Compromising Positionsby Susan Isaacs
Though she can’t admit it to herself, Judith Singer is bored. Each morning she kisses her husband on his way to work, and each evening she fixes him dinner. Three nights a week, they make tepid love. Life in their Long/b>
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A Long Island housewife investigates the murder of a local dentist in Isaacs’s classic mystery of the dark side of suburbia
Though she can’t admit it to herself, Judith Singer is bored. Each morning she kisses her husband on his way to work, and each evening she fixes him dinner. Three nights a week, they make tepid love. Life in their Long Island split-level is a ho-hum affair, but when a local dentist is murdered in his office, Judith’s curiosity gets the better of her. Judith soon learns that Dr. Fleckstein’s private life wasn’t as immaculate as his smile, and anyone in town might be the murderer. And when her neighbor becomes the chief suspect, Judith must find the real killer or risk losing her only friend in all of suburbia. This ebook features an illustrated biography of Susan Isaacs, including rare photos from the author’s personal collection.
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By Susan Isaacs
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1978 Susan Isaacs
All rights reserved.
As they would murmur at his funeral, Dr. M. Bruce Fleckstein was one of the finest periodontists on Long Island. And so good-looking. But as he turned his muscular, white-coated back for the last time, he had no notion that he had shot his final wad of Novocaine, probed his ultimate gum. No, he simply turned for an instant, perhaps out of boredom, perhaps to hide the slight smirk that passed over his thin, firm lips. It was an unfortunate turn; his companion seized the moment to withdraw a thin, sharp weapon and plunge it into the base of Fleckstein's skull.
That was on the evening of Valentine's Day. My children lay on the floor of the den, watching television, unusually amicable; they were probably too engorged, too leaden, with the day's excess of Valentine's confections to raise even a whimper, much less a clenched fist. I sat alone, waiting for my husband, my finger tracing hearts pierced with nonlethal arrows on the frosted window near the kitchen table.
Fleckstein lay on the floor of his office. It must have been quiet there too, for his murderer stayed only ten minutes, taking time to make sure there was no tell-tale twitch of life, to grab a few tissues to wipe off the weapon and to search the office. Of course, even if Fleckstein had been able to give one last shriek of protest, one last howl of dismay, I would not have heard him. His office, Suite 305 in the Shorehaven Colonial Professional Building, was ten minutes from my house, a ten-room Tudor in Shorehaven Acres. Actually, Shorehaven Half-Acres would be more precise, but the developers of Nassau County's North Shore insist on perpetuating the area's reputation as the Gold Coast, the Playland of the Robber Barons. So, minutes from F. Scott Fitzgerald's East Egg, we have Shorehaven Estates, split-levels on sixty by one hundred foot plots; Shorecastle, a red-brick sprawl of upper-middle-income garden apartments on the once-lush grounds of a nineteenth-century railroad tycoon; Shorehaven Mansions, a group of forty colonials, aluminum-sided mini-Taras, competing with a few sparse junipers for a place in the sun.
I learned of Fleckstein's death about two hours after it happened, as I listened to an all-news radio station broadcasting from Manhattan, thirty miles away.
"We have a report from Duke Gray, our Long Island correspondent," the voice said. I listened. Bob's train might be late, the switches might have frozen.
"Yes, Jim," came a second voice, crackling over the wire like Edward R. Murrow reporting the Battle of Britain. "I'm speaking to you from the suburb of Shorehaven, where a little more than an hour ago, the body of Dr. Marvin Bruce Fleckstein, a dentist, was discovered, brutally murdered, on the floor of his office." The voice droned on, reporting that there seemed to be no definite leads, but that an official from the Nassau County Police Department would try to issue a statement later in the evening. "And that's it for now from Shorehaven, Jim."
"God," I thought, turning off the radio. "I knew him." I had seen Fleckstein in line waiting for a movie and at Parents Night at school. I had even consulted with him once, about six months into my pregnancy with Joey. I had been peering into the mirror, studying my face, the only part of my body not bloated, gazing into my slightly almond-shaped eyes, staring at my high cheekbones, mementos, doubtless, of a Mongol invader who had passed through my great-great-grandmother's shtetl en route to besiege Minsk. I smiled at my reflection and saw it: tiny rivulets of blood oozing out of puffy gums. My dentist told me to see a periodontist like Dr. Fleckstein. I did.
He gave me a friendly greeting. "Hi, Judy."
"Judith," I replied automatically.
