Classic Crime

Ursula Curtiss

Ursula Reilly Curtiss (April 8, 1923 — October 10, 1984) was an American writer of mystery novels. Ursula Kieran Reilly was born in Yonkers, New York, and raised in Westport, Connecticut, the daughter of Paul Reilly and Helen Kieran Reilly. Her mother was the mystery writer, Helen Reilly and so was her sister, Mary McMullen. Ursula Reilly graduated from a Catholic girls' high school, Lauralton Hall in Milford, Connecticut.

Curtiss’ debut was ‘The Second Sickle’ (1951), and her other famous novels include ‘The Iron Cobweb’ (1953), ‘Widow's Web’ (1956), ‘Voice Out of Darkness’ (1960), ‘The Forbidden Garden’ (1962), ‘Child's Play’ (1964), ‘The Wasp’ (1964), ‘Don't Open the Door!’ (1969), ‘Letter of Intent’ (1971), ‘Dig a Little Deeper’ (1976), ‘In Cold Pursuit’ (1977) and ‘The Menace Within’ (1978), the latter four titles published under the Keyhole Crime series. She also wrote short fiction, and several of her novels appeared in serial format in magazines such as Good Housekeeping and The Australian Women's Weekly.

Two films were made based on Curtiss' stories, ‘I Saw What You Did’ (1965) featuring Joan Crawford and based on the novel, ‘Child’s Play’ (a.k.a. ‘Out of the Dark’) and ‘What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?’ (based on ‘The Forbidden Garden’). ‘What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice’ is the third in the film trilogy by Robert Aldrich, following on from ‘What Ever Happened to Baby Jane’ and ‘Hush… Hush… Sweet Charlotte’ (which was originally titled, ‘What Ever Happened to Cousin Charlotte’). She was also credited for stories on several television episodes in the 1950s and 60s.

Curtiss won the Red Badge Mystery Prize in 1948, for best new mystery and in 1963 she won the Zia Award as an outstanding New Mexico novelist. In 1956, The Spectator called ‘Widow's Web’ a ‘little masterpiece of suspense and ambiguity...quietly, pursuasively done, combining realism with ingenuity to a degree as rare on the author's side of the Atlantic as on ours’.

Review: Letter of Intent

Celia Brett has, over the years, ruthlessly climbed the social ladder. Her name is not her own, disowning her origins to become a housekeeper to a fiancée on the cusp of a marriage to a very wealthy man. On the eve of her nuptials, Celia receives a threatening letter to call off her wedding, or the anonymous sender of the letter will! Celia’s determination to foil her blackmailer and stop any disclosure to her woven fabric of lies at such an important point in the life, is paramount… but is her enemy one of the obvious people she has crossed or discarded on her way up the ladder?
I have had this old copy from the Keyhole Crime series which ran during the early 1980’s for years and I can’t explain why I picked it up now to read. My only regret is I haven’t read Curtiss before. This novel of suspense from 1971 is in a similar vein to Celia Fremlin and Patricia Highsmith, with an echo of early Ruth Rendell. As with all these authors, the main protagonist, Celia Brett is not a likeable character, in fact through her actions she could be classed as ‘ice cold’. Nothing will stop Celia from achieving social acceptability. As with Rendell, there is a thread of dry humour from Curtiss as she takes us back to Celia’s beginning when she shed her old skin and started on the bottom rung. With guile, Celia penetrates New York society the long way, but even Celia knows her ambition is not something to be rushed. Along the way are casualties, but they are casualties that propel her on to the next rung and in no way does she regret her action, and in some cases, inaction in their demise.
There are no likeable people here and I feel that it fits for Celia’s story. However, Curtiss leaves her bitter twist of the knife until the last few pages, making me feel that Curtiss perfectly understood the mentality of her creation, Celia Brett. At times, Curtiss’ writing can be a tad florid, but her observant eye of the social hierarchy and the way people of class behave is sublime. Unfortunately, I could not find any of Curtiss’ books currently in print, however many of her books can be bought second-hand online. As always, her later novels as better priced than her earlier ones. Once in a while you find an author to get excited about, especially one whose work has been out of print for years. On the enjoyment of reading ‘Letter of Intent’, I will definitely be searching for more of Curtiss’ work. Discovering Curtiss is a wonderful find.

Reviewed by: C.S.

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