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Mystery Monday – The Horizontal Man

The Horizontal Man by Helen Eustis

Review by Matt B. (BuffaloSavage)


This mystery would be enjoyed by readers that appreciate the dark psychological suspense novels of Ruth Rendell as Barbara Vine or Helen Eustis’ contemporary Margaret Millar. Eustis portrays characters in The Horizontal Man as under a great deal of mental pressure whose symptoms are jumpiness, touchiness, tears, insomnia, irritability and avoidance of people.

Eustis plays fair in that from the very first chapter the reader is challenged to continue, wondering if and if so for how long the intense descriptions of overwrought states of anxiety will continue. She also dares us readers with a cast of unsympathetic characters. Loners, sneaks, cranks, bullies, users, nervous Norvuses – readers who have worked at a university will be convinced that Eustis experienced at first hand the academic setting, to have captured the motley collection of personalities found among some unhappy faculties. It’s a an interesting twist on the stereotype of lecherous tenured male prof to make the flirty manipulative professor Freda Cramm – sounds like a woman’s name in an Edith Wharton novel – a sexual predator.

As for the story, in the overexcited first chapter, an Irish faculty member is murdered while visiting an American women’s college that sounds like Smith, it being an exclusive private liberal arts school in New England. A pair of unlikely detectives take up the investigation.

Recent college grad Jack is a novice reporter for a local mediocre newspaper. College gal Kate, tough and teased about her stoutness, dominates Jack as they bungle about with their theories about the crime and blunder into a romance that is oddly affecting, as the reader ends up really pulling for their unlikely affair. Jack and Kate provide much needed comic relief. To my mind, because the anti-Nick and Nora fade into the background in the last chapters, the fun of reading falls off.

Like many challenging books, The Horizontal Man goes into the category of “love it or hate it.” To my mind, as in the not-really-a-mystery mysteries of Mary Fitt, the utterly convincing characters make this worth it. This novel won the Edgar Award for Best First Novel in 1947. Her only other mystery novel was The Fool Killer (1954).

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