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Last Updated on February 12, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1258

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.

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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 psychotherapy—appears, Vic identifies him as the detective, then calls his agency and cancels his services. Once Carpenter leaves, public opinion turns against Don, and the Wilsons move to another town.

In September, Trixie’s school advances her by a full grade. Vic happily commits to tutoring her in her weaker subjects and gets her a boxer puppy. Trixie says that her classmates think he killed Charley. Although assuring her he did not, Vic imagines this lowers her opinion of him.

Melinda now drinks constantly. As Vic’s antipathy solidifies, he visualizes her wearing a giant “My Enemy” sign. He suggests divorce—contingent on a good income—but she refuses, shouting her desire to destroy him and “smash [his]… lousy ego!” He suspects that she is seeing Ralph again and conspiring with Don Wilson.

In November, the Van Allens meet Anthony “Tony” Cameron, a contractor looking for a building site, and Melinda begins an affair with the dark, heavy-set man. Horace, appalled at Melinda’s behavior, again urges Vic to take action. Declaring that she is going to Mexico with Tony, Melinda asks for a divorce and financial settlement. Vic agrees.

Meanwhile, Brian Ryder had been the Van Allens’ houseguest while he and Vic finalized Greenspur’s upcoming publication of his poetry volume. On Monday, Vic drives Trixie to school and drops Brian at the Wesley train station.

In Wesley, Vic sees Tony on the street and persuades him to go—in Vic’s car—to an isolated old quarry. While they stand at the top, Vic heaves two huge rocks at Tony, sending him over the precipice onto a ledge far below. Using a snow chain from his car, Vic fastens several rocks to Tony’s dead body and rolls it into the deep water. After hastily cleaning blood off the rocks and verifying that he is clean, Vic drives to Trixie’s recital and enjoys hearing her choir sing.

Back home, Melinda says that she cannot reach Tony and accuses Vic of killing him. As she rushes out, they struggle. Vic hits his head, and the cuts require stitches. At Melinda and Don’s suggestion, Tony’s client sends a detective, Pete Havermal, to investigate. For several weeks, Melinda tells everyone that Vic killed Tony, and Havermal questions Vic and dozens of other people. His abrasive manner alienates Vic’s steadfast friends, and he leaves town with no results.

Melinda’s attitude abruptly changes: she apologizes profusely, asks Vic’s forgiveness, and throws him a surprise birthday party. Vic, fooled many times before, warily anticipates her next move. She suggests they picnic at the quarry, and they go there on Sunday while Trixie plays with friends elsewhere.

During the picnic, Melinda again accuses Vic of killing Charley and Tony, adding that he dumped Tony’s body somewhere. She leaves her scarf there, and Vic retrieves it the next day. Don soon arrives and confronts him with the same accusations. Vic brushes him off but assumes the police will believe him. By the time Vic arrives home, he is furious. He rips the telephone out of the wall and strikes Melinda repeatedly. Hearing a car outside, he chokes her to death.

Don and the police rush in too late to save Melinda. As the policeman takes him away, Vic thinks that he is as dead as Melinda. With guilt and shame left behind, he now feels empty. He remains contemptuous of the majority of people, whom he views as mediocre like Wilson. “[W]ith a smile, and with all that was left of him,” Vic curses Wilson’s grim face, as it reflects his “small, dull mind... and all it stood for.”

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