Stranger in the House
Serena Mayfield | Pocket Books | 1972 | 158 pages
Letty Gaynor, a young New York actress, accepts an unusual assignment from her television agent, Chris Sedgwick. He wants Letty to travel with him to his family estate, and play the role of his “fiancé” for the benefit of his dying grandmother, who wants to see her playboy grandson settle down and get married. Chris’s motivations are not entirely altruistic, he also wants to ensure Gran leaves the bulk of her estate to him in her will.
Immediately upon arriving at the Long Island family home, Chris leaves for an urgent business trip to the West coast, abandoning Letty to act her part alone. Although Gran takes an instant liking to the young imposter, the other family members are not as universally welcoming to the “naïve New England Schoolteacher” that Chris introduces as his fiancé. The responses range from the indifferent, the barely aware Aunt Rosemary who has been grieving over the recent death her husband Carleton, to the nervously flighty, the hen-like Aunt Sarah with her protruding teeth, to the overtly hostile, Gran’s domineering nurse Karen Olsen. Seeming to mock them all is Gran’s brother Harry, an impish old man who behaves more like a naughty schoolboy than a possible family patriarch. Letty tries to distance herself from the role she is playing when she finds a carefully printed note in her room, folded up in her hairbrush—“You are not wanted here.”
But the childish games end suddenly when a member of the family is discovered dead, murdered with a dose of arsenic in a glass of grape juice. Letty, whose tee-totaling schoolteacher routine prompted the housekeeper to order the juice specifically for her, wonders if she was the intended target, and tries to discover who could have developed enough of a hatred for her during her short stay at the Sedgwick estate to attempt her murder. Everything becomes even more complicated for Letty when Chris returns and disavows all knowledge of their duplicity, leaving her exposed as a potential liar, and possible suspect in the eyes of the police.
Letty’s dangerous turn at method acting slightly elevates A Stranger in the House above the standard inheritance thriller, with its young heroine trapped in the role of a rival for a house of potentially plotting, eccentric relatives. Refreshingly, the single sympathetic character in the list of possible suspects turns out NOT to be the secret villain, and instead of developing into a romantic interest for Letty, Chris reveals himself to be a candidate for The World’s Biggest Heel.