[reporter Jack is in a student bar, trying to get information for his story]
He sat down discreetly, not giving the girls any kind of obvious eye. One of them was quite a tomato – what is referred to as a long-stemmed American beauty. This was going to be what you call mixing business with pleasure. The other [Kate] was on the dumpy side, with a frowsy feather cut and horn-rimmed glasses like the young man’s own. She was wearing dungarees and a sweatshirt; the first had on a pink sweater and skirt…
[later he arrives at Kate’s student residence and asks her on a date]
‘Now will you go fix your face for me?’ he grinned.
‘Yeah,’ she said, flushing, ‘yeah!’ and turned to fly up the stairs when he caught her on the landing and kissed her resoundingly.
‘Take those damn pants off,’ he said, smacking the logical place, ‘and drop them in the nearest incinerator!’…
In something more than a jiffy, Kate reappeared, looking respectable in a sweater, skirt and cosmetics. She took her polo coat from the coat rack and they went out of the door in silence….
observations: Helen Eustis died recently, at the age of 98: this was her best-known book, and it won the Edgar Award for best first novel in 1947. It’s a campus murder mystery set at a women’s liberal arts college in New England - it was interesting to find out from her obituary that the womanizing academic who is murdered (plenty of those he has treated badly might have a motive) was based on her own professor husband.
It reads quite strangely to modern readers for a number of reasons: the main one is impossible to discuss without spoilers, so all I will say is that it must have been rather startling at the time, whereas in 2015 the direction of the book gives itself away. I also found it had a great unevenness of tone: there are some very dark passages, a look at lives that are difficult and disastrous, and a serious attempt to see psychiatry and psychology as a way of helping people. But then Eustis will turn to the couple above, who seem to have wandered in from an episode of Scooby Doo or Nancy Drew (Scooby Drew?). We need to judge books by the standards of their own time, but it still is rather depressing that Kate, above, who is obviously one of the brightest people in the book, has to put up with the dialogue above, and from a woman writer. Kate is also told by her new boyfriend that she is too fat, and he over-rides her food choices in a bar for that reason.
Their route to coupledom is obviously meant as light relief, which works only occasionally, as at the point where Jack asks Kate if she ‘wants to be a virgin all your life?’
‘There’s a difference between abstention and discrimination’ said Kate huffily.And although it is a serious book, there were occasional funny moments. I liked the colleague being asked over the phone to take part in a memorial event for the murdered professor Kevin Boyle:
‘I wondered if you would be willing to say something [to the group]? What do you think?’Eustis is plainly trying to be uptodate about gay people: there’s a student who says Kate can’t be a lesbian because she is full-busted, and a claim that where you found the picture of Van Gogh’s young man in a straw hat ‘you would find a homosexual.’
I think it is a maudllin, disgusting self-advertising notion, and quite typical of your very vulgar mind, he thought. ‘Very well; at what time?’
The students all drink like crazy – beer, and whisky, and brandy Alexanders. This is interesting – now they most certainly couldn’t, not in bars, as stringent rules apply. Then, as now, the minimum drinking age in Connecticut is 21– but obviously not much notice was being taken of that in 1946.
The book is readable enough and quite gripping, although it’s a pity so many of the characters are grotesque and miserable. Eustis led the way in creating a new kind of psycho-sexual thriller, and like many trailblazers looks a bit clichéd now. I still enjoyed the picture of life at a small college in the snow, and the contemporary details.
Pictures from the New York World’s Fair in 1940, a fashion show for college students, via the New York Public Library. A 'typical student' in the book is described as wearing a ‘nondescript tweed coat and the usual socks and moccasins’ and brown mittens.