This was originally posted in February 2010:
Ursula Reilly Curtiss, born in 1923, came into the world with fairly impressive crime-fiction genes. Her mother, Helen Reilly, her sister, Mary McMullen, and her brother, James Kieran, all wrote mysteries. Curtis didn't start out that way, working first as a columnist for the Fairfield, Connecticut News in 1942, at age 19, followed by a stint as a fashion copy writer. She began writing mystery/suspense novels, full-time at that, when she married John Curtiss in 1947 (the marriage no doubt helping her financial circumstances enough to give her that opportunity). Her first book, Voice Out of Darkness, won the Red Badge Award for the best new mystery of 1948.
Rather than penning police procedurals like her mother, Curtiss focused on the type of story where an innocent bystander gets pulled reluctantly into becoming an amateur sleuth — against a backdrop of seeming domestic calm, with layers of evil hiding behind family secrets and familiar faces. Her protagonists were usually female, except for works like 1951's The Noonday Devil where the main character is a man who learns his brother's death as a Japanese POW was carefully planned by a fellow prisoner.
Voice Out of Darkness falls into the female-protagonist camp, where we find that thirteen years prior to the events of the book, Katy Meredith lost her foster-sister, Monica, in a skating accident. Although Katy tried to save Monica, Monica's last words were "Katy pushed me." Katy thought she'd escaped both her home town and the horrors of Monica's death by moving to New York, until she starts receiving threatening notes in the mail. At first she wonders if someone else near the ice that day overheard Monica's words and is trying to blackmail her, but when Katy returns to her childhood home, she finds evidence of a calculating killer whose sights are now set on her.
Curtiss has moments of crisp observations in her writing, such as the following character study:
She was disconcerted, in the midst of her apologies for lateness, by Lieutenant Hooper's mild and wren-like appearance; he looked, she thought, like a portrait of a suburban traveller. Rubbers. Plaid woollen muffler, an air of having been assembled, eyed critically, and finally dismissed on the 8:32 by a bustling, dutiful wife. Except for his eyes: shrewd, steady, impartial as jewellers' scales.
or this excerpt about Fenwick, Connecticut, Katy's home town:
[It] had its replicas all over the New England coast. It lay sheltered in a tumble of windy hills, its architecture a blend of pure old Colonial and the raw new bones of housing developments. Its chief prosperity came from the summer visitors who came to splash and play in its wide blue crescent of Sound and laugh delightedly at its ancient moviehouse. Its chief crop was gossip, sown and grown with zest...
Curtiss' strengths are in her characterizations, setting and pacing, the novel being a quick read, which helps make the slight thinness and predictability of the plot (at least by 21st-century eyes looking backward), not much of a distraction. Curtiss later had two of her books, made into movies, I Saw What You Did from 1965 (based on Curtiss' novel Out of the Dark (not to be confused with the similarly-named today's Forgotten Book offering), starring Joan Crawford, and 1969's What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice?, based on the author's novel The Forbidden Garden, featuring Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon. Curtiss also wrote the screenplays for a couple of television episodes of Detective and Climax Mystery Theater.