ANN CARDWELL – Crazy to Kill. Mystery House, hardcover, 1941. Black Cat Detective #10, digest paperback, 1944. Harlequin #22, Canada, pb, 1949. Macfadden 35-119, paperback, 1962; Uni-Books reprint, no date. Nightwood Editions, softcover, Canada, 1990. The book was also converted to an opera with this title by James Reaney, Sr., and John Beckwith; it was performed in Canada in 1989.

ANN CARDWELL Crazy to Kill

   Earlier this month there was a post of a review of this book by Canadian author Ann Cardwell. The review by Bill Deeck ended with a tantalizing sentence trailing off in an ellipsis of ambiguity. “One of the rare mysteries with a mental institution setting and one of the rare… But that mustn’t be revealed.” We were all puzzled. What did Bill Deeck mean?

   I ordered a copy and when it arrived last weekend read the very short novel rather quickly. The book, a paperback published by an outfit called Uni-Books, was littered with typos and punctuation errors but most infuriating of all the characters’ names kept changing — sometimes within the same paragraph. I don’t have any other copy to compare this with so I can’t tell where these errors came from, but it still drove me batty.

   One of the murder victims is called Tim but he when he is first introduced his name changes from Tim to Tom in the span of one line. Later in the book he is referred to as Tom again and then Tim a few lines later. The narrator, Agatha Lawson, is once called Miss Lawrence which is the first name of one of the police detectives. Miss Lawson is also once called Miss Wilson — the name of one of the nurses in the hospital. On the rear cover of the book Dr. Holman is rechristened Dr. Holden by someone who clearly didn’t read the book.

ANN CARDWELL Crazy to Kill

   The blurb on the back also downplays the lurid murder story and instead focuses on a very minor incident involving a jealous lover’s triangle among two nurses and a doctor — although two doctor’s names are mentioned and a fourth nurse’s name is thrown into the works.

   You can imagine how this was more than just a minor distraction like an occasional typo that may pop up in even a leading paperback publisher’s book. I even began to wonder if this was intentional. After all, Agatha Lawson is a mental patient and this could have been a clever manipulation of truth and delusion on the author’s part. Then I discarded that thought and did my best to overlook the errors and typos. The story was engaging enough and I ought not to let minutiae like that get the better of me

   So to the story. Miss Lawson narrates a tale of a crazed murderer on the loose who is killing staff members and attacking patients seemingly at random. No motive seems clear. The multiple methods of murder (stabbing, bludgeoning, strangling) only reinforce the suspicion of a homicidal maniac at work.

   I have to admit having been trained so well in the contemporary thriller trope of the “unreliable narrator” that I was skeptical of much of what Miss Lawson told the reader. I wasn’t sure I was getting the real facts and played closer attention to the other characters’ speeches and behavior.

ANN CARDWELL Crazy to Kill

   Agatha is also obsessed with leaving the institution and seems more concerned about passing her “sanity exam” than with the murderer in their midst. Yet somehow she is allowed to serve as a Watson to the two police detectives in charge of the investigation. As she tells Lt. Hogan, “It takes a thief to catch a thief,” implying that she knows more of the ways of the patients than an outsider would.

   I hesitate to go into the sometimes complicated plot any further. Bill’s review does a good job of mentioning the salient points. Let me just say that Cardwell did a good job of misleading the reader. There are several surprises that caught me off guard leading up to the final revelation of the killer.

   The final twist may not be a huge surprise but it was the perfect ending to a story that reminded me of a few of those British anthology horror films of the 1970s like Asylum and The House that Dripped Blood. Cardwell may well have created a minor classic in the subgenre of the homicidal killer mystery.

   A review of other books published prior to 1941 might even prove that her book is a first of its kind. I cannot think of one earlier than this with a similarly constructed story although there are a handful with that rare … ah, but that must not be revealed. Deja vu, eh?

Editorial Comments:   As far as I know, Uni-Books was one of those repackaging companies that bought up rights to books from other publishers and put new covers on them but more or less kept the text block the same. They then sold the books as the equivalent of instant remainders, dumping them off to drugstores and supermarkets to sell at whatever discount they chose.

   The cover of the Macfadden edition, done by Ronnie Lesser, continued the “nurse” theme of the Black Cat version, but there’s still that menacing shadow standing in the doorway as a reminder that there is a mystery involved.

   The Uni-Books cover, however, the lowermost of the three you see here is purely a generic one with nurses only. Unless you read the small print (the same as on the Macfadden), you’d never know it was a mystery. (Well, there is the title, of course.)