THE DEADLY CLIMATE (1954) by Ursula Curtiss

Curtiss_The-Deadly-Climate_blackdaggerFor years I’ve been meaning to sample the neo-Gothic romantic suspense of Ursula Curtiss (1923-1984) – and after reading a particularly glowing review of this book by that pretty sinister rascal John F Norris, I knew the time had arrived! After a bout of pneumonia and a failed romance, New Yorker Caroline Emmett leaves her overbearing but well-meaning mother and goes to the small town of Wicklow, Mass. to recuperate. But one foggy evening she becomes the witness to a murder and has to go on the run …

I submit this review for Bev’s 2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog.

“Caroline turned and ran from the deadly light”

The novel is set entirely on the night of 16-17 April as Caroline tries to stay one step ahead of the unknown person who killed an equally unknown woman in the night. Caroline didn’t actually see the face of the murderer or the victim, but the villain of the piece doesn’t know that … Having got lost in unfamiliar surroundings, Caroline finds a house in the fog, a seeming sanctuary in the home of the Oliver family. But her troubles are just beginning as the police can’t find any evidence of a body and no one has been reported missing either. Only Carmichael, the editor of the local newspaper, thinks there might be something in it and so begins an investigation on his own. Meantime Caroline starts to suspect that the culprit may be extremely close by …

“Her body begged for sleep, her mind recoiled from the vulnerability of it”

Curtiss_deadly-Climate_pocketCaroline has no idea who her enemy is, though she starts to believe it may be someone inside the house – is it the apparently kindly Mrs Oliver? What about her nosy neighbour or the no-nonsense nurse who rooms upstairs? Or maybe even the mysterious woman collecting for a charity? And what of the Oliver children? The eldest, Julia, seems very unhappy to see her, demanding she leave at once, apparently for fear of putting them all in danger. Caroline has been unlucky in love and with her health of late, so is clearly in a vulnerable state. Unfortunately for her, at the moment she can’t establish her bona fides either as it’s the weekend and her family and her doctor are unavailable. So why should anyone believe her?

“The very air was tenanted; it was as strong a sensation as being stared at from a hidden angle”

Then a large rock crashes through the window and narrowly misses Caroline’s head, the nurse’s dog is killed and the Oliver’s car put out of commission – all now believe that the threat is real. But only Carmichael seems able to ferret out the motive behind a surprisingly complex plot. I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both for its subtle prose and memorable turns of phrase and smart handling of suspense as well as its nimble ability to draw vivid characters in very little time. And the plot was much more involved and complicated than I would have thought, its unfolding in the final stages handled in am extremely satisfying way. Deadly Climate is I think a superior mystery, though it ultimately has no intention of working its way out of its genre confines and so ticks all the boxes you would expect to be present. There is the isolated heroine in an isolated small town; the lone terrified witness who only the killer believes is not disturbed, who suspects absolutely everybody in turn; the climax in which the heroine is stalked around a dark and supposedly enemy-free house that proves anything but, saved at the very last second by a young suitor, leading to a hint of romance; but for all that, it still provides plenty of thrills and a pretty well-hidden villain too.

“There was something the matter with her head, a pain that was waking as she was, little by little.”

The book was adapted twice for television anthologies – once in the US  for Climax! starring the great Nina Foch and Kevin McCarthy; and again a decade later in another 0ne-hour reduction this time with Georgina Hale for a version relocated to the West Country in England (you can find the details of the BBC version here), but I have seen neither I’m sorry to say – it appears in fact that neither have survived in the archives.

The great John Norris reviewed this one over at Pretty Sinister Books, so  I submit my review as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Golden Age Mystery Challenge bingo in the ‘reviewed by another challenger’ category:


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

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, Friday's Forgotten Book, Gothic, New England, Ursula Curtiss. Bookmark the permalink.

