The alphabet in crime fiction community meme is moving inexorably towards the end of its treacherous journey through the alphabet. Under the skilled leadership of Kerrie at Mysteries in Paradise, we’re all safe – thus far ; ). This week, we’re making a “U” –turn ; ). My choice for this letter is Marian Babson’s Untimely Guest, published in 1976.
Untimely Guest is the story of a large Irish family led by a tyrannical matriarch, and how the members of the family cope when one of them is suddenly killed. As the novel begins, Eleanor and Kevin are preparing for the return of Kevin’s sister, Bridget (Bridie) from the convent she’s been living in for the last ten years. Economic setbacks have forced Bridie’s order to close the convent, and there is nowhere else for her to go. Neither Kevin nor Eleanor is eager to have her back, but there’s no room for Bridie anywhere else. Kevin’s brother Patrick and Patrick’s wife, Carmel, have a large family, and their sister, Veronica, has enough to cope with taking care of their oppressive and autocratic mother, known as Mam, who’s not in good health. Besides, the family is already coping with the return of Kevin’s other sister, DeeDee. DeeDee caused a scandal in the family when she divorced her husband, Terence, and now, she’s brought her new fiancé, James, to meet the family. Meanwhile, Terence is still living at the family home, and hasn’t accepted the fact that he and DeeDee are no longer married.
When Bridie arrives, all of the ingredients are there for a family feud. Everyone feels awkward around Bridie, who hasn’t lived “in the world” for ten years. Bridie doesn’t feel very comfortable, either. She’s afraid to let her mother know that she’s returned from the convent since Mam had had her heart set on Bridie’s being “a Woman of God.” DeeDee’s arrival with her fiancé, James, adds to the tension, since her former husband, Terence, still believes that they’re married according to Church law, and that DeeDee will “come to her senses.” All this tension is especially hard on Veronica, who takes care of Mam and has sacrificed her own life to be a dutiful daughter. It’s no easier on Carmel and Eleanor, who married into the family and can see from the outside how dysfunctional the family is. Sure enough, the feud erupts and before long, everyone’s nerves are stretched to the breaking point.
As Bridie’s stay with Eleanor and Kevin continues, we learn something about the family’s past. Before she went into the convent, Bridie dated DeeDee’s ex-husband, Terence. Then, abruptly, she went into the convent. DeeDee married Terence shortly afterwards, but the marriage didn’t last long. These are just hints that something traumatic happened in the family ten years ago, but nobody is willing to discuss it. In fact, the whole family was perfectly willing to go on as though nothing had happened – until Bridie and DeeDee returned.
One night, the whole family, including Terence and James, is gathered at Mam’s home. The tension is almost unbearable, with insults and recriminations of all kinds, and Mam in particular at her worst. Terence, who’s been drinking, goes upstairs to lie down. Later James does the same. When everyone hears a loud thump from upstairs, the family goes up to investigate. So everyone’s there when DeeDee suddenly tumbles down the stairs. The last thing she says before she dies is that she was pushed.
At first, no-one wants to believe that DeeDee was killed. The family might have its quarrels, even feuds, but no-one would kill anyone. James, though, insists that DeeDee was murdered. He swears that she was pushed. When Eleanor and Carmel, who are the only ones who will listen to him, ask why, he tells them the truth about what happened in the family ten years before. That story, and their own growing realizations, lead Eleanor and Carmel, too, to believe that DeeDee was murdered. There are several suspects, too. Almost all of the family members were there when DeeDee fell down the stairs, and any one of them could have been responsible. In the end, after a climactic family scene, the killer confesses, and explains the motive. Now, the family has to deal with the death and the reality of murder in the family. As the novel ends, we see the various members of the family slowly picking up the pieces of their lives and re-arranging them to cope as best they can.
Untimely Guest isn’t a fast-paced, action-packed thriller. But there’s plenty of suspense as we see the family tension mounting. Even the children notice the tension and react to it. There’s also a real layer of interest as we slowly find out the secrets that everyone’s been keeping for ten years, and that only Eleanor and Carmel seem not to know. The murder is sudden and unexpected, and the timing of the novel keeps the reader interested. There’s also a welcome sense of humor in the novel.
The most interesting aspect of Untimely Guest, though is the psychological aspect. This is the story of a dysfunctional family more interested in denial than in facing the ghosts of past events that have been haunting the members for ten years, and the reality of a violent death in the family. It’s interesting to see how the various members react when it’s clear that, whether they deny it or not, DeeDee was murdered. Some members go on in denial, and others don’t. That conflict between the urge to deny and the need for honesty makes for fascinating psychological drama.
We also see throughout the novel some of the effects of outside forces on the family. For instance, the economic times that have closed Bridie’s convent have taken their toll on the family as well. There’s also the force of the Irish Catholic tradition. That set of traditions permeates the novel and profoundly affects most of the characters.
Untimely Guest is an interesting murder mystery, and that aspect of it keeps the reader’s attention. But the real appeal of this novel is the portrait of a family in crisis, caught between the past and the present, and between reality and denial. In that sense, it’s as interesting as a psychological drama as it is anything else. On that score, I recommend it.