A small world of worried people, and a handbag the size of an icebucket


The Diehard by Jean Potts

published 1956


I once described Jean Potts’ books ‘as short and sharp, full of domestic tension and brittle Americans snapping at each other and behaving strangely. Each book contains a small world of worried people.’ This one very much fulfils the brief. It takes place over a couple of days in a small town a few hours drive from Chicago, and contains many features to love. 

It starts with a funeral, but it quickly becomes obvious that that death was not a crime. Lew Morgan is the big man in town: his shadowy rich wife has finally died and he can now marry his long-term mistress Celia, a respectable schoolteacher who has suffered some social ignominy. His two adult children, Victoria and Whitt, find out they are not inheriting any money yet, and we all consider how badly their lives have been affected by Morgan’s oversize personality. These aspects reminded me of the TV series Succession – he is a small-town Logan Roy in his way. (Even the names semi-assonate). There’s a photo of Victoria as a child on her Shetland pony, just like Shiv in the opening credits of Succession,

Morgan runs the local bank, and is about to make a grave decision about a childhood friend’s business. And a young woman is popular round the town – will her long-lost mother rake up history and cause trouble? ‘I think I’ve heard Lew mention you’ someone says politely. ‘I doubt it’ is the reply.

Well! What a great setup. It seems likely Morgan is for it, but which of these people might be involved? And things are not going to go according to plan…

Potts has a great eye for character: each chapter is from the POV of a different person and she does it amazingly well, it is engrossing and wholly convincing, she gets into their heads and presents the good and the bad. So for example we empathize with the childhood friend, but maybe he isn’t a good businessman? It’s not black and white. And what happens is unexpected all round.

And Potts is witty, with smart lines popping up among the rather grim story. There is a running joke about the long-suffering Celia ‘waiting’ for Lew – ‘First I heard about you and Lew doing any waiting.’ And another character: ‘I’ve got a picture of Lew Morgan waiting all these years. I’ve just got a picture.’ *

This is Sophie, the woman from the past (‘that figure of sophistication, a divorcee’), and she is a touching treat. She drinks, causes scenes and would be a nightmare to deal with in real life - but you can’t help sympathizing with her, and she has a kind of nobility and dignity as she tries so hard to do the right thing by her beloved daughter. The incident of the bracelet gift is heart-breaking, and also the fact that she thinks no-one can guess that she is drinking, she thinks she is discreet.

She also has a bag  which is ‘about the size of an ice-bucket’ which features in a disastrous event at a hotel – there’s a great scene in the ladies’ room. I loved the idea of this bag. [And Succession again -  in the TV show, Tom is very judge-y about a young woman with a 'ludicrously capacious' bag, a marker of being low-rent, no matter how expensive the bag] It contains a ton of makeup, some sequinned gloves, a small bottle of hooch (well, I say small…), the gift that goes wrong – it is the ideal accompaniment to this particular evening of troubles. These are photos of 1950s bags as I imagine hers, though I also couldn’t resist the one that actually looks as though it is full of ice – it is made of lucite, the cool material of the era. Poor Sophie has planned her outfit for the event, but of course has misjudged it – her black dress, over-tight girdle, and sequinned cap sound more suitable for a nightclub than a teaparty and her daughter’s High School event. (picture from The Vintage tumbler)

In very happy synchronicity I was also able to find this amazingly apt picture which shows Lilly Dache (my role model and avatar on this blog) putting a bottle in her large bag. Lilly D was a designer of hats and bags – see for example this entry for more, and an ‘outrageously large’ Dache bag. She looks rather like Princess Margaret going for a night out.

Meanwhile Celia, is always appropriately dressed, and earlier wears a linen suit the colour of bachelor’s buttons – which I had to look up, cornflowers to me. The picture is from Vogue a few years earlier, via  The Vintage tumbler (tumblr.com) But what Potts is very good at is even-handedness – Celia isn’t necessarily better than Sophie despite her ladylike ways, and neither she nor anyone else is judged for extra-marital relationships. Potts doesn’t decide who is ‘good’, and she has endless patience with even the gold-digging daughter-in-law and her gigolo friend. Though she is clear about the bad effects of some personality traits…

A  most enjoyable read all round, and how nice that she fits it into a short book.

I have also blogged on her The Man with the Cane and Death of a Stray Cat, and enjoyed them both very much.

·       * I think this amused me so much because one of my favourite lines in Louise Fitzhugh’s children’s book Harriet the Spy comes when a girl who is keen on science is offered dancing lessons by her parents. ‘I’ve got a big picture of [Isaac] Newton learning the Charleston.’  Never fails to make me laugh.


  1. I love the setup for this one, Moira. And I don't often read a novel where there's a focus like that on handbags. There's an interesting focus on the web of characters, too, and in that sort of context, it works really well. Add in the wit, and little wonder you liked this one so well.

    1. Thanks Margot - I think she was a very clever author and a good writer. Particularly good on women, which I think can result in an author being under-rated.

  2. "she thinks no-one can guess that she is drinking" Oh dear, oh dear.

    1. Yes, it's very well done. We follow her thoughts as she thinks she hides it, then move to the people around her saying words to the effect of 'who's that drunk broad in the black?'

  3. All three of these, and a few more besides, are available on Open Library.

    1. Thanks as ever Shay, really useful. I haven't read a bad one by Potts...

  4. Christine Harding9 April 2023 at 17:11

    I haven’t come across this author, but I’m tempted, especially by the handbags - much more indicative of character then the backpacks we all tote around today.

    1. Indeed! I just love the idea that your size comparison would come from an ice bucket...


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