Friday, March 23, 2018

FFB: Go, Lovely Rose - Jean Potts

US paperback edition (Berkley, 1961)
THE STORY: Coreyville is rid of its worst pest. Rose Anthony has fallen down her cellar stairs and suffered a fatal head wound. Rachel Buckmaster travels from Chicago to settle the estate with her nineteen year-old brother Hartley. Both are relieved the horrible housekeeper who was willed the house by their father and had helped raised the two after their mother's death is finally out of their lives. They plan to sell the place and each can be free of her miserable hold over them...and everyone else in town. But when Rose's look-alike sister Mrs. Pierce arrives to get to the bottom of the accident circumstances arise that lead her to believe Rose was murdered. She has Hartley arrested and is determined to see him on trial for murder. Rachel and young Dr. Craig are equally determined to foil Mrs. Pierce's vengeful plans by proving Hartley's innocence. But things do not look good for the boy.

THE CHARACTERS: At first we think that the story will be told primarily from Rachel's viewpoint, but it is Dr. Craig who mostly takes over the narrative. He acts as a sort of amateur detective while the primary murder investigation is in the hands of Sheriff Jeffreys and a police detective known only as Mr. Pigeon. But over the course of the novel we are allowed to know the thoughts of nearly everyone in the book with only Hartley consigned to the background. He spends most of the book in jail while the others do their best to look for the evidence they need to bring to the police and get him out.

Essentially it is the story of two families: the Buckmasters and the Bovards. In Rachel we see the beginnings of the new crime fiction heroine -- outspoken, willful, risk taking and thoroughly independent. Similarly, Beatrix "Bix" Bovard is the kind of teenager who seems more real than those normally depicted in fiction. Bix is a conflicted young woman on the verge of adulthood, incapable of reining in her volatile emotions, mimicking speech and dialogue from the movies, and generally looking for good time whenever possible. Her homelife is messy, her mother has rejected her and she has a difficult love/hate relationship with her father to whom we know she is utterly devoted. She's a breath of fresh air when she's unself-conscious and poignant in quiet moments when Potts allows us to enter her troubled mind burdened with familial conflicts and her presumed role as a loyal daughter.

Penguin UK paperback
Dr. Craig has his own share of troubles and secrets. Rumor and gossip follow in his wake about how he left his bad marriage and where his wife is now. A minor subplot concerns his attraction to Rachel who complicates matters with her suspicion of ulterior motives. Is the physician interested in helping Rachel clear her brother's name only to be physically closer to her?

The most fascinating person in the cast may be Francis Henshaw, dubbed Francie by the townspeople. In his youth Francie was a go-getter, a handsome young man engaged to marry a banker's daughter and voted most likely to succeed at anything by his high school classmates. That marriage was ruined by Rose and her evil machinations when Francie ended up chained to Rose for decades in a loveless marriage. Now long divorced from his "abomination" of a wife he has fallen into a pathetic hermit's existence. Running a second hand furniture shop he retreats into a world of dusty chairs, rusting metalwork and the cobwebs of his past. A candlestick turns out to be the murder weapon and has gone missing from Rose's home. It's mate was taken out of spite by Francie as part of the spoils of their divorce. Now Bix and Rachel are sure that both candlesticks are hidden somewhere in Francie's shop. The climax of the book involves an elaborate hunt for the murder weapon leading to violence and a showdown with Henshaw in the local hospital.

INNOVATIONS: Go Lovely Rose (1954) won Jean Potts the Best First Novel Edgar award for her debut mystery novel. It belongs to the burgeoning domestic suspense subgenre already becoming more prevalent and popular with the work of her contemporaries like Margaret Millar and Charlotte Armstrong, neither of whom had written their best books by 1954 making Potts' novel all the more noticeable in her debut. And its quite a performance for a first novel.

