The Middle Way of Ursula Curtiss

It is surprising that the current resurgence of interest in psychological suspense and vintage crime fiction in general has yet to reach Ursula Curtiss despite her being one of the most important American post-war crime writers. Her position is an odd though not unfamiliar one to readers of this blog, still famous and celebrated in the rarefied ranks of specialists and connoisseurs but forgotten by the world at large. Even Charlotte Armstrong and Margaret Millar get more critical and popular attention these days.

I’m not invoking those once prestigious names just for the sake of comparison; they also kind of bookend Curtiss’ entire work. Less « literary » than Millar but harder-edged than Armstrong, Curtiss occupies the middle ground between the two giants of the psychological suspense genre, borrowing from both and yet being subtly different.

Armstrong and Millar’s approaches to crime writing were diametrically opposed as anyone who read their books will know. Both started their career writing « conventional » mysteries and soon became tired with it and moved away from the whodunit genre. Armstrong chose to focus on suspense and ditched the mystery element almost completely. Millar on the other hand retained the complex plotting of GAD fiction though using it in a completely different and at the time revolutionary way. To sum up the difference between the two, let us say that with Armstrong you never know what will happen whereas with Millar you’re not even sure you know what’s happening.

Where does it place Curtiss then? That depends on which book of hers you’re reading. Unlike her two sisters in crime and most of their followers, Curtiss never settled on an approach for good. The formula that characterizes most of her plots – a young woman or more rarely a man in deadly jeopardy – reminds one of Armstrong, and a number of them could have been written by « Lolotte » as Claude Chabrol irreverently but affectionately nicknamed her. A book like Don’t Open the Door follows the Armstrong model to a T, from the suburban setting to the threat being identified from the onset to the indirect moral and social commentary. The Forbidden Garden, Out of the Dark or Danger: Hospital Zone belong in the same category of her work.

Yet Curtiss also wrote books that included a mystery/whodunit element in that the hero(ine) and the reader know something’s wrong, but not what or who. This side of her work moves her closer to Millar, though she rarely reached the latter’s plotting virtuosity. The Noonday Devil, The Second Sickle or The Wasp, arguably her best known work, belong in that category. So ultimately does what I regard as her magnum opus, The Stairway which in typical Millar fashion is not entirely the novel it seems to be at first sight.

Curtiss maintained this ambivalence to the end, and perhaps this is why she is now so neglected for being on both sides of an argument ultimately means you’re on no one. This is also what makes her special and one of the best crime writers ever in my opinion. She makes the middle road worth travelling.


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