In his fiction, Peter Abrahams often employs variations on the double motif, that is, paired characters that suggest the duality of human beings or the self as other, such as one finds in Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). This technique is especially useful for a writer who sees the criminal world as an inverse image of the conventional world, with disturbing correlations. In Revolution Number Nine, for example, a gentle, reclusive, middle-age man must confront the extremist youth he once was, after his former identity and violent past are uncovered. In Crying Wolf, a brilliant professor and a dim-witted thug are linked by blood and a shared conviction of their superiority to human laws and moral restraints. In The Tutor, a disturbed young man tries to model himself on a charismatic teacher who intends to destroy him. In Their Wildest Dreams, a Russian American gangster is an outsized version of the protagonist’s husband in mad pursuit of the American Dream. In The Fan, a disturbing symbiosis develops between a professional athlete and an obsessive fan.
Where many of his American contemporaries in the crime and mystery genre have a distinct regional focus in terms of setting (Robert B. Parker’s Boston, Sara Paretsky’s Chicago), Abrahams is much more likely to set his stories in various locales around the United States, as well as abroad. He intends to capture as many dimensions of America as possible, with novels set in widely different states and areas of the country: New Hampshire, Vermont, Louisiana, and Arizona, among others.
A Perfect Crime
A Perfect Crime is a fine example of Abrahams’s strengths as a novelist. Set in contemporary New England, with allusions to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), the story is about the adulterous affair of Francie, an art dealer, and Ned, a radio personality who dispenses advice to people with relationship problems. Francie has been married to the brilliant but brittle Roger Cullingwood for over fifteen years, but the marriage has unraveled because of his inability to father a child, his recent loss of employment, and his increasingly militant attempts to control all aspects of his domestic life, including his wife.
As with many of Abrahams’s stories, A Perfect Crime moves back and forth between two dominant points of view, in this case from that of wife Francie, who is seeking love and fulfillment, to that of husband Roger, who moves from suspicion to blazing anger to coldly plotting “the perfect crime” when he discovers his wife’s infidelity.
Ned and Francie have an apparently ideal place to conduct their affair, a cottage on a small island surrounded by a lake in bucolic New Hampshire. The cottage is owned by one of Francie’s wealthy clients, who is currently living in Europe. Nothing can link the cottage in any obvious way to either of the lovers. The setting, which turns from idyllic to deadly with the first snowstorm, is an effective counterpoint to the emotions generated by this affair.
Francie began her affair with Ned out of desperation, as a response to an attractive man at a time when she felt increasingly thwarted and diminished by her husband’s inadequacies and abuse. She was vulnerable, Ned was sympathetic. The reader notices questionable things about Ned that Francie is inclined to overlook for some time, such as his insistence that he could never leave his wife because of its potential impact on their daughter, and his almost obsessive insistence on absolute secrecy. Nevertheless, the affair unlocks deep and powerful reserves of sexuality, creativity, and profound love in Francie, dimensions of self that she was unaware of, or despaired of being able to express. Roger, noting the changes, quickly intuits the reason, and finds a way to confirm his suspicions about his cheating wife. He immediately decides on revenge as his only possible response, assessing how to get the most satisfaction for the least amount of investment and risk.
In his portrayal of Roger, Abrahams limns the sort of character that reappears in various guises in his fiction, the calculating narcissist who thinks he is smarter than everyone else, for whom all others are chess pieces in a game to be moved about at his will. Roger is nearly as clever as he thinks he is. His plan, from which much of the story’s narrative energy derives, is brilliant.
The plan is also diabolical; it brings into play a grotesque criminal who is Roger’s dark double and his instrument of retribution. This criminal, an unstable mix of psychosis and sexual deviance, is on parole after long years in prison for killing a police officer’s wife in the same area of the country as the hideaway cottage. It is this same police officer who has the task of piecing together the clues from a bewildering and brutal murder.
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