Potts helped forge the way for more women writers who were fascinated with dissecting the underbelly of rural and suburban life, rooting out callousness and seemingly inexplicable malicious behavior from which no good comes. As an examination of a horrible woman's vindictive lifestyle and its effect on not just two families, but an entire town, Go, Lovely Rose is easily one of the most arresting and perceptive crime novels of the 1950s. Potts succeeds in finding the balance between attack and compassion in her critique of the small-minded and malicious Rose and the long lasting wounds she has caused. The murder investigation, as is the case in many of these domestic suspense novels, is both a revelation and healing for all. But the restitution of well-being and equanimity for all families involved always comes at a costly price.

Go, Lovely Rose, US 1st edition (Scribner, 1954)
Potts has a writing style both colloquial and sophisticated with a talent for turning phrases that smack of real truth. With so many damaged people in the cast she is never patronizing or judgmental. Potts examines her characters from all angles often resorting to an omniscient narrative voice. She shines her unflattering spotlight on the most conflicted people like Bix and Rose's ex-husband Francis revealing them at their most vulnerable and truthful selves despite their outwardly deceptive ways. She has a fine ear for the way people talk, especially in her two teenage characters, "Bix" Bovard and Hartley Buckmaster. Bix in particular has the most unique speech pattern, kind of a junior 1950s Mrs. Malaprop, in her mispronunciation of ten dollar (scintillating with an "sk" sound) and a general misuse of words she's only seen in print but never heard.

At the heart of the story's mystery is Althea Bovard's unending grief for the death of her son, Ronnie. His ghost hovers over the Bovard house and his name is never far from his mother's lips. No conversation is free from the mention of some memory or wisp of Ronnie's short, difficult life. Ronnie has died more than 15 years ago when Bix was an infant and he is still Althea's favorite child. Primarily because Ronnie was severely disabled, born with Down syndrome though that genetic disorder is referred by its uglier 1950s terms -- Mongoloid and Mongolism. It is a rare writer of any period, let alone the 1950s, who gives us insight into the turmoil and struggles of a parent raising a child like Ronnie. Althea cannot forgive herself for not allowing him a longer life, for failing to find ways for him to adapt. Her grief is her punishment. Ronnie's death will prove to be the most significant aspect of the book, the key to gleaning everyone's unspoken resentments, and the ultimate answer to understanding why Rose Henshaw was such an odious woman.

QUOTES: The morning after Hartley's arrest Dr. Craig woke up late, realized it was Sunday, and lay for a few minutes contentedly surveying his cluttered little back room and his own large feet which stuck out beyond the end of the studio couch. He had forgotten to pull the shades again, and the winter sunshine lay in lemon-colored wafers on the dusty congoleum rug. Simultaneously the Methodist and Presbyterian church bells began ringing, loud and bossy-sounding, as if they were quarreling over the souls of Coreyville. They had something to quarrel about all right, thought Dr. Craig affably. A real prize package: the soul of a murderer.

The detective's name turned out to be Mr. Pigeon, of all things. And he couldn't have looked less like a detective if he had actually had pink feet and a fantail.

"So you're engaged to Etta Kincaid," Rose had said to him. "How nice. And you work down at the bank, for her father. How nice." Thus, with a flick of Rose's tongue, was love reduced to expediency.

"Oh, he's in it all right. He's up to his neck. As for motive -- well, you never can tell about these eccentric old birds. They get notions. They brood over some little thing, magnify it till it turns into what is, to them, perfectly good grounds for murder. It happens all the time -- people get killed for picking their teeth, or wearing the wrong color necktie."

THINGS I LEARNED: That mention of the congoleum rug in that first quote above was a puzzler for me. I always thought that congoleum was a floor tiling. It actually is an offshoot of a roofing material called Congo (supposedly named for the fact that asphalt used as a saturate in the roofing material came from that African region) created in 1902 by the United Roofing and Manufacturing Co. Here's the lowdown from the Congoleum Corporation's "History & Heritage" web page: "It soon became evident that the three foot wide strips of Congo roofing material could easily be used as floor runners to deaden noise and minimize dust and dirt collection in traffic patterns. It was also more durable than the rubber mats which were being used at the time. To differentiate between the Congo roofing and the flooring material, the flooring was given the name Congoleum." So really they were mats. But by the mid 1920s the company managed to make intricate decorative patterns in the material in order to mimic the look of an area rug. There's also another story about how congoleum and linoleum became cousins when two companies merged and the Congoleum Corporation simplified the costly and laborious manufacturing process for making linoleum. Click here for more on flooring material history and development.

