Vin Packer wrote some incendiary thrillers for Gold Medal in the 1950s and ’60s, many of them torn from the headlines or controversial in some way—humane views of mentally ill serial killers, racist murders in the Deep South, and violent juvenile delinquents. Packer’s most famous book was the romance Spring Fire, credited with starting the “lesbian pulp fiction” genre. But that brawny name obscures a complicated truth: “Vin Packer” was really Marijane Meaker. Meaker started out her writing career under the guise of a literary agent, whose half-dozen “clients”—such as Vin Packer—were really just her different aliases and pseudonyms. I’ve seen several endorsements of Packer’s Something in the Shadows—Ed Gorman put it in a list of 10 overlooked classics, for one—and it’s one of the easier Packer books to find. Stark House Press doubled it with Intimate Victims, and Prologue Books released an affordable e-version.
Joseph Meaker is a quiet and gentle soul, wishing for nothing more than to study barn hexerei—of which there are plenty in rural Bucks County, Pennsylvania, where he moves after obtaining a school grant. His ideal life would be to study, write, and pet his cat. Joesph is nothing like his wife Maggie, a bold advertising exec who brings her coworkers home from New York City for wild weekend parties. The odd couple’s relationship is deteriorating in the rustic farmland, Joseph becoming more distanced and withdrawn, Maggie looking to her big-city coworkers for companionship. While they’re not the ideal happily married couple, things stay status quo.
Joseph’s world is flipped upside-down when he watches a Mercedes hit-and-run his prized feline companion—and, for the first time in his meek, ordinary life, he vows revenge. He tracks down the killer, finding him to be Doctor Louis Hart, and sets about needling the man with the topics of murder and death, breaking him down for a final assault. Little does he know that Hart has turned raging alcoholic and gained a local reputation of murderer—having passed out drunk in his car on the way to an accident, Hart’s negligence caused the deaths of two people. And while Joseph is set on revenge for his cat, Hart’s blood is boiling over Joseph’s topics of blood and death…
The crumbling marriage of Joe and Maggie sets the scene, the odd couple who connected for one reason or another and is now breaking down out in the countryside. The two couldn’t be any less alike, and the drive each other away: Joseph regresses into quiet subservience, caring more about animals than people; he despises hunting and killing, and writes literate poems to post as “do-not-hunt” signs. Maggie seeks shelter through her friends, always bringing a few back home for the weekend so she’s not alone with her wet-noodle husband; she pushes Joseph around verbally, wishing he was less withdrawn and obsessive about his dead cat. Meanwhile, Joseph’s stuck in his past, pining for a Hungarian exchange student—his first college crush. Another strong, bold woman, she was a Socialist activist before she returned to her home country and became disillusioned by Communist rule. She’s the one who got away, the woman who saw Joseph for who he was—the woman who connected with him on an intellectual level—and her happily married life with another man eats at Joseph’s soul.
You may have made the connection between Joseph Meaker’s name—not just the “meek” angle, but that it’s the author’s “real” surname. At the time she wrote Something in the Shadows, Marijane Meaker was in a relationship with fellow suspense author Patricia Highsmith living in an old farmhouse in, yes, rural Bucks County. This was where their relationship took root, and grew, and where it died around the time Meaker wrote Something in the Shadows, adding another level to the themes of failing relationships and alienation. With that setup, it’s easy to assume the novel was purely autobiographical… but the Meaker roles in truth and fiction were inverted; based on Meaker’s 2003 biography Highsmith: A Romance of the 1950s and some of the interviews she gave upon its release, Highsmith who was the quiet, depressive, introverted one, fitting the (Joseph) Meaker of the novel.
After seeing Something in the Shadows called “Vin Packer’s best,” I knew I wanted to start off there. And I was very impressed by the novel. It was interesting to compare Meaker and Highsmith after reading them back-to-back, given the similarities and history between the two authors. Something in the Shadows compares favorably; I’m not sure it’s as tense or suspenseful, but it comes within striking range, and it has its own strengths—its well-drawn, realistic characters for one. It’s a complex social drama that takes a dark turn down the road of suspense, and near the end there’s some developments that make it a very suspenseful book indeed. An excellent pageturner, it’s a quick read. Recommended for suspense/thriller readers, particularly readers who enjoy those of the psychological kind.