Hardboiled Review – Stranger at Home – Leigh Brackett

Stranger at Home is a mystery-romance novel ostensibly by George Sanders–yeah, the actorGeorge Sanders–but more reliably ghostwritten by Leigh Brackett. It isn’t one of anyone’s especial favorites, so information is limited, but it was published in the 1940s.

I quite liked this book, with a slight exception, and would recommend it to anyone who likes a strong dollop of murder in their 1940s-era romance or vice versa. The male lead was interesting, the detective was competent, the villain appropriate to hero in motivation, and it never seemed cheap for everyone to be in love with the heroine. (Literally everyone except the married detective…who admits he would cheerfully hit it if he could get away with it.)

Rich playboy Michael Vickers returns home after four years’ absence–missing or presumed dead. The only person genuinely happy to see him is his dog; anybody who worked for him isn’t, his friends certainly aren’t, and his wife isn’t sure. Vick reveals the cause of his absence: four years ago on a cruise in South America, he was drugged, taken ashore, clubbed over the head (leaving an impressive scar), and left to die. His memory have only just returned. There were only three people with him on that cruise: his best friends Bill Saul, Harry Bryce, and Joe Crandall. They’ve been busy ever since, comforting his widow–which makes Vick one of the prime suspects when Harry Bryce is found dead the morning after Vick’s return.

Joe Trehearne, a cool and rather surprisingly competent police detective, investigates the murder. I quite liked his investigation, which has enough twists, false confessions, secret eye-witnesses, and evidence-tampering to keep his next move uncertain and the solution (in its own context; in context of the book, it’s fairly clear Who Dun It) unclear. Meanwhile, Vick is looking for answers of his own: was his wife responsible, which of his friends left him for dead, who is taking potshots at him, and of his loyal, loving companions, which of them is going to succeed in framing him for the murder?

If it wasn’t clear from the synopsis, Vick is a fairly unpleasant person and was even worse four years before. Not even the people who like him, actually like him very much. The common thread between Bill and Job is that, as badly as he treats them, Vick is still the man they envy and a little subconsciously admire, or aspire to be: richer, more successful, more charming, luckier, and overall more alpha than them. Four years’ worth of hard labor, poverty, and experiencing real friendship, have made him grow up some. Now, as his wife observes, he insults people intentionally. 

His wife, Angie, is also admired, desired, and envied by every other person in the novel. She is the most beautiful woman in the world; wise, kind, charming, intelligent, much more popular with other people than Vick ever would be, and–like most every Brackett heroine–genuinely a strong woman.

Example:

She said quietly, “Do you love me, Vick?”

“I love you. For the first time in my life I can say that, and know what I mean by it.”

“Then I’ll tell you something.” Her voice was very calm, unhurried. “If I were a very brave and very clever woman, and if I were afraid of you and wanted you dead, I would do exactly as I have done. I’d play along with you. I’d make you believe me. I’d get you into bed, and then after you were asleep I’d knife you, quite quietly, and call Mr. Trehearne and tell him it was self-defense, and that before you attacked me you had boasted of killing Harry Bryce, and of being about to kill Job Crandall and Bill Saul. I would say that you had gone quite mad — and Trehearne would never doubt me.”

I always wonder why that course of action never occurs to a heroine in a tight spot. She also has black, not blonde, hair. I thought that was noteworthy. But there are several blondes and also a redhead anyway, so…

I’m running out of time again so will wrap this up. My only slight disappointment is with the ending: I didn’t want a certain character to die who did (although the death, and the doubts as to Vick’s actual innocence it created were narratively brilliant), and Vick ends up horribly torturing a confession out of the actual culprit, in a way that was gruesome just to read.

Rated: four drunken orgies out of five.

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