“He was watching. He passed judgment on me. He condemned me to some sort of hell. I sensed that, walking by. I’ve never felt so . . . so unclean, as just then!”
Her name was Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens. She was born in Texas on Christmas Day, 1907, and became a prolific mystery writer from 1938 until her death in 1973, writing under the pen name of Dolores Hitchens. And Dolan Birkley. And D.B. Olsen. And Noel Burke. Wikipedia lists forty-four novels and a one-act play called A Cookie for Henry. And then, like so many of the authors we cover in the mystery blogosphere, she seemed to vanish from our collective memory until the time some clever small press publisher saw fit to re-introduce her.
This time, the publisher is Otto Penzler, who last year put out The Cat Saw Murder (1939) under his American Crime Classics imprint and has returned to Hitchens a year later with the follow-up, Alarm of the Black Cat (1942). Both these books feature a little old lady named Rachel Murdock, who solves murders with the help of her cat, Samantha. There are ten more Rachel Murdock novels, and before you flee the scene in horror, I have it on good authority that the first novel, at least, is surprisingly non-cozy and refreshingly gory.
Evidently, Hitchens wrote all over the genre, running the gamut between traditional whodunnits and hard-hitting noir. It’s only a matter of time before my Book Club tackles her, for she has turned out to be quite the favorite over at Cross Examining Crime, where my Book Club-mate and, well, just plain mate, Kate Jackson, has reviewed eight or nine of her novels. I myself own both the Cat books: if you drop by, you can see them both teetering on Tiers 7 and 9 of my Babel-like TBR pile.
It turns out, however, that I own another novel by Hitchens that I picked up on one of my sojourns to the local used bookstores in the Bay Area. The Watcher was published in 1959, and at first glance it concerns a homicidal psychopath targeting children in a Southern California beach community. I like a good serial killer novel: this one was written twenty years after Christie’s double whammy of Murder Is Easy and And Then There Were None, and a decade after Ellery Queen’s Cat of Many Tails. 1959 was the same year that Robert Bloch’s Psycho came out. Unlike these other titles, The Watcher is not a whodunnit, although the killer’s identity isn’t revealed until the final pages. Its horrors are more subtly conveyed than in Psycho, but they are just as powerful. It has a policeman hero – quite a sympathetic one – but it shares with Queen’s novel a preoccupation with an American society on the brink of change.
We are introduced to the killer at the very start before he fades into the background:
“The man who sat crouched at the edge of a chair, facing the water, seemed hung in the grip of a terrible indecision. He had the stunned look of someone faced with an enormity of choice. The skin around his taut mouth quivered and twitched. His eyes were fixed on nothing. The hands hanging between his knees stumbled through a tally of knuckles and nails, betraying the inner torment.”
The cause of this torment will have to wait. For now, it prompts the man to write a letter to the local police in which he confesses to the murder of three local children between the ages of 12 and 18. He lists them by name and then announces that another victim is forthcoming:
“I have chosen my fourth victim. I had hoped not to continue with this thing, but conditions are much too offensive not to demand the remedy. Perhaps this may be taken, sensibly, as a warning. And perhaps this last death may be avoided. So take heed.”
What follows is not a series of sickening set pieces where one new victim after another is staged. Nor do we find a harrowing cat-and-mouse game where the killer taunts the police and the police keep arriving a minute too late. Most of the novel concerns the effects of the letter itself: on the police who had dismissed these deaths as accidents; on the families of the victims whose shattered lives have never really healed; and on a teenager named Curt Appleby who, by chance, has read the letter and begins to wonder about his neighbors.
The novel is woven together by four threads. We follow Detective Archer as he reluctantly investigates one cold case after another, inflicting deep distress as he re-opens old wounds We also follow Curt’s attempts to expose the letter-writer as not a killer but a parasite who feeds off others’ pain. Then there’s Lottie Tomlinson, a weaver still reeling from the death of her 15-year-old younger sister and full of guilt that her over-protective ways prevented Edie from reaping much joy from her too-short life.
The fourth thread concerns Molly Pettit, a sweet, plain young woman who is the daughter of a social-climbing couple and who, as inconveniently happens in these sorts of stories, has fallen in love with an underaged boy who works on the docks. She has embarked on a secret affair with the aid of her Uncle Florian, who roots for her wholeheartedly, but whose judgment is so impaired by drink that he refuses to consider the danger to which Molly is exposing herself.
For much of the book, the Watcher is a lurking presence, a shadowy figure in doorways, a series of bumps and noises on the other side of a neighbor’s wall. And other people watch, too: Curt, peering out of his attic window through binoculars, Lottie, standing in the courtyard of her apartment complex, Archer, staring into the eyes of parents ruined by grief (“My salary doesn’t cover looking into this man’s eyes, Archer thought. The city treasury couldn’t finance it.”). And while each of these people are hunting each other, Molly Pettit looks for a way out of her miserable life, forced by her mother to attend dull parties in fine dresses and hunt for a worthy husband.
When the Watcher finally strikes, it ratchets up the suspense. Ultimately, though, the novel is as much about the society that breeds men like him, a world full of moral judges whose values are so shaky that they can turn on a dime.
The wisest arbiter of this social morass turns out to be drunken Uncle Florian, who is no stranger to the judgments of others: “This is my country. I mean, I feel that way about people watching me, all the time. I pass folks on the street, dozens of them, and they don’t seem to see me, but I get a whiff of hellfire off their minds.”
It’s also Florian who hones in on something about The Watcher that the others don’t see: “This Tippytoes, this visible reminder of sin, this incarnate conscience, must have done something, sometime, to make himself seem so damned real.” In the end, the truth about this monster is more complex than what we find in Christie or Queen or Bloch; The Watcher is a summation of the fears generated by the Atomic Age and the Puritan ethics of the HUAC, the suspicions by the rich against the poor and the old against the young.
In 1960, the same year Alfred Hitchcock adapted Psycho into one of his greatest films, the TV series Thriller produced an episode based on The Watcher. It’s a serviceable adaptation which, in fifty minutes, has to cut and merge characters and plotlines. It makes the choice of putting the Watcher himself front and center, and he’s played by Martin Gabel so creepily that I wonder how he can navigate through society with those openly insane expressions on his face. The police are reduced to bit parts, and the real hero is Larry, the boyfriend of Molly Pettit (here renamed Beth), played by Richard Chamberlain one year before he would gain lasting fame as Dr. Kildare. He’s definitely not underage here, and there’s an interesting scene early on where the Watcher tries to steer Larry away from Beth that is brimming with homoerotic undertones. Frankly, given the high level of hysteria Olive Sturgess packs into her portrayal of Beth, I might caution Larry to heed the Watcher’s warning.
There are some suspenseful sequences here and there, but in the end, I would stick with the novel, a somber, beautifully written tale that uses the hunt for a potential killer to condemn the repressive moral hypocrisy of the 1950’s.
2 thoughts on “THIS CONSCIENCE INCARNATE: The Watcher”
It was a nice surprise to see you reviewing a Hitchens novel as I didn’t realise you had any others by this author (other than the cat ones – we should totally do a cat one for book group soon). Interesting to read this one, reminds me of how Hitchens doesn’t always pick the most comfortable of topics, but she can do interesting things with them. The impact of others on one another and the impact of death on different people is a reoccurring theme in her non-cat books. If you liked this one the Jean Potts is definitely worth a shot. I recently read, but not reviewed yet, The Diehard by her.
I liked her 1960 “Sleep with Slander” very much. Several passages are still vivid in my memory, especially the very first two pages or so.