On Alder Avenue in Detroit in 1958, husbands go off every morning to work at the nearby factory, and their wives await them at 5:45 sharp in the evening, with supper on the table and the house pin neat.
But in the opening chapter of Until She Comes Home, Malina Herze's husband is late, very late. The veal is cold and ruined, and Malina, who never goes out alone in the evening, is prowling an alleyway near the factory with a big red-handled hammer in her purse, following a young woman pushing a baby carriage. That baby carriage enrages Malina, although she's terrified of looking inside it.
Until She Comes Home is the second novel by Tierra Verde resident Lori Roy. Her first, Bent Road, won the Mystery Writers of America's 2011 Edgar Award for best first novel. She is not suffering from sophomore slump — Until She Comes Home is a suspenseful, atmospheric work of crime fiction as well as a clear-eyed look at relationships between the sexes and the races in mid 20th century America.
In Bent Road, Roy used the insularity of a rural Midwestern community to create her pressurized, paranoid setting. In this novel she employs to similar effect an apparently orderly, pleasant, entirely white Detroit neighborhood where everyone knows everyone else — and everyone else's business.
Alder Avenue may look like a photo spread from a '50s copy of Life magazine, but it's feeling outside pressures from societal shifts. The economy is lurching, and men are being laid off at the factories. And right at the end of the street, the rumor is, "coloreds" have moved into an apartment building.
Roy's focus, though, is on the wives of Alder Avenue, who make the Stepford wives look like wild women. Their homes are immaculate, their hair styled, their dresses crisp and their cakes made from scratch — and if not, someone will be talking about them. Chief among those someones will be Malina, who rules the Ladies of the St. Alban's Charitable Ventures Committee, the local church's women's guild, with a smooth iron hand.
But Malina has her own secrets and trials. Among the latter is her childlessness, an oddity in any American neighborhood at the zenith of the baby boom. Also childless is Julia Wagner, although she is largely a figure of pity after losing her infant daughter to crib death. She is serving, in her own distracted way, as a sort of mother to her sister's twin daughters, adventurous Izzy and fretful Arie. Betty Lawson is wheeling a baby up and down the street in a carriage, even though she was never pregnant. As the story begins, most of the neighbors' maternal warmth is focused on sweet-natured Grace Richardson, who is pregnant, after five years of trying, with her much-desired first baby.
All of them serve as surrogate mothers to Elizabeth Symanski. Her mother is dead, her immigrant father not coping too well, and, at 21, the mentally disabled Eizabeth is still very much a child.
So everyone is stricken when, in broad daylight, walking home from a gathering at Grace's house, Elizabeth disappears.
The men of Alder Avenue will search for her in an ever-widening area, while the women wait for them at the church hall with mountains of casseroles and cakes and oceans of coffee to stoke their search. They will pray for her safe return, although almost no one will give a thought to a black woman murdered nearby just a short time before.
But Roy will slowly reveal that secret, as well as many others. Despite Alder Avenue's cheerful surface, secrecy is a way of life there, especially for women. When one character is raped, her own mother orders her into a hot bath, covers her bruises with makeup and advises her to tell no one, especially her husband: " 'No man wants to know this about his wife,' Mother says. 'He can't live with it. Do yourself this favor. No man wants to know.' "
Those secrets — some born of fear, some of kindness, some of rage — power this mystery to a surprising and satisfying end.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.