Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller By Helen Nielsen: A superior pair of unique tales which richly deserve a revival - book review -

Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller
Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller

American writer Helen Nielsen – a scriptwriter for episodes of the television dramas Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason – was a popular author in the late 1940s and the mid-1970s.

American writer Helen Nielsen – a scriptwriter for episodes of the television dramas Alfred Hitchcock Presents and Perry Mason – was a popular author in the late 1940s and the mid-1970s.

Many of Nielsen’s stories appear in the anthologies Best Detective Stories, Alfred Hitchcock’s Hangman’s Dozen, Ellery Queen’s Double Dozen, and Best Legal Stories, and several were adapted for television. Gold Coast Nocturne, her second novel, was made into the 1954 film, Murder by Proxy, starring Dane Clark and Belinda Lee.

Although these and other books by Nielsen ­– who died in 2002 at the age of 83 – sold well and were critically successful, much of the author’s work is long out of print.

Fortunately, Stark House Press have started a revival of her work, and this new publication of a two-in-one volume features Borrow the Night and The Fifth Caller, a couple of complex and ingenious murder mysteries that first came out in the late 1950s.

In his introduction to the double-novel collection, writer Nicholas Litchfield, who is editor of the popular literary magazine Lowestoft Chronicle, describes Nielsen’s pair of unconventional whodunnits as ‘two exemplary mystery novels that are sure to leave you on edge and breathless and in search of more of her thrilling, intricate, and astutely written tales.’

Set in Los Angeles, which is the setting for The Fifth Caller, Borrow the Night tells the tale of a judge and a policeman whose lives are threatened because of their efforts in helping to convict a young murder suspect named Walter Messick.

Arrested by Officer Matt Coleman and found guilty of shooting a young woman on Christmas Eve, Messick has spent the past 14 years in prison, awaiting execution. But one week before he is scheduled to be sent to the electric chair, Officer Coleman and Judge Ralph G. Addison, the man who sentenced him to death, receive a series of anonymous warnings that when Messick dies, they too will die.

Not convinced that the law can protect them from a ‘demented crank with homicidal tendencies,’ the policeman and the judge join forces to re-examine the case and prove or disprove Messick’s guilt.

They start by visiting Messick’s lawyer, Leo Cox, to determine what he knows about a piece of lost evidence mentioned in the threatening letters. Cox, now rich and with his own practice because he got fed up of ‘playing nursemaid’ to ‘punks’ like Messick in his role as a public defender, advises them to direct their search toward Messick’s hardened mother and dubious friends. And their thrilling quest for answers leads to a startling and unanticipated outcome.

Litchfield, a keen supporter of Borrow the Night, believes the strength of the novel lies in ‘the exceptionally well-sketched principal characters and the skilful way Nielsen drops hints and revelations and introduces unexpected plot twists to cast doubt on just about everybody.’

The second novel, The Fifth Caller, an exciting, suspense-packed novel from 1959 which was adapted for television, features a suicidal Hungarian refugee, Anna Bardossy, suspected of murdering her patroness, Dr Lilian Whitehall, an aged Californian mystical psychiatrist.

Anna, who was employed as a nurse by Dr Whitehall, was discovered on the beach with slashed wrists from a suicide attempt and rushed to a Santa Monica hospital. When she regains consciousness, she is suffering from amnesia.

The diligent Douglas Marshall, from the District Attorney’s office, is hampered by Anna’s apparent amnesia and conducts a hospital room inquiry, questioning everyone who spoke to the victim on the previous day.

Naomi Griswold, the victim’s friend, claims that Anna ‘didn’t get along with the doctor’ and the two were known to quarrel, ‘sometimes violently.’ Dr Whitehall’s estranged brother, Byron Davies, and her legal and financial adviser, Harold Elrod, corroborate these claims, and Mrs Griswold declares she overheard Miss Bardossy threaten the doctor’s life.

Marshall, reluctant to make an arrest until he has established a motive, begins looking for ’a possible alternative,’ but Dr Whitehall and Anna’s mysterious behaviour that day cast further suspicion over the suspect.

And then there’s the revelation by Elrod that Dr Whitehall had instructed him to make a new will, naming Miss Bardossy as ‘trustee of the society’ and bequeathing her everything, except for a small bequest to her brother.

The Fifth Caller is an original mystery for the period because of its toughness, pace and invention, and for the measured way Nielsen presents realistic, complex characters in a fast-paced drama.

A superior pair of unique tales which richly deserve a revival…

(Stark House Press, paperback, £15.95)