I know Henry Kuttner from his sf/fantasy work, and in particular his short stories: his Bypass to Otherness is not just one of my favorite sf/fantasy collections but also among the best short-story collections I’ve read (and reread), whatever the genre. (Don’t be deceived by its vastly inferior companion, Return to Otherness, or even by The Best of Henry Kuttner: Bypass to Otherness is the one to get.)
Until very recently I hadn’t really registered that he also wrote some mysteries. Thanks to Diversion Books, the four Michael Gray novels are now available as a reasonably priced ebook omnibus.
Series protagonist Michael Gray is a San Francisco psychoanalyst. In this outing he takes on a new patient, Howard Dunne, marginally against his own better judgement, because he can sense that Dunne is a dangerous man. In their early sessions, Dunne brags about his sexual conquests and hints that he may have been responsible for the recent unsolved murder of Eleanor Pope, his sister-in-law, a gambling addict and promiscuous adulteress. Dunne soon backs away from this hint, but Gray senses that this twisted, conflicted man could indeed be capable of murder.
Interviewing those around Dunne — his wife Mary, her brother, the domineering Sam Pope, and the man who wants Mary to divorce Dunne and marry him instead, Art Farragut — Gray learns that Dunne is, so to speak, not the most reliable of narrators. However, by the time he has managed to unearth the secrets that Dunne has been trying to keep from him, there have been two more murders . . .
Because of Gray’s profession, this novel is made up primarily of conversations — either in his office or with his old police pal Harry Zucker. For some this might make the tale seem drearily static, I’m sure, but I actually enjoyed the fact that the action was intellectual rather than physical: there’s excitement to be found in the play of ideas, just as much as there is in fisticuffs. That said, while those ideas — many of them related to sex and sexuality — must have seemed pretty trailblazing in 1956, today they’re very much less radical. Similarly, the fact that, while psychoanalysis was regarded as valid science back then, it’s now recognized as pseudoscience does somewhat pull out the tale’s underpinning. (Gray occasionally talks about psychotherapy instead, which may have been Kuttner hedging his bets a little.)
All in all, then, while I’d be reluctant to describe the book as dated, on reading it today one does find constant reminders of its age. Of course, you could say the same about Raymond Chandler or Ngaio Marsh . . .
The mystery at the heart of The Murder of Eleanor Pope isn’t an especially complicated one, but I found it very intriguing to watch Gray approaching it from the stance not of a gumshoe or standard amateur detective but through psychoanalytic deduction. I certainly plan to read more of these.