Murder of a Wife by Henry Kuttner (1958)
After reading and reviewing Kuttner's collection Three by Kuttner last week I was in the mood for another book by him. Luckily Murder of a Wife, the last of his four mysteries featuring San Francisco psychoanalyst Michael Gray, was near the top of mount TBR.
Kuttner, who died much too soon in 1958, had directed much of his energies to mystery novels in his last years, even as he was studying for a Master's degree when he had his fatal heart attack. Murder of a Wife appeared in March 1958 (just one month after the author died) in a paperback edition from Permabooks -- its only paperback appearance. It was reprinted in 1983 as part of Garland Books "50 Classics of Crime Fiction, 1950-1975" series, selected by Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor. The Michael Gray Mysteries, an omnibus containing all four Michael Gray mysteries, is forthcoming from Haffner Press. Only eight copies of the Permabook edition are available from Abebooks, from $24.95 to $133.00; none of the Garland Press edition is available. The Haffner Press omnibus credits Kuttner's wife C. L. Moore as co-author; this is probably true, but I don't know is she had any input on Murder of a Wife.
So much for the publishing background. Now on to the story.
We open with the beautiful Karen Champion being attacked in her bedroom by her estranged husband. Or do we? Karen is a pathological liar with a history of making wild claims. The police do not believe her.
As a favor to Karen's doctor, an old friend of Michael Gray's, Gray agrees to try to get sense of whether Karen is telling the truth this time. This leads him and his police captain friend Harry Zucker into a complicated case that ends with a viscous double murder.
Karen claims her safety lies only in having her violent husband declared insane. Dennis Champion is the senior partner in CQD -- Champion-Quigley Developments -- with a 51% ownership stake. The remaining 49% is owned by Roger and Joyce Quigley, a married couple who are also pushing to have Dennis Champion declared insane so they could gain control of the company. Dennis Champion has hired Ira Fenn, a sleazy (and blackmailing) private detective who tries to bribe Gray into declaring that Karen champion is insane.
To complicate things, Karen has struck up a friendship with Oliver Albano, a mob-connected thug. Albano wants the friendship to develop into an affair but has not had any luck so far. Karen and Albano were introduced by Joyce Quigley, who had been having a torrid affair with Albano. Albano had been seen threatening Perry Brand, a quack doctor who has been milking his clients with phony cures. One of Brand's clients is Susan Turk, the wife of CQD's business developer Wesley Turk; Susan had been surretiptiously cleaning out the Turk's various accounts (including some $20,000 from a safe deposit) to pay for Brand's "treatments." Brand was also being blackmailed by Fenn.
Did I say, phew?
The key to the mystery is Karen's pathological lying, as well as "blank" memories from her past. And who is the mysterious "Judy," of whom Karen denies having and knowledge?
Murder of a Wife is a solid psychological mystery with a hard-boiled flavor, set very much in the late fifties. There is an irritating (and somewhat illogical) interplay between Gray and his friend Zucker, as well as a mild sexist late-Fifties attitude, much these are minor quibbles. As with the previous three books in this series, Murder of a Wife is a winner and a solid reminder of what could have been a long-running, popular series, save for Kuttner's death.
My recommendation: Scoop up the Haffner Press omnibus. It's available for pre-order and worth every penny of the $45.00 price tag. You can't go wrong.