book: The Man with Two Wives (1955) by Patrick Quentin

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Bill Harding is happily married to tireless philanthropist Betsy Callingham, elder daughter of the magazine plutocrat C.J. Callingham. To be sure, Bill can’t really stand his bullying father-in-law, who’s also his boss, and Betsy’s younger and much prettier sister Daphne, the apple of C.J.’s eye, makes Bill’s teeth grate, but he loves Betsy as deeply as he does his son — her stepson — Rickie.

In fact, Bill hardly ever thinks back to the time when he was married to the beautiful but tempestuous Angelica, the time when he was well known as the author of one of the great novels to come out of World War II, the time before his creative juices dried up and Angelica suddenly ran out on him and Rickie and into the arms of a destitute bohemian . . .

But one day he sees Angelica on a Manhattan street corner and foolishly lets her back into his life. The next he knows, Angelica’s latest lover, Jaimie, is romancing Daphne with an eye to a share of C.J.’s fortune, and Angelica has become sufficiently a part of Bill’s existence to be caught grappling with him one night on the living-room couch by the hired help. Thanks to the interruption, the episode is truncated, and Bill resolves to confess all to Betsy.

Then Jaimie’s found murdered and C.J. constructs a cockamamie alibi to keep Daphne’s name out of the police investigation — an alibi that involves bribing the household help to swear that Daphne was chastely playing board games with her brother-in-law at the time the murder was committed. Trouble is, that destroys Angelica’s alibi — that she was on the verge of being seriously indiscreet with Bill at the fatal hour — and the NYPD’s perspicacious Inspector Trant soon focuses on Angelica as the prime suspect . . .

Patrick Quentin (Hugh Wheeler in collaboration with various others) has always been one of my very favorite mystery writers, and it’s far too long since last I read anything by him. Deciding to renew my acquaintance, I deliberately avoided choosing one of his terrific Peter Duluth series, all of which I believe I’ve read, and opted for a standalone. (Now Goodreads tells me this too is part of a series — it’s supposedly “Timothy Trant #6” — but Trant is merely a member of the support cast, so it may more likely be that PQ used a recurring cop.)

The Man with Two Wives is in many ways archetypal PQ. An essentially honest man, believing his life to be far more on an even keel than it actually is, buys into a single piece of falsehood only to find circumstances running away from him as that initial falsehood compounds itself to become a labyrinth of dishonesty from which it seems there’s no escape. Although we sympathize with and identify wholeheartedly with Bill, at the same time we occasionally want to slap him upside the head for being a sap . . . precisely because we can see ourselves all too easily falling into the same traps.

And, again as is typical of PQ, we become very emotionally invested in the characters, and come to care very much about their fates. Bill, because he’s in effect us; Angelica because, while she may be battered and disordered by life, she has not yet been entirely broken and clearly is at heart a misguided idealist bent on saving others; Betsy, the insecure elder sister who’s always been the dowdy, worthy, boring one; and even the ditsy, spoilt Daphne.

As for the mystery aspect, the plot is quite beautifully woven. Even though the correct solution to the murder had crossed my mind once or twice — or, at least, the identity of the murderer — until the final pages I was as bamboozled as poor old Bill himself as to what had really happened.

In short, my reintroduction to PQ’s oeuvre could hardly have gone better. More, please.

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