“Be as romantic as you want about me but don’t be romantic about money.”
Fans of noir film will be familiar with Sudden Fear–a 1952 woman-in-distress film starring the fabulous Joan Crawford in the title role of Broadway playwright and wealthy San Francisco socialite Myra Hudson, a middle-aged woman who falls hard for the much younger, penniless actor, Lester Blaine, played by Jack Palance. Lester is a homme fatale who’s after Myra’s money, and he has an impatient girlfriend, Irene (Gloria Grahame) who can’t wait for Lester to dump his wife and marry her. Given that Sudden Fear is a great favourite, it was only a matter of time before I turned to the 1948 novel written by Edna Sherry. There’s always the concern, of course, that having seen the film, the novel won’t be interesting, and this is especially true when it comes to crime fiction. After all, are there any surprises left?
Gangsters take their victims for a ride, shoot them with an economy of effort and steel, deposit them in a lonely spot and drive coolly away. Crooked trustees of estates and sinister family physicians (mentioned substantially in their victims’ wills) hatch ingenious plots and carry them to a fatal conclusion. Half-mad lovers–male and females–strike in the heat of passion, and if they control their hysteria after the event, sometimes get away with it. These gentry operate with smooth regularity between book covers.
But for the run-of-the-mill, upper middle-class, law-abiding, convention-ridden public–in short, for you and me–murder is a tough chore. Psychologists maintain that at one time or another, the best of us has murder in his heart. What holds us back? Why aren’t there as many murders in the average household as on the average bookshelf?
So you’re planning a murder? For love, hate, revenge or money? Let’s go.
This is how Sudden Fear begins with a fantastic introduction and the idea that for the average person, murder isn’t easy to commit, and it’s even harder to get away with–especially if you stand to directly benefit.
The novel opens with playwright Myra Hudson arranging to fire an actor during the rehearsals of her new play. According to Myra, 27 year-old Lester Blaine is just too good looking, so he’s fired with no more thought than if Myra were tossing out a set of unwanted curtains. This is very typical behaviour for Myra–she doesn’t think of people as human beings with feelings and needs, and she tends to objectify everyone in her sphere. She’s a 42-year-old intelligent, driven woman–a woman who “had practically everything except youth and beauty.” Myra isn’t an easy person to get along with; she’s critical, arrogant, possessive, demanding, and controlling, and while she has no apparent weaknesses, she’s intolerant of weaknesses in others. She’s a rather formidable person, but there’s also a lot about her that’s admirable. After all, she inherited fabulous wealth, but she’s also written seven “brilliant” and successful plays in the last 15 years. Myra surrounds herself with a New York set of friends who are completely loyal to her, and that includes Eve, her faithful secretary who admires Myra’s talent and intelligence but finds her “intolerance and self-absorption [were] repellent.” Myra also maintains social relationships with several males–including her long-time admirer, Dr. Edgar Van Roon. Roon is the kind of soft-spoken gentle man that Myra “lorded” over, but she seems to like his company for the reflective image of herself in Van Roon’s worshipful , docile eyes.
Everyone in Myra’s social set is astonished when she enters into a whirlwind courtship with Lester Blaine that results in marriage. Naturally, gloom is predicted with Lester as a cheesy gold-digger who’ll make Myra regret her impetuosity. But months pass, and Lester, who’s treated rather like an exotic pet–pampered and spoiled, yet dismissed at Myra’s whim (“run along like a good boy”), eventually gains everyone’s respect. But then one day, fate throws a beautiful young woman, Irma, into Myra’s path, and Myra, intrigued by Irma’s complete, unashamed amorality and naked social-climbing invites Irma into her home and into her circle of friends….
If you’ve seen the film (and it’s highly recommended if you haven’t), then you know what happens. The book handles the story differently, and Myra and Irma are much more extreme characters than their celluloid counterparts. The book’s plot couldn’t be transplanted to film as there are elements that would not have survived the censor. As a result, the film makes Myra a brittle victim who finds the inner strength to fight back for her survival. Edna Sherry’s Myra is something else entirely.
Myra likes to watch and study people for her plays–hence her fascination with Irma–a “type” she hasn’t met before. Myra sees Irma as a “primitive” with ”uninhibited appetites,” and by adding Irma to her social circle she intends to study Irma for creative inspiration. Myra’s secretary, Eve isn’t keen on the idea, and there’s a shade of naiveté and arrogance to Myra’s attitude that Irma won’t cause her any personal trouble. Myra “sensed the girl’s possibilities for evil,” but can’t imagine Irma being evil enough to bite the hand that feeds her–although she predicts that Irma will “leave havoc all round in her wake.” Myra tells Eve:
“Get the idea of deliberate wickedness right out of your head, She wouldn’t hurt a fly if it didn’t get her something. But if it did–she’d massacre without a backward glance. She’s a force–like wind or tides. Even Les felt it.”
Myra is attracted to beauty, and Lester and Irma are both extremely good looking:
Myra watched them together with a smug gusto. Her ego took credit for their looks. Others might surround themselves with charming men and pretty women, but she attracted the cream. Nothing less was Myra Hudson’s due. She looked on them almost as creations of her own hand. It never occurred to her that if they had not been outwardly superlative she would never have given either a second thought. Lester’s radiance covered a weak, greedy inanity, and Irma’s, a cheap cold calculation. But Myra’s voracious love of beauty blinded her to their intrinsic worthlessness.
In many ways, Myra and Irma are a lot alike: they both see people as objects, the disposable means to an end. Both Irma and Myra will go as far as necessary to get what they want, and they both lack some key element to their emotions. Irma is cold and reptilian, bent on clawing her way to the top while Myra uses her money and power to destroy people. Are they very different? Myra has so much power and money that she doesn’t need to use people to get ahead, but she does use people to feed her ego. Remove Myra’s money and privilege, and toss looks her way– it’s not that hard to see Myra acting a lot like Irma to get ahead. There’s a story early in the novel regarding what Myra did to a man who betrayed her trust. It isn’t pretty, but it opens a window into Myra’s unforgiving relentlessness. Here’s Miles Street, Myra’s lawyer, warning her secretary Eve about the kind of enemy Myra can be:
“You don’t know Myra. She’s got her good points, so long as she isn’t crossed. But let anyone tweak that oversized vanity of hers and she shows all the gentle traits of a jaguar. I’ve known her to ruin a woman socially because she said Myra looked like a purse-proud walnut. Even as a kid, she had to be cock of the walk or else.”
The celluloid Irene isn’t as thoroughly evil as her counterpart, Irma in the book version. Interestingly Sherry pits Irma against Myra, and both of these women are frightening, ruthless creatures–especially when crossed. Sherry’s Lester is the weak, none-too-bright man toy stuck in the middle, and there are several indications in the book that Lester might stick with Myra if she’d occasionally let him off the leash to take an acting role she could so easily wrangle.
Sudden Fear is a superb crime novel but it’s also an excellent character study. Deceit, infidelity, passion & greed collide in this tale of revenge, and although I’ve watched the film many times, the book was full of intense surprises and gave me a deeper appreciation of the various plot twists. Sudden Fear is currently out of print, but used copies are out there.