(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Go, Lovely Rose started Jean Potts’s career as a mystery writer with an Edgar Allan Poe Award. It is, perhaps, the only novel in her corpus that has all the ingredients of a conventional whodunit. A murder begins the plot, a range of suspects are introduced and brought together, and a police officer and detective are on the chase, taking statements, asking questions, and “going by the book of police procedure.” Still, even in this first effort, almost all the ideas and innovations that made her contribution to the genre so distinctive are present in embryonic form.

The Diehard

Straying more than slightly from the rules in that first crime novel, Potts achieved that special voice writers strive for surprisingly early in her career. By the time her third crime novel, The Diehard (1956)—a murder mystery without an actual murder—was published, she had discarded even the pretense of following the prescribed rules that made a mystery novel in the eyes of purist readers and writers. The question in The Diehard is not who did it but who could have done it—and nobody does it. Thus, The Diehard constitutes an outworking of one of Potts’s theories on her genre: that the thought is the crime and that a murder committed in the mind alone often has consequences as serious as those of an actual killing. The intention or even the desire to do away with someone makes a character as culpable as the hand that fires a gun.

Like The Diehard, Home Is the Prisoner pursues another angle of the idea of a mystery without a murder to precipitate it. The Man with the Cane (1957) differs from the concept in a minor way: The victim is almost a total stranger who is introduced to most of the characters only after his murder. The Evil Wish (1962), another variation on the same theme, develops a concept that was casually introduced in Go, Lovely Rose and The Diehard—what Potts christened a “left-over murder.”

Other devices and motifs link the novels written between 1965 and 1975. Career connections replace the lifelong small-town bonds of the earlier plots. Anonymous parts of New York City or a strange resort environment become the backdrop, replacing the familiarity of a suburban hamlet where everybody knows everybody else. A faceless, impersonal voice of an unnamed detective replaces the identifiable “friendly neighborhood policeman,” though these official characters are equally unimportant to the real working of the plot. There is murder committed toward the beginning of these later novels, and the murderer is almost invariably a woman with an obsessive, irrational love for her husband (The Footsteps on the Stairs, 1966, and An Affair of the Heart, 1970) or her son (The Only Good Secretary, 1965, and The Troublemaker, 1972).

All fourteen novels have some things in common. There is always a small community of people, with each individual inextricably tied to the crime in one way or another, each contributing to and being affected by the psychological anguish caused by the crime (regardless of whether it has been committed), each having to shoulder his or her share of the total guilt even as collectively they piece together fragmentary clues and pronounce judgment on the actual act. In itself, the act is not important, and neither is justice by law. Suicide, insanity, and a total indifference to any punishment the legal system can impose on them are the only way Potts’s criminals can react to the crimes they commit, because justice does not come down on them impersonally: It originates in the crime itself and in the very motive behind it.

Psychologically, the novels become progressively more complicated and introspective in both characterization and action. The private worlds within the minds of the people Potts creates become the real focus of the novels. It is the internal world of a character that causes the normally mundane external world of a community to disintegrate. Shorn of this psychological complexity, her plots would seem bare and inadequate. Home Is the Prisoner, for example, is the story of an ex-convict who returns home to avid speculation on the part of the people who have known him all of his life, while in The Man with the Cane the corpse of a stranger triggers the curiosity of a normally apathetic community. All physical acts of aggression are either catalyst or solution and fade into inconsequence. Physical violence, if there is any, is restricted to the crime, its gruesome details glossed, and sometimes a suicide in the end (also underplayed and generally out of sight), or as in several novels, a small fistfight at some point.

The Evil Wish

Mental violence, on the other hand, abounds, kept a malicious, malevolent secret under the gentlest or the most sensible exterior. Potts points out, time and again, that even ordinary people with the most uneventful existences are capable of heinous crimes. Doll-like, docile women who chatter away...

(The entire section is 2082 words.)