[Protagonist Val is coming to visit his child, and hoping to avoid his ex-wife]
Val uncrossed his fingers and took a deep breath. No luck. It was Doris who opened the door. All ready to go out, very trim in her fur jacket and stylish hat, and looking – yes – a little irritated. Had he done something wrong already? No; her first words set him straight. ‘I’m in a rush. Mother was supposed to be back by two, but you know our Maudie.’ She gave him the bright, quick smile that had once enchanted him, and held out her hand. He was sure she had not missed the battered state of his topcoat.
[later in the book, Val is taking his daughter to his apartment]
Annabelle was enchanted. To get dressed in the middle of the night! To pack her toothbrush and pyjamas in her little case! To stay overnight at Val’s! In her excitement she would have forgotten to kiss Doris goodbye.
‘No goodnight for me?’ asked Doris, and held her arms out hungrily.
She was lighting a cigarette when Val looked back on his way out of the door. Her face was set. She looked hardly at all like the girl Val had fallen in love with long ago.
commentary: My friend John Norris has been championing Jean Potts over at his blog Pretty Sinister Books, and as a result some of her books are being reprinted: and a good thing too. John hasn’t actually covered this one I don’t think – I read it years ago, and collected a few of her books as I liked her so much, and I have taken them off the shelves for re-reading.
And they really do stand up to that: short and sharp, full of domestic tension and brittle Americans snapping at each other and behaving strangely. A touch of the Margaret Millars, a soupcon of Helen McCloy – but Potts is not exactly like either of them.
As far as I’m aware, there is no series detective, no continuing characters. Each book contains a small world of worried people: Potts is excellent at creating a creepy and sinister atmosphere. In this one the little girl talks about a man who comes to play with her and talk to her, the man with the cane, and describes him in some detail. Awkwardly, everyone agrees that he must be an imaginary friend. Later, someone answering to the description is found dead. It is a smartly-done parental nightmare, even without an extra layer of worry that a modern day version would have. Something funny is going on in this dysfunctional family.
And at the same time the difficult relations between husband and ex-wife, the questions raised about divorce and seeing your child, and how you feel about a new step-parent, are very well-handled. It’s a complex, well-worked-out plot. And the characters are very well-drawn, with some funny moments – this is someone with a talent for stating the obvious:
‘She can’t stand scenes,’ Clyde explained. (He ought to have a pointer and a set of slides. He ought to go into the illustrated lecture business.)I’m looking forward to reading more by Potts.
Everyone in the book spends the entire time eating, drinking and smoking so the second photo, from 1957, seemed ideal. It’s from Kristine’s photostream.
Lady in fur jacket, same source.