You’ve probably never heard of Jean Potts. I hadn’t before I stumbled upon Stark House Press. I suppose I didn’t really stumble upon them, I found them in the Ziesings catalog. I get a lot of books from Zeisings and I encourage you to do the same. They are a true Mom & Pop (on-line) bookshop in the hinterlands of Northern California. They have all the best books and will also get you whatever you want.
But back to Stark House and Jean Potts. Stark House is in Eureka, California and they specialize in reprints. Jean Potts was a successful novelist and short story writer from the 1940s until the 1970s. She wrote mostly mysteries that are perhaps best described as psychological suspense tales. Get a group of people together who are all a little neurotic and unlikable and drop a body into their midst and see how it plays out.
Stark House has a double with Footsteps on the Stairs (1966) and The Troublemaker (1972) that I just finished. Both are “whodunits” in the sense that someone is murdered and you spend the entire time trying to figure out which one of the group is the killer. All the characters could be guilty, of course, they are all weird and suspicious in some way. In both books the “reveal” is handled deftly (I guessed the second one correctly) but that’s not what makes them work. The angst Potts creates among the characters and the conflicts that emerge, the shifting alliances and such, have tension and a sense of urgency. I like action in a novel but sometimes the best action is the fear, anger, and hostility that break out when people get challenged or cornered. And have something to hide even if it isn’t murder.
Both stories are taut and engaging and handle themes like sexual politics, race, and class that don’t suffer from being dated (the stories are set in the 60s). I think it’s because the characters are clearly drawn and we understand why they do what they do. In writer’s parlance the characters have “agency” and are not simply props or mouthpieces to move the story along.
There are a lot of really excellent crime novels from the post-war era and I love discovering new ones. I’ve several more from Stark House that I’ll post about later.