Woman Hunt (Beacon #192, 1958)

I’m starting to notice that ol’ Orrie’s novels from 1954-59 tend to be excellent and original, before he started repeating situations and themes from 1961-64.

Woman Hunt sucks you in from page one — Bill Masters, mid-30s, is an encyclopedia salesman who makes good money — enough to keep him and his wife, Cynthia, living decently in an apartment and a summer lake cabin, to give his mother $75 a week and his lazy younger brother a few bucks.  He also agrees to pay $1200 for surgery his ex-girlfriend Donna’s son needs. He cannot escape from Donna’s lure, and memory — they were lovers as teenagers and drifted apart when he went into the army; she had another man’s child and broke his heart.  Old wounds open up whenever he sees her (she lives in the same building as his mother) but he often winds up having sex with her, especially after agreeing to pay for th surgery.

Basically, he knows that everyone just wants money from him — his mother, his brother, his ex.  His wife wishes he made more money.  She gets $6,000 a year from her father’s life insurance annuity; she shares none with Bill.  He has a $100,000 life insurance policy on her, one of the reasons why he is plotting her murder. The other: she has been cheating on him with a lot of men, including a guy from a rich family that she threatens to marry after she divorces Bill.

In a way, this calls to mind Raymond Carver’s short story, “Elephant,” about a successful writer who family hounds him for his new-found wealth: kids, ex-wife, mother, brother, they all want a piece of his pie and feel they deserve it.

His plan: make her death look like a hunting accident in the woods by their lake cabin.  She has gone up there with one of her lovers, and Bill has borrowed a friend’s cabin across the lake. With the sniper scope, he spies on her, waiting for the perfect moment.

Hitt has used the hunting accident murder plot in several books, as did Harry Whittington in Sharing Sharon, just reviewed.  Did Dick Cheney try the same?  Seems to me it’s not the smartest way to kill someone.  But Bill does it, cold and calculating:

I took a deep breath and brought the gun up to my shoulder.  I wavered slowly as I caught her in the sights, right between the shoulders, and then it steadied.

I don’t remember hearing the gun go off.  I only remembered squeezing the trigger, blinking my eyes against the burning sweat, praying that the gun was sighted in properly, that I wouldn’t miss.

She pitched forward, falling into the leaves, face down, and a blue hay nearby started making a terrific racket.

I didn’t bother going up to see if she was dead.

She had to be.

I turned and ran. (p. 88)

So now we get the meaning of the novel’s title!

He has two new motives, too, besides the money and a bad marriage:  Cynthia has told him she’s pregnant and wants to save the marriage, ending it all with her rich lover; and he’s met Sherry, a blonde and gorgeous artist living in a nearby cabin.  She paints nudes.  They talk an drink and have sex and fall in love fast. He plans to marry her once his wife is “gone.”

In true Hitt heel sleaze, Bill wakes up with Sherry, fucks her, and goes across the lake to talk to his wife, and succumbs to her wiles and fucks her too, telling him she’s knocked up, while he thinks about her death. Bill is one of the more sociopathic men Hitt has created; while he has his good points — helping out his mother and his ex-girlfriend’s son — he’s also emotionally blank when it comes to himicide. He is driven by his disgust with Cynthia and the money her death represents.

A state trooper investiagtes, asks him a lot of questions that makes him nervous. The trooper determines a hunter accidentally shot her and ran off.

There’s only one problem: the hollow log he hid the rifle is gone whe he goes to get it.  Someone took it, it has his prints on it.  It’s obvious to the adept reader of crime fiction who has the gun — so it’s no surprise when that’s revealed. After all, she never finds it suspicious that, after discussing the problems of divorce, Bill’s wife conveniently gets the bullet in the back of her head.

He gets the $100K insurance payout and rents an apartment with Sherry, and soons finds out that Sherry has a love for spending money, his money.  She buys coats and furs and things they really can’t afford. He soon realizes that Sherry is just like the rest of them: all she cares about is his bank account.

Hitt could have sold this one to Gold Medal, it has a Gold Medal feel to it.  While predictable, it’s one of his bette early novels.

On the Hitt Scale, an 8.5.

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