Sunday, February 22, 2015

Panic: Review

That's clever. A war of nerves. An attack that is always psychological, never physical. (Colonel Armstrong, p. 155)

The world is at war and someone has declared a private war of nerves on Alison Tracey. When Alison's Uncle Felix Mulholland dies, apparently from heart trouble, she is left without a job and without a home. Her cousin Ronnie, who has inherited the bulk of what little their uncle had to leave, offers her the use of the remote cottage in the Adirondacks while she recovers from her loss and sorts herself out. Alison looks forward to the time alone and says that she will not be nervous on her own four miles from the nearest small town.

But that's before the rustling noises begin outside the cottage. And the mysterious footsteps....when no one seems to be there. And the odd, loping shadow that she glimpses in the moonlight. And the small changes in furniture position that provide evidence that someone searches the cottage whenever she's away.

She's not precisely all alone in the woods. Geoffrey and Yolanda Parrish--one old friend (Geoffrey) and one old rival (Yolanda)--are within walking distance. And Mrs. Phillimore, Alison's nearest neighbor, is a fairly new addition to the mountain community. But should she trust the bizarre woman who walks and talks like a man in disguise? Her cousin Ronnie arrives with Dr. Kurt Anders, a psychologist, in tow. But even Ronnie isn't as assuring as he once was. Then there's Matt who drove her from the train station and delivers her groceries...and who has a voice that is disturbingly familiar even though he says they've never met. And finally there's Colonel Armstrong who claims to be Military Intelligence and is looking for the key to an "unbreakable" cipher which Uncle Felix told him he had developed. Armstrong keeps popping up at the most unexpected times. Is he what he says he is? 

Alison isn't sure who she can trust...and when matters come to a crisis one dark and stormy night it will seem that she can't trust anyone. Geoffrey says he'll keep watch on her cottage, but disappears just when he's needed most. Colonel Armstrong appears once more, but dashes out the front door in pursuit of someone that Alison never saw. Even Argos, the faithful family dog who has been keeping Alison company, disappears into the rainy night. 

Alison, in true suspense heroine fashion, goes out into the storm to look for Argos. She hears noises over the storm and sees shadows that may or may not be menacing. And then as if on cue, Alison's flashlight loses power. She stumbles over a dead body and then the world goes black. When she awakens, she is safe and warm in a bedroom at the Parrish's cottage--but why are her friends and even Ronnie looking at her with suspicion? It will take another dash into a dark night and a flash of insight into her uncle's method of encryption before Alison will be able to prove herself innocent and find out which of her friends or neighbors were trying to drive her into a Panic....

Helen McCloy consistently entertains in her mystery stories. Here she sets up the suspense novel--frightened heroine in a secluded cabin, but she still provides the readers with a fair number of clues to make this a true Golden Age style mystery. Fair play is definitely evident--even though I didn't pick up on the clues she generously displayed for me. My two quibbles with this one are more personal than actual mystery critiques. First--Alison seems to be a very intelligent young woman. Prior to her uncle's death she has had zero interest or knowledge of ciphers and how they work. But--over a period of four days she manages to unravel the code when others with a background in ciphers can't. Okay? So, she's a smart woman. Let's accept that. Given that premise...then why on earth does this smart woman repeatedly leave the cipher papers scattered about where anybody who stops by for a neighborly visit (or not-so-neighborly in the case of the prowler) can see them? The only reason she can come up with for anyone (other than Yolanda who hates anything in a skirt that attracts her brother's interest) to be spying on her is the cipher. And yet...she does nothing to hide it. It irritates me when normally smart people do obviously stupid things. Especially when they do it on a "rinse and repeat" cycle.

Two--the cipher. Okay, it's central to one of the story lines. I got that. But, seriously, did we really have to have pages and pages of explanation about how the darn things work? I thought it was a little yawn-making when Dorothy L. Sayers had Lord Peter give Harriet a lecture on codes in Have His Carcase. I skipped some paragraphs there....but Sayers has nothing on McCloy. Pages of explanation. Tableau after Vigenère tableau. And not just once. We get several installments. 

Fortunately, the story is a good one and the characters are interesting and memorable--with Argos, the blind cocker spaniel, nearly stealing the whole show. Throw in a vivid setting and slight shift in the mystery motive tableau (see, I did pay half-ways attention to those code lectures), and we have a ★★★★ outing.

This fulfills the "Country House" square on the Golden Vintage Bingo Card. While it is not the standard country house story--cast of characters stuck in a snow-bound or otherwise isolated house with victims piling up--we do have a country house, a stormy night of crisis, and a set cast of suspects. And a very enjoyable mystery.

5 comments:

Les Blatt said...

Sigh. Bev, I do fear you've added another one to my TBR pile. I've read some McCloy short stories, but not a novel until now. This sounds fascinating. And the book was published the year I was born...so you can probably guess where I'll be finding another square to fill on my golden Bingo card. Good thing the pixels don't take up all that much room on my Kindle...

Bev Hankins said...

Les, I do believe that you will enjoy it! And so glad you'll have one for your birth year. :-)

Sergio (Tipping My Fedora) said...

I've only ever come across a few of her books but have usually enjoyed them greatly - will see if I can get hold of this after your fine review, thanks Bev.

fredamans said...

Might not be my cup of tea but I am glad you enjoyed it. Great review!

Ryan said...

Wow.... I've not read any of her books before, and I really want to know. I'm so wanting to read this one specifically. Now I just need to take a trip to the Adirondacks and bring it with me.