The Kind Man (1951) is Helen Nielsen's debut novel and eerily it shares quite a bit with another book by a woman writer published that year and previously reviewed on this blog -- A Gentle Murderer by Dorothy Salisbury Davis. In both books we have a young man quite obviously troubled, possibly mentally ill, and haunted by his past. In both the two young men are obsessed with killing and a specific murder weapon. In Nielsen's book the tortured soul is Marty Weaver and he has knives on his mind almost all the time. Make that a specific knife. One that he happens to find and take home with him. And he thinks he must use it over and over to kill the people he loves. He's clearly not well, my friends. But is he really guilty of the murders that take place?
What makes this particular knife so special is that also happens to be a piece of evidence that went missing from a murder trial many years ago. That it should happen to turn up now and is used to commit another murder on a person who Marty barely knew is what drives the plot. Nielsen is fascinated with the effects of crime on the people who are left behind. Do the survivors manage to forgive? Can they learn to heal themselves after violence has ripped their inner lives to shreds? Can families ever be the same? Marty's anguished past becomes the key to understanding his obsession with violence, knives, and murder.
|Helen Nielsen (from the DJ of Obit Delayed)|
Photo by Amos Carr/Hollywood
The "kind man" of the title is Sampson Case, owner of a cannery business. His much younger wife Lola turns out to be one of those philandering temptresses that populated the paperback originals of the 1950s. Snyder soon discovers she is linked to the murder victim, Palmer, an avid gambler who was relentless in collecting his debts. For a while it looks as if Palmer's death is nothing more than gambling and gangster stuff. Several thousand dollars has gone missing and the search for the money and who took it from the corpse makes up a secondary part of the murder investigation. The case gets rather complicated when the man who discovered Palmer's body, a poor Mexican Sampson Case took pity on, is also murdered with that ubiquitous knife. Now it looks as if Snyder has a homicidal maniac on his hands. Sampson Case will play an important part in the unusual finale and the title of book will have greater significance than merely describing his demeanor.
Nielsen tells a great story. It's a multi-layered, complex plot riffing on the old-fashioned detective novels of the 30s and 40s but with a keen insight into the ravages of violent crime and its long ranging effects on those who have to pick up the pieces in its aftermath. The manner in which Marty's past keeps intruding, and the presence of the eerie knife make for an almost supernatural element controlling the characters. At times Nielsen is so masterful in her writing that she makes the murderer appear to be a menacing omnipresent force haunting Marty and not a real human being at all. And there is mounting suspense in the last eight chapters with gripping incidents following in quick succession. Impressive work from a novice to be sure.
|James Farentino can't resist Vera Miles in "Death Scene"|
The Kind Man (1951)
Gold Coast Nocturne (1951) aka Murder by Proxy (UK hardcover) and Dead on the Level (US paperback)
Obit Delayed (1952)
Detour (1953) aka Detour to Death
The Woman on the Roof (1954)
Stranger in the Dark (1955)
The Crime is Murder (1956)
Borrow the Night (1957) aka Seven Days Before Dying
The Fifth Caller (1959)
False Witness (1959)
Sing Me A Murder (1960) aka The Dead Sing Softly
Verdict Suspended (1964)
After Midnight (1966)
A Killer in the Street (1967)
Darkest Hour (1969)
Shot on Location (1971)
The Severed Key (1973)
The Brink of Murder (1976)