Tuesday, December 11, 2018

Review: Understudy for Death

Understudy for Death Understudy for Death by Charles Willeford
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

A small Florida community is stunned when a housewife in a seemingly happy marriage murders her two children and then kills herself. Reporter Richard Hudson writes up the story and thinks his work is done, but his managing editor wants an in-depth piece on the rising suicide rates using the dead lady as a local angle.

With that as the starting point and considering that this is a Hard Case Crime reprint of a Charles Willeford novel you might be expecting the book to be about this intrepid reporter uncovering something related to these deaths. I certainly was. Surprise!

This isn’t the first time that HCC has published a book that subverts expectations. Donald Westlake’s Memory isn’t really a crime novel at all. Neither is this. Instead it’s more of a character study of Richard and his own domestic situation. What we learn is that he’s pretty much an enormous jerkface. He’s not much a husband or father who deliberately stays on the night shift so he can avoid domestic responsibility. He’s also content to drift along as an unambitious reporter who has developed a variety of shortcuts to avoid actually doing his job. Richard rationalizes this as being necessary for him to work on his true calling of being a playwright, but it’s quickly apparent that just the dodge he’s using to feel better about being perfectly content to just coast along with minimum effort.

What evolves through Richard’s skewed perspective is a pretty interesting snapshot of life in the early ‘60s. It’s no shock that it’s filled with casual sexism and women are treated as second class citizens. Yet as Richard considers why a woman who had everything that American society said she needs to make her happy would kill herself, he finds himself increasingly thinking about his own life and marriage.

Some readers might complain that this is bait-and-switch since it’s not technically a crime novel, but I found it well-written and somewhat compelling. There’s nothing fantastic or groundbreaking to it, but it’s like a time capsule that gives you a sense of the time and place as well as a glimpse of white male entitlement at its peak.

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