"Okay, Judith it is." By that time, I realized I had lost the opportunity to be brilliantly assertive, to establish my adult credentials. I could have said coolly, "Mrs. Singer," or, better still, "Ms. Singer," or even "Ms. Bernstein-Singer." Instead, I sat passively, mouth agape, a napkin resting under my chin, a bib to soak up my infantile dribble. My eyes darted from the word "Castle" on Fleckstein's adjustable light to his princely, large-featured face. He probed, he scraped with one of those ghastly pointed metal dental picks, stopping at intervals so I could rinse my bloodied mouth with Lavoris and water.
"You haven't been using unwaxed dental floss, have you?" he asked, although he knew the answer.
"No, but I will."
"You really should. Do you have a Water Pik?"
"Yes," I muttered, the draining tube making crude slurping noises in the bottom of my mouth.
"Well, use it. It doesn't do you any good sitting on the sink, does it, Judith?" He sounded sad and weary, a prophet unheeded by a decadent, self-indulgent people.
"No, I guess not." I felt humiliated, as I always do with professionals who catch me in my sloppy, unroutinized ways. Periodically, I remind myself that I haven't taken my vitamin-mineral supplement, that my toe- nails have grown curved and jagged, that another month has passed without a self-examination of my breasts.
But Fleckstein wasn't too bad. He gave me some medicine for my gums and told me to massage them regularly. Then, looking at my belly, he said: "Good luck."
"Is this your first?"
"No, my second. We have a three-year-old daughter, Katherine. We call her Kate."
"Very nice. Well, good seeing you. Good luck."
"Dr. Fleckstein," I said, "about your fee. How much ...?"
"Speak to my nurse about it." He smiled and left the room.
Not exactly an "I-thou" relationship, but sufficient to leave me shaken at the news of his murder. Almost unconsciously, I twisted the knobs of the three doors to the house, front, back, and garage. They were locked. I turned on the outside floodlights. The grass, encrusted with a brittle February frost, was blanketed by a pale, eerie mist, but no crazed killers seemed to be lurking behind the swings or under the denuded rose bushes.
"Kate! Joey!" I called, and waited an uneasy moment until they tramped up the stairs. "Time for bed."
"Can't we wait up for Daddy? Star Trek isn't over. It's still early. It isn't fair." They protested, alternating sentences, whining louder each time.
"Shh," I hissed, and marched them upstairs to their rooms, where I tenderly smoothed back their hair to kiss their foreheads, tucked them into bed, and half-closed their doors. Then I tiptoed downstairs, accelerating as I moved through the hallway into the kitchen, straight for the telephone.
"Nancy," I breathed as she answered after five rings. "It's me." Nancy MacLaren Miller, whom I'd met fifteen years before in a Colonial American History class at the University of Wisconsin, was one of the best reasons for living in Shorehaven. Her house was about two miles from mine, and I saw her, needed to see her, at least once a week. "Did you hear the news?"
"Apparently not," she answered, her deep, husky voice thickened by a Georgia drawl, although she hadn't been back to Valdosta for nearly twenty years. "What happened?"
Taking a deep breath, I recounted what I had heard on the newscast, inhaled again briefly and asked: "Did you know him?"
"My Lord, no. But I've heard about him. Anyway, Judith, who could possibly have done it?"
I suggested a junkie, which Nancy rejected as being either unlikely or boring, or an irate patient, whose gums were still bleeding after years of treatment.
"No, no, no," she insisted. "Look, he was what my mother would have called a bounder. Most likely, it was someone he was fucking." Southern women, I've noticed, can say the most outrageous things, and even the most straight-laced listener will smile wanly, as if to say, "Isn't she cute?"
"Really?" I asked. "I mean, he didn't seem the Don Juan type."
"Judith, you wouldn't recognize it if you fell over it. You think that every guy who talks to you wants to establish a meaningful dialogue." Her voice rose. "Men do not want dialogues. What do you want them to do? Hang their dickies out of their trousers and wave them at you? Would you understand then?"
"That would be a fair indication," I conceded. "But listen, Nancy, why would one of his women want to kill him?"
"Maybe he wouldn't go down on her."
"She could have stoned him or thrown lye in his face. Don't you think murder is a little excessive?"
"No," she said firmly. "I most certainly do not."
We chatted a few minutes longer. At my urging, Nancy recalled that she had heard rumors linking Fleckstein with a couple of the local ladies, but she couldn't remember the details. "How do you think his wife will take it?" I mused. "What's her name?"
"Let me see now. Norma. Norma Fleckstein."
