner.

The crime novel features take over in Book Two when Tim finds himself the victim of a blackmail scheme. In eerie anticipation of Robin Maugham's well known novel The Servant Tim finds himself at the mercy of his employee who in effect takes complete control of his life, commandeering his finances and forcing Tim into committing more acts of final desperation. This coupled with some bad news about his supposed property inheritance from Esther sends Tim into a continual downward spiral. It's a chilling portion of the novel. One cannot help side with the hapless dentist and hope that he can turn the tables on the avaricious and amoral Adam. There are some violent action set pieces and an eleventh hour scene where we think Tim may have indeed thwarted the plot to reveal him as Esther's killer.

THINGS I LEARNED: In one of the many dentist office scenes (some of them rather fascinating) Tim runs out of a special mouthwash preparation. He calls his assistant, Adam, to make him some more, but there is no reply. Because the patient is in the chair in mid-surgery he is forced to come up with an alternative: "Eventually he telephoned the chemist (whose boy proved to be out) and made do with lysol." Lysol as a mouthwash? I can't believe that. Hamilton must've intended Listerine and got confused. I looked up the history of Lysol products and it was never used as mouthwash. It was, however, used as a vaginal douche. I'll spare you anymore of my findings.

EASY TO FIND? If you speak and read French you're in luck. The most affordable copies are paperback editions in French (Portrait d'un meurtrier) but there are only five that I could find for sale. No good news for the original English language editions. A single copy of the UK title Middle Class Murder is available if you're willing to pay $324 (£250) while only two US editions are for sale priced at $30 (no DJ) and $250 (with DJ). Looks like your local library may be the best bet.


  1. Thanks John, I had no idea Patrick Hamilton had an author brother - this sounds a bit like it may have been inspired bu the Berkeley / Iles experiments?

    1. I wrote about Bruce Hamilton's far superior book Let Him Have Judgment last year. It's a very different type of crime novel sort of a mix of an inverted crime novel and a whodunit. Very hard to pigeon hole in either subgenre. But overall it's very original and superior to the familiar domestic crime novel I reviewed above.

      DEAD RECKONING reminded me of C.S. Forester's PAYMENT DEFERRED more than any of the Iles crime novels because of its focus on the supposedly mundane suburban life of a married professional. Hamilton the Elder only wrote eight crime novels and each of them was rather experimental. I think the closest he came to a pure detective novel was TOO MUCH OF WATER, the easiest (and cheapest) to buy online and yet a book of which I have yet to buy a copy.

    2. Thanks for all that John - I must dig a little deeper here than :)

  2. Not the sort of thing I'm usually drawn to, John. I'm currently hiding out in my books (running away from reality because of you-know-who in the WH) so my books of choice lately have been of a certain familiar type. Comfortable whodunits. At least that's what I call them.

  3. "We know poor Esther is doomed from the start". And that's why I've pretty much stopped reading noir, that inevitable downward spiral of doom. There's nothing positive to hope for and ultimately nothing much to like. Hard-boiled? Yes I'm fine with that, but noir, I'll pass.

    1. I've become fascinated with stories of "average normal" characters who are driven to acts of violence and often meet up with people more evil and desperate than themselves. That's what made this book worth reading for me. I guess my outlook in life has always been bleak and dark. Downbeat endings are not too upsetting for me, especially when the characters deserve their fates.

  4. I find myself more and more torn when it comes to noir, which I have not read much of until fairly recently. Westlake's The Ax being the most recent. What I'm finding is that voice and style are the determiners, and persuasive reviews, like this one.


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