At face value, Liza Klaussmann’s debut novel, Tigers in Red Weather, is a story of American post-war ennui and the effects that the altered values of wartime have on a family, but as the book progresses, it becomes a cleverly and subtly-written murder mystery with a definitely creepy edge.
The story is told from the differing points of view of five members of the Derringer and Lewis families, whose connection is that Nick Derringer and Helena Lewis are cousins. The novel opens as they prepare to leave the Elm Street apartment that they have shared during the war, both promising that they will continue to summer at Tiger House on Martha’s Vineyard, as they have always done since they were children. As their stories progress, however, they find that their optimism upon leaving Elm Street has been overtaken by the reality and monotony of their married lives – a life in which Nick’s only daily amusement is wearing a daring swimsuit during the day to get her neighbours’ tongues wagging.
Skip forward then, to 1959 and Nick and Helena both have children of their own and gather back at Tiger House as they have promised, but their summer is rocked by the discovery of a body.
When I initially chose this book to read, I didn’t really realise that it was a crime novel, I thought it was more of a commentary on the post-ware period, but while it starts like this, that’s merely creating the environment in which murder is an inevitable conclusion. For much of the book, the families and their vacations take place during a fierce heatwave, the constant heat mirroring the oppressive atmosphere inside the family with things kept secret and resentments barely under the surface. This device is often used in books, and can be dreadfully written, but Klaussmann is able to emphasise the physical heat without hammering home the point and having her characters say ‘Gee, it’s hot today.’ or something similarly ghastly!
The conclusion of the book is completely unexpected, until suddenly you can see what’s going to happen when it’s already too late and it’s almost agonising, but so compelling.
Although the crime element does dominate in the second part of this book, it’s well worth reading as a study of the period, of the stresses of putting a marriage back together after a long separation and of the reality of simply getting older and realising that no matter how you want to make things stay the same when you’re young they do, inevitably, change in ways you can’t possibly foresee.