30 Responses to THE DEADLY CLIMATE (1954) by Ursula Curtiss

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Sergio – As ever, I’ve enjoyed your thoughtful and detailed review. There is definitely something in those old-style Gothic-esque mysteries, and this sounds like a solid example of it. It certainly has lots of the ingredients…

  2. Colin says:

    I’m always interested by a Gothic mystery – if there’s atmosphere then I’ve already been won over to a degree. I like the sound of this, and the fact it was twice adapted for TV in the past also makes me think it must be sound.

    • Well, it’s much better than Some Must Watch, the book that inspired all the versions of The Spiral Staircase, which under Siodmak was a terrific chiller. Being set int he 1950s does make a difference actually, in the sense that the (neo) Gothic stylings are genre faithfuls but not much else.

  3. John says:

    The mystery plot is quite a surprise, isn’t it? So well handled among all the trappings of the storm and the cut phone wires and the car out of commission and all the rest of it. That dogged reporter and his pals in Philadelphia come up with some great dirt. The culprit is indeed unexpected. But I really loved about this story was the element of surreal randomness in it. Some of it makes utterly no sense and you can’t help but feel that Caroline is going over the edge.

    • Really enjoyed it John – but then you never give us bum advice! Yes, the plot was really very pleasingly solid – I think I may have enjoyed it a smidgen less than you, just because I did find the mild hysteria occasionally irritating (yes, I did the guy thing and occasionally rolled my eyes at our heroine’s behaviour) but definitely a superior book – thanks chum, as ever your sage advice is always worth following!

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    “I thoroughly enjoyed this book, both for its subtle prose and memorable turns of phrase and smart handling of suspense as well as its nimble ability to draw vivid characters in very little time. And the plot was much more involved and complicated than I would have thought, its unfolding in the final stages handled in am extremely satisfying way. Deadly Climate is I think a superior mystery”
    After reading these statements, I certainly expected a higher rating than 3 fedora tips !

    • Hi Santosh – well, romantic suspense is not my genre usually, so I liked it a lot more than I thought I would – but on the other hand, I did also find the lead character annoying quite often, so I had to deduct some marks – also, it does stick very rigidly to the patented formula. For all that I think it is is pretty darn good – but within quite strict confines, none the less. Have you read any of her books? I do want to see how it compares …

  5. realthog says:

    Gosh, this sounds like something I should try. I’ve never read anything by Curtiss — barely heard of her, to be honest. Many thanks for the recommendation (even though I, too, was surpised by the paucity of fedora tips . . .).

  6. I’ve had mixed results reading Ursula Curtiss. I liked THE FORBIDDEN GARDEN, but–like you–was less impressed with THE DEADLY CLIMATE.

  7. I read several Ursula Curtiss books a while back, though not this one, and remember really liking them. But on the other hand, can’t remember anything about them. Time to try them again I think.

  8. tracybham says:

    I have one Ursula Curtiss book I found at the book sale last year: So Dies the Dreamer. I am looking forward to trying it. This one sounds eerie and creepy and like my worst nightmare.

  9. Bev Hankins says:

    I picked up my very first Curtiss book last summer (Voice out of Darkness)–I’ll be giving her a try before too very long. With both you and John giving her good reviews, I really need to move it up higher on the pile…

  10. Sarah says:

    I’m in NY at the moment and I quite fancy reading this. I’ll see if I can find a copy!

  11. Yvette says:

    Funny how I’ve never heard of this one, Sergio. And me being a gothic fan from years ago. But I’m more likely to call this (at least from reading your excellent review) a ‘woman in jeopardy’ plot, but I like those as well. Just as long as the woman is not a nicompoop. I dislike nincompoopish heroines intensely. 🙂 Adding this one to my TBR list, kiddo. P.S. John’s recommendation carries weight with me too.

    • Thanks Yvette – yes, the Gothic element is there more as part of the backstory, and I wasn’t too sorry about that. The nincompoopery is kept to a minimum I’m glads to say 🙂

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