NECESSARY EVIL (1965) by Kelley Roos

During the 1940s married amateur sleuths Jeff and Haila Troy appeared in a handful of screwball mysteries by husband-and-wife authors Audrey Kelley and William Roos, who signed themselves ‘Kelley Roos’ on these books.  They published very little in the following decade and when they re-emerged after a long hiatus in the 1960s, apart from a single belated re-appearance of the Troys after nearly twenty years, the authors would abandon this pair of detectives and the breezy style that went with it, in favor of more darkly hued psychological thrillers.

TomCat over at Detection by Moonlight has been reminding me that I have yet to post a review from Roos’ output, but as the Troy books have been well covered by him and Patrick on his At the Scene of the Crime blog, I’ve plumped for one of the later novels. Necessary Evil is one of these, though at its core one will still find the familiar (in both sense of the word) dynamic of a married couple in jeopardy. Here the couple are Peg Deane and her hard-drinking husband Mark. And right away, we know she is in trouble …

“Lie down on your bed, Mrs Deane.”

I neglected to include the Kelley Roos writing duo in my Partners in Crime post a little while ago, but I am clearly having to make up for it karmically here as this is a book in which virtually all the main characters, in addition to the protagonists, seem to always come strolling in two-by-two! The various ‘couples’ include Harry and Alden, two bickering killers for hire; Madge and Porter Erskine, wealthy member’s of New York’s upper crust celebrating their 15th wedding anniversary; Hilda and Ralph, their servants; Milly and Billy, two youngsters in love trying to for success in the Big Apple; Rick, Peg’s young brother, and his friend Charley, who are traveling through New York on their way back to College; and Phil Barto and Bert Tierney, the two NYPD homicide detectives.

“People don’t always go to the police when they should. Perfectly intelligent people can be stupid about that. How do you call the police?”

This is more of a suspense novel than a mystery, though there are several nice surprises in the story, especially in the early stages in which a seemingly straightforward case of burglary gone wrong is quickly turned into something much more complicated. Harry gets the servants away from the Erskine’s home, then waits for the anniversary party to finish and the lights to go out. Then, together with his partner, breaks in, ties up Madge, takes her jewellery and … deliberately knocks over a vase to attract Porter’s attention. When he duly arrives to check on his wife, they shoot him twice in the chest. This is in fact a murder masquerading as a robbery, orchestrated by Porter’s unfaithful wife. But there has been an unexpected witness to the killing – art critic Mark Deane got drunk and was in the study sleeping it off, but awakened by the shots has left, though apparently too soused to immediately realise what he has in fact seen. Harry and Alden got to mark’s home but only find his wife  Peg. They tie her up and lie in wait for his return. The book offers several neat reversals in the early chapters, with Harry and Alden’s plan to get rid of Mark initially thwarted by a small piece of information that the Rooses have cunningly kept to themselves – that Peg and Mark have split up and so he is not in fact headed home that night. Instead he goes to a bar to keep drinking away his sorrows and ends up spending the night talking at a bar with Bill and his girlfriend Milly, a budding artist. Matters are complicated further when her brother Rick and his buddy Charley lose their train back to College – so Rick decides to visit his sister unannounced, and is duly captured by the killers.

The rest of the novel is concerned with what will happen to Peg, her brother Rock as they try to get away and warn Mark before he sobers up and remembers that he in fact witnessed a murder the night before. This is not a particularly plausible scenario and gets even less likely when Harry lets Peg go out and look for Mark the next morning when he fails to show up – and there are also some fairly colossal coincidences too, like baby brother Rick showing up at just the wrong time, and the fact that Milly decides to keep Mark drunk on the off-chance that in that state he will look more favourably on her paintings and boost her fledgling career. There’s also some levity though as in the subplot involving Milly and Bill – when all seems bleakest, he decides that he will cut his beard off, take an office job and join the rat race. This makes her burst into tears, and deliver what you might call a forlorn bit of mixed messaging:

“Don’t ever come back!”, cried Milly miserably. “But I’ll be waiting for you.”

There are also some fun gimmicks which at the time must have seemed fairly cutting edge, like the fact that the Deane’s apartment is fitted with CC TV so they can keep an eye on who is coming and going in the lobby. This helps generate some strong suspense sequences that feel very visual and film-like, such as an early scene where Peg drops a cigarette outside the balcony, which  we follow on its way down, where the two killers are waiting for her and when a cop shows up to talk to Peg with the killers watching it all with mounting anxiety on the screen … This is as story that would have worked very well as a segment of a TV anthology of the time with its small number of sets, restricted number of characters, easy-on-the-ear dialogue and several sequences that are built up by cross cutting between different concurrent planes of action.

As you can see from the sleeve illustration attached to this review, my copy is the hardback 1965 UK ‘Thriller Book Club’ edition, which boasts pastel cover art showing a trussed up Peg on her bed with pretty pink walls. Which is to say, although this is a suspense yearn we are not really in the bleak Noir realm of Goodis and Woolrich or the early 60s works of Donald Westlake and Lawrence Block either – rather, this is more in the style of the books written by The Gordons like Operation Terror (1961) in which spunky civilians get innocently mixed up in criminal schemes and, with the help of the forces of law and order, get out of them again. It isn’t particularly memorable, countless ‘ticking clock’ hostage dramas on film and TV having by now making the plot commonplace in the extreme. But it is, page by page, line by line, a highly competent piece of work that generates plenty of tension from its central situation and thrown in a few good twists along the way too. For my next bit of Roos though I shall definitely be heading back to their halcyon screwball days of the 1940s.

***** (3 fedora tips out of 5)

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2 Responses to NECESSARY EVIL (1965) by Kelley Roos

  1. TomCat says:

    This is a late response, I know, but I was busy. Anyway, I have never read any of their suspense novels, but I absolutely love and adore their screwball mysteries – which are genuinely funny and often made me LOL. The Frightened Stiff is nothing short of a masterpiece and one of the funniest mysteries I have ever read – and better than most of the stuff written by Edmund Crispin (yes, I said it and stand by it).

    By the way, not all of their 1940 mysteries, featuring the Troys, were screwball mysteries. If the Shroud Fits, for example, is a lot darker in tone than its successors.

    I’m looking forward to read your comments on the Troys.

    • Hi TomCat, thanks very much for the comments. I was quite intrigued by how they pretty much dropped out of publishing in the 1950s and then re-stared in the 60s again with just the suspense titles so I probably ’rounded up’ the summary of their 40s output a bit too much. In NECESSARY EVIL the central couple are almost like a revised version of the Troys in that Peg is also a model. I think one of the few books they published in the 50s is a rewrite of a troys novella of the 40s but with the characters replaced with new ones. I will definitely blog on these earlier books soon (I wish the Red Morgue reprint weren’t quite so expensive though!). As for taking potshots at the great Crispin, well, them’s fightin’ words pardner!

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