Wednesday, May 19, 2021

Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing

Evelyn Piper’s Bunny Lake Is Missing was published in 1957. It’s a suspense novel with some domestic and psychological melodrama thrown in.

Evelyn Piper was a pseudonym used by American writer Merriam Modell (1908-1994).

Blanche Lake has only been in New York for three weeks. She previously lived in Providence but she had certain personal reasons for relocating to the Big Apple.

Blanche goes to pick up her three-year-old daughter Bunny from the nursery school in New York in which she has just enrolled her. But Bunny isn’t there. A search is made. The police are called. Maybe Blanche’s mother picked the child up? But no, that can’t be the case, her mother is out of town.

Naturally Blanche is pretty upset and she’s eventually persuaded to see a doctor. She obviously needs a sedative to calm her down. Dr Newsome is very concerned. Dr Newsome is a psychiatrist.

Blanche becomes even more upset when she becomes convinced that the police are not actually looking for her daughter.

While Blanche is looking for Bunny Mrs Negrito is looking for her son Eddie. Eddie is a bit troublesome and Mrs Negrito thinks he’s a bit too interested in Blanche Lake.

The problem for Blanche is that both the police and Dr Newsome believe that there are a lot of things in her story which just don’t add up. And she can’t present any real evidence to support her version of events. They don’t know whether to believe some of her story, or all of it. Or none of it. The reader doesn’t know either. Mostly we’re seeing things from Blanche’s point of view, but we don’t know if we can trust her point of view. We don’t even know if Blanche can trust her own point of view. Maybe she’s not entirely stable. She might not even be entirely sane. On the other hand she might be telling the truth about everything.

There’s a lot of pop psychology and social commentary to wade through. Whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing depends on your personal preferences. For me it’s a bad thing. I have a limited tolerance for that sort of thing, and an especially limited tolerance for pop Freudianism. Fortunately though there is definitely a suspense story here, and a mystery, and the author is fairly successful in keeping us unsure about what exactly is going on. So this is a psychological/emotional suspense thriller.

It’s also very much a woman’s story in the sense that it’s Blanche’s emotional responses as a woman that drive most of the plot, and social attitudes towards woman also play a part given that Bunny is illegitimate. Blanche’s relationship with her own mother is also important.

The ending is reasonably suspenseful as Blanche decides to bring things to a head one way or another, possibly in a rather desperate way. There’s also one nice touch right at the end - it’s not exactly a plot twist but I can’t say any more without revealing a spoiler.

Blanche is a sympathetic protagonist with more than a touch of ambiguity. There’s quite a lot of ambiguity to most of the other key characters as well - Louise Benton (the director of the nursery school), Dr Newsome and Wilson, a writer to whom Blanche turns for help. In true noir style we come to question the motivations of all the characters.

The plot has some very important parallels to a certain very famous mystery story (a story that is directly referenced in the later stages of the book) but to say any more would be to risk spoilers.

Otto Preminger’s film version, released in 1965, is in my opinion more successful than the novel but the novel certainly has its strengths. The novel mostly falls into the suspense thriller genre but there are some noir fiction elements as well in addition to the domestic melodrama elements I’ve already alluded to.

Bunny Lake Is Missing is perhaps not quite my cup of tea but if you don’t mind some social commentary and some psychological angst you’ll probably enjoy it more than I did. Which is not to say that I disliked the book. I just didn’t love it. Recommended, with a few caveats.

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