Mostly my musings on things vintage hardboiled and noir, literary and filmic and other things that take my fancy. Down these mean streets this man must go...

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Ridgway Women by Richard Neely (Keyhole Crime 57) (1982)

Wealthy thirty-eight year-old Diane Ridgway killed her abusive alcoholic industrialist husband during a drunken brawl many years ago and now spends her widowhood as an artist who paints representations of the Californian coastline. One day, she meets retired Colonel Christopher Warren after being introduced to him as the mystery buyer of a number of her paintings. Friendship blossoms into romance and, finally, marriage, and the couple subsequently move into her former marital home.

However, her grown-up daughter Jennifer - who resents her mother for apparently murdering her beloved father - re-enters her life with her current boyfriend Paul, a former New York stockbroker whom she met after he moved to the West Coast and the pair are invited to stay in Diane's house. Although tension remains between mother and daughter, Diane's life seems idyllic until an overheard telephone conversation threatens her security and sets in train a series of narrative twists and turns.

Richard Neely's 1975 novel is a twisty and satisfying thriller in which little is as it initially seems. The upscale 70s West Coast settings and characters are convincingly portrayed and Neely skillfully ratchets up the suspense and thrills in the second half once the action begins. This is most effectively achieved by using alternate chapter first-person narration by Diane and Jennifer to disorientate the reader and amplify the sense of a plot overwhelming the protagonists.

Neely is also adept at writing from the point of view of his initially vulnerable-seeming female characters, which is a trait shared with noir master (and Mr. Hardboiled favourite) Cornell Woolrich and makes a refreshing change from reading the patter of the usual square-jawed heroes in this type of crime fiction.

Admittedly, there are one or two contrivances and at least one obvious twist late on that experienced readers should pick up on, but this still maintains the interest until the final page - particularly as the reveal and wrap-up involves quite a bit of flashing back and re-evaluating previous events. Overall, this is a smooth and polished page-turner and a recommended read.

VERDICT: Neely really good!

AFTERWORD: Richard Neely is a genre writer who deserves to be better known and more widely read by thriller fans. The author Ed Gorman certainly rates him - particularly his period suspense novel The Walter Syndrome whose voice he likens to that of Fredric Brown (and this is high praise indeed) - and it has been noted that his books were packaged more as conventional novels than thrills and that this may have impeded awareness amongst genre fans. A couple of his books have even been filmed (The Damned Innocents by Claude Chabrol as Innocents With Dirty Hands and The Plastic Nightmare by Wolfgang Petersen as Shattered), so he is not exactly a 'lost' or unknown novelist. Instead, he is an undeservedly underrated writer whose sense of narrative control and penchant for twists and narrative switchbacks means that his books are almost all good reads - and some are even in the front rank.

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