JEAN POTTS – The Diehard. Scribner’s, hardcover, 1956. Dell 982, paperback, 1958.

JEAN POTTS The Diehard

   I picked up this book on a whim and found it — well, not completely successful, but such a unique blend of the clichéd and quirky that I suspect it will stay in my increasingly erratic memory long after better books have gone their way.

   Before we even start Diehard, we know who’s going to be murdered — I mean that literally, it’s written on the cover: “LEW MORGAN, INEVITABLY, WILL DIE.” Such things are the implicit heart of most mysteries, so I’m not giving away any trade secrets here, but Potts take us on an unusual course: Not “who done it?” but “who will do it?”

   Said Lew Morgan is a small-town magnate who owns the local factory and controls the bank—egotistical and insensitive, the archetypal victim-in-a-murder-mystery. His wife has just died, he’s preparing to marry his patient mistress, and his doddering old aunt keeps seeing omens of his imminent death. Now is that a potential corpse or isn’t it?

   Not content with creating the quintessential chalk-outline-to-be, Potts provides a cast of supporting characters perched not-too-steadily on the brink of mayhem: embittered daughter, weakling son, envious friend, and an avaricious daughter-in-law with a murderous lover. There’s also a drunken beautician Lew knocked up years ago, then ran out of town, and it seems she likes to get soused and brood over old grudges. You couldn’t find so many suspects outside a CLUE game!

   As the story spins out over the course of a day or so, Potts turns the screws, seeming to delight in piling one murder-mystery cliché on another, into an impressive house of carnage. It turns out Lew plans to force his envious friend out of business, then go on a remote fishing trip with him. It also looks like he’s going to ruin his bitter daughter’s one chance for love, publicly disgrace his weakling son, and file criminal charges on his daughter-in-law and her lover. As for the drunken beautician, well, he’s thinking about raising their daughter as his own….

   Any one of these would have been (and has been, no doubt) the plot or sub-plot of many a mystery, so perhaps there’s nothing terribly original in The Diehard except Potts’ evident delight in playing with the conventions of the form. I have to say I figured out who-would-do-it long before the end, and somehow I perversely kept hoping the likeable bastard would cheat his fate, but…. Well, read it and see. You won’t be disappointed.

Editorial Comment: Jean Potts, who has fourteen books listed in the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin, is little known today. She was, however, an Edgar winner for her first book, Go, Lovely Rose (1954), and several years later her novel The Evil Wish (1962) was nominated in the category of Best Novel.