THE AUTHOR: Jean Potts was born and raised in Nebraska. After graduation from Nebraska Wesleyan University she became a journalist for a Nebraska newspaper. Later she moved to New York to continue her journalism career and branching out into fiction for magazines. In 1946 her first story was published in Collier's ("The Other Woman") and she continued writing domestic melodramas for other "slicks" like McCall's, Cosmopolitan and Redbook throughout the 1950s and 1960s. After the great success of her award-winning debut mystery novel Go, Lovely Rose she focused more on crime fiction though she would occasionally write a "woman's story". Her crime fiction consists of a handful of short stories nearly all published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine and fourteen novels. According to a Nebraska literary website Go, Lovely Rose had been optioned by a London movie company and her 1963 novel The Evil Wish (an Edgar nominee) was supposed to have been filmed with Barbara Stanwyck and Sir Ralph Richardson. Neither movie was made, nor can I find any confirmation that either piece of information is true. Jean Potts died in New York in 1999.

EASY TO FIND? As far as I know none of Jean Potts' novels have been reprinted. Few of her books turn up for sale in the used book market, but there are a handful of paperback copies of both the US and UK editions of Go, Lovely Rose. The US first edition is truly scarce and finding one with a dust jacket is next to impossible. I found no images online of the original first edition dust jacket proving that copies probably haven't been for sale for a long time. (BUT! thanks to Bill Pronzini I now have a photo of the US 1st edition DJ up there in the Innovations section.) Currently there is exactly one copy with a DJ offered for purchase from a Minnesota dealer but that's an ex-library copy.

7 comments:

  1. Nice to see Jean Potts being reviewed. I feel she wrote some fine books including 'The Footsteps on the Stairs', 'An Affair of the Heart' and in particular 'Home is the Prisoner' (although I've read other books of hers that didn't work for me).

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    1. I'm trying to find as many as I can. The CPL has three of her books: DEATH OF A STRAY CAT (1955), LIGHTNING STRIKES TWICE (1958) and AFFAIR OF THE HEART (1970). I'll be reading all three before they decide to trash them which is what usually happens when I uncover a great author whose books no one wants to read. Also I bought a copy of THE EVIL WISH because it was her other Edgar nominee. Now I think I'll find a copy of HOME IS THE PRISONER based on your comment above. Expect more Potts reviews throughout the rest of this year.

      I really enjoyed this one, such a strong debut with some "ahead of her time" plot elements. I can only imagine that she got better the more she wrote.

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    2. Yes, she gets a good balance between characterization and plot when she's at her best and the result is a really rounded story. I found 'The Evil Wish' a touch grim, though powerfully written, and I wasn't so impressed by 'The Trash Stealer' though it comes with a glowing Anthony Boucher review on the cover, but I've really liked her other books, the ones I've read. I'm always looking for other crime novels in that mould, but they're hard to find. Some of Edwin Lanham's books, from the same period, come close. I'd recommend his 'Murder on My Street' and 'No Hiding Place', if you don't know them.

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  2. This does sound fascinating, John. Doesn't sound like I can easily find a copy, though, so I will just put it on a wish list for later.

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  3. Excellent review, John. Fascinating and thorough. I wish there were ebook versions of Potts's works. She's evidently a treasure.

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  4. She definitely sounds like an author worth tracking down. But, oh, looks like it isn't going to happen. Well, we can but try.

    Thanks for this review.

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  5. I read this about 20 years ago, in the Penguin edition pictured above, which I still have on my shelves. I remember thinking it was terrific and trying to find other books by her. And now - as usual after visiting your blog - I will have to read this one again.

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