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“The Late Clara Beame,” published in January 1963
This is the only mystery novel written by Taylor Caldwell
Patricia Nolan Stein
Unlike her lengthy and often ponderous historical fiction, “The Late Clara Beame” is a delightful, light and quick read, less than 200 pages.
It’s been said that Ms. Caldwell, an avid fan of Agatha Christie, was encouraged by a friend to write her own mystery novel. Apparently this was an attempt to see if she could live up to Christie’s crime capers. Certainly writing mysteries was nothing Caldwell planned to incorporate into her career as a novelist.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Caldwell wrote this book in less than a week’s time, although it’s also been said she had difficulty creating a crime-infused plot because it was so different than anything else she ever wrote.
There are similarities to Christie, of course. The action takes place over Christmas in a large house in upstate New York. A group is gathered at the house to celebrate the holiday. They include a childlike wife named Laura, her seemingly over-protective husband Henry, Laura’s distant cousins—a brother and sister named David and Alice—and an uninvited guest named John Carr. Alice is a young widow, as her husband supposedly committed suicide one year before.
Carr maneuvers an invitation to spend Christmas with the family, though the family members don’t personally know him. Carr wants to close a business transaction with Henry, who is an attorney, before the New Year begins.
Alice outwardly dislikes Laura because a wealthy older relative (the title character, Clara Beame), whom they loved and thought of as an aunt, died and left Laura both her beautiful house and several million dollars.
Henry, as the traditional husband, insists that he and Laura must live on HIS salary only. Alice, meanwhile, resents Laura for inheriting the house. Laura, who seems childlike and trusting, tried to divide her cash inheritance with Alice, who refused the money. Regardless of the generous offer, Alice has no respect for her.
So, our small group has gathered together in the isolated house. A snowstorm knocks out the electricity and – like a good Christie novel – they’re snowbound and trapped, unable to leave the house for several days. All connection to the outside world has been cut off.
Throw in Mrs. Daley, a stereotypical “stoic” housekeeper, along with Edith, her sarcastic and nosy niece, and strange things start to happen!
An anonymous, unseen person shoots a bullet in Henry’s direction when he’s outside in the snow. Laura unwittingly drinks a glass of water laced with poison. She almost dies, but is nursed back to health by cousin David, who conveniently is a physician.
Henry becomes suspicious of his client, John Carr, as he knows nothing about him. Henry snoops around in the bedroom Carr is using and finds a loaded gun.
Needless to say, fear and suspicion take over as it becomes apparent that someone in the house is trying to commit murder.
Laura feels a peculiar psychic connection with her beloved Clara Beame, and senses the old lady is communicating with her telepathically from “beyond the grave.”
Laura is poisoned again a second time and the truth finally comes out !!!
It turns out John Carr is actually an FBI man investigating both the death of Alice’s husband, and an earlier attempt on Laura’s life. He’s also Laura’s half-brother, whom she had never met before.
We learn that Henry, the devoted husband, is really the bad guy! He killed Alice’s husband one year earlier, making it look like a suicide. Henry also tried to kill Laura in the previous year, pretending it was a backyard accident….so he could inherit her money.
With three attempted murders of his wife and the proven murder of Alice’s husband, Henry is arrested.
All turns out well and Laura makes plans to sign over her house – formerly owned by Clara Beame – to Alice. Laura no longer wants to live there because it’s the house where her husband tried to murder her on three occasions.
Because the book was written in the early 1960’s, there are a few “Mad Men” type of references. Caldwell lightly pokes fun of John Carr with his crew cut and grey suit, noting that most men of that era looked and dressed nearly identically, with no individuality.
Taylor Caldwell's typical political diatribes aren’t included in this novel. Though, her male-oriented sexism makes an appearance: as David says, “It never pays to complicate a woman’s mind too much.”
David reveals his unrequited love for Laura, and it looks like Alice and John Carr are also about to fall in love.
Overall, this is a fun little novel, especially for those who enjoy mysteries. The obligatory tropes don’t make it less enjoyable.
I own a first edition hardcover. The novel was published in paperback in the 1960’s and 1970’s, but it’s now available on Kindle.