Victor and Melinda Van Allen are an unhappily married couple in their thirties who live in Little Wesley, a town in Massachusetts. Despite his certainty about Melinda’s infidelity, Vic resists divorce out of concern for their daughter, Trixie. Using a third-person narrator who speaks from Victor’s perspective, the novel traces his deterioration from making jokes to committing murder.
The novel opens at a party in Horace and Mary Meller’s home. Vic sits thinking or chatting with the hosts and guests. The owner and operator of the limited-edition Greenspur Press, he has hobbies such as herb gardening and observing insect behavior. Watching Melinda dance flirtatiously with Joel Nash, Vic understands that the handsome young salesman is her latest lover. When Vic jokingly tells Joel that he would kill any lover his wife might take, implying he was responsibility for the unsolved murder of Malcolm McRae, Joel criticizes his poor taste.
A few days later, Joel announces that he is leaving town the following week. Vic will now address Melinda’s other lover, Ralph Gosden. While Vic supports Melinda’s need for independence, his friends—especially Horace Meller—cannot understand his tolerance. Vic, a proud eccentric, had relentlessly courted an equally odd, headstrong young woman. When they married, she resisted having children for four years, then showed little maternal inclination toward Trixie and lost sexual interest in Vic. When Trixie was two years old, Melinda began an affair with Larry Osbourne, an instructor at a riding academy; this was her first affair. Victor moved into a separate bedroom at that time. Next came Jo-Jo Harris, who had a record shop in Wesley. Vic now prepares to scare off Ralph, a painter who has painted Melinda’s portrait.
One morning at home, after hours of watching Ralph and Melinda dancing and kissing, Vic tells Ralph that he killed McRae with a hammer. Frightened, Ralph speeds away in his convertible. As the story spreads, many people deplore Vic’s sick joke, but Ralph’s friend Don Wilson becomes suspicious.
Vic believes that their friends, after having marveled for a long time at his calm forbearance, now admire him for taking action. Pleased with himself for having scared off her lovers, he plies Melinda with Broadway show tickets and gifts, but she remains resentful. Vic focuses on Greenspur Press projects, working closely with his able young printer, Stephen Hines. Once McRae’s real murderer is found, Melinda begins an affair with Charles “Charley” De Lisle, the pianist at a local pub.
During a party at Phil and Evelyn Cowan’s home, Vic feels humiliated by Melinda’s fawning over Charley. While swimming in the backyard pool after everyone else goes inside, Vic grabs Charley and holds his head underwater until he stops moving. Vic calmly enters the kitchen and drinks coffee. Melinda soon finds Charley floating in the pool. The men pull him out, and Vic performs CPR until the doctor arrives. The ambulance takes De Lisle to the hospital, but he is already dead.
Melinda hysterically accuses Vic of killing Charley. The others, aghast, try to calm her down. The next day, Vic is horrified when Melinda tells Trixie that Charley is dead and that her father killed him. At the inquest, Dr. Franklin testifies to accidental drowning. Melinda shocks everyone by insisting on Vic’s guilt.
Back home, Melinda insists she will never change her mind. Vic understands that her reluctance to divorce is based on the financial disadvantage she would likely experience. Over the next few weeks, Don Wilson fuels the rumor mill. The Mellers and Cowans staunchly support Vic, and Horace expresses serious concern over Melinda’s erratic behavior. Vic feels no guilt; he instead experiences a calm, “steely hardness,” pride, and satisfaction.
Noticing several unusual expenditures, Vic realizes that Melinda has hired a private detective. When Harold Carpenter—ostensibly a researcher in...
(The entire section is 1,258 words.)