"Norma. That's right." She had been pointed out to me once or twice, although we had never been introduced. Tall and slender, with short frosted hair brushed back to frame her oblong-shaped face. Not pretty, but aggressively attractive, she was one of those Long Island tough-ladies, brittle and magnificently groomed, wafting a sweet cloud of Norell or Estée. With three or four silver rings on each hand. Dressed in designer jumpsuits unzipped low enough to establish the existence of cleavage, toting an outsize Louis Vuitton handbag or clutching a Gucci under a thin arm. I cannot seem to comprehend the meaning of these flawless women, why they're here.
Are they divine messengers or mother surrogates, here to remind the rest of us to do our isometrics and polish our nails? Are they the ultimate threat, a warning that if we neglect to slather on body cream and blow-dry our hair every day, our husbands will abandon us and our children will mock us? I eavesdrop on their conversations in restaurants and department stores; they're consistently discussing clothes, vacations, or who did what to whom, in the most conventional, adulterous, heterosexual manner imaginable. Yet they seem so strange, alien almost.
"I don't know how she'll take it," Nancy said. "But I'll just bet she'll open her closet and find the perfect little black dress to wear to the funeral."
We said goodbye, vowing to call each other if we heard anything new. I sat at the kitchen table, running my finger over the ridges in the polyester tablecloth that was meant to approximate burlap, pondering the fact that the body of a near contemporary—I was thirty-four, Fleckstein couldn't have been more than six or seven years older—was right then lying on a slab in the police morgue. Why had it happened? Who could have done it?
Then, hearing Bob's car in the driveway, I leapt up to stick the steak under the broiler. If we sipped our tomato juice slowly enough, the meat would be done before he noticed that the entire dinner was not arrayed before him, steaming and juicy, after he handed me his coat and dashed to the dining room table. I strolled to the front door and opened it, knowing that Bob would still be fumbling with his key ring, as if trying to locate the key to some obscure filing cabinet instead of the one to his house.
"Thanks," he said, stepping inside. "And how was your day today?" He leaned forward, aiming his lips toward my cheek for their usual greeting, but I must have moved slightly, because he kissed my right eye. He didn't seem to notice. "Boy," he breathed, "did I have a bitch of a day."
"Happy Valentine's Day," I replied. I reached into the closet and took his present from the top shelf, a book, complete with maps and illustrations, on life in medieval France.
"Thanks," he said. "I'll open it after dinner. Look, Judith, I didn't have a chance to get you anything, and I really don't know what you need. Go out tomorrow and buy yourself something nice. Okay? Jesus," he added, "am I exhausted."
"Well, you look great." He did. Bob had just enough character in his face for him to be judged as good-looking, rather than handsome. A tall, slender man, slightly over six feet, with curly light brown hair, a long straight nose, and crinkly laugh lines in the outer corners of his pale blue eyes—which actually came from squinting—he rarely looked fatigued. His shoulders might slump a bit, his beard might appear a little scratchy, but he always looked scrubbed, fresh, healthy. Clear, bright American looks, like a Kellogg's Corn Flakes ad, contrasted to my darkness, a face in the crowd in a documentary called "New York City: Melting Pot." When his ancestors chose exogamy, they obviously went in for Aryans. "Anyway," I asked, "what happened this afternoon that was so hideous?"
"Nothing. A meeting with some new clients. A toy company. I don't even want to talk about it." Bob is vice-president of his family's public relations firm. When we met, eleven years before, he was about to begin his doctoral dissertation in comparative literature. A year later, about two months after our wedding, he opted for Singer Associates.
"What's for dinner?"
"Steak," I said, hanging up his heavy blue overcoat. Why did I do that? "Let me just turn it."
"It's not ready yet?"
"All right. I might as well go upstairs and wash up."
We sat at the long, oval dining room table a few minutes later, he at the head of the table, me on his left, facing a large painting his mother had given us, a pink and mauve and gray arrangement of rectangles painted by an artist friend of hers. It was still recognizable as the standard Manhattan skyline.
I offered him a baked potato. "Did you hear about it?"
"About what?" he asked, shaking his head, refusing the potato.
"Remember when I was pregnant with Joey, I went to a periodontist, Dr. Fleckstein?" He nodded. "Well, he was murdered."
"Jesus, a dentist. Who'd want to kill a dentist?"
I gave him my synopsis of the radio report and repeated Nancy's theory that the murderer was one of the women he had been sleeping with. "What do you think?" I asked.
"I dunno," he replied. This from a man once equally comfortable speaking French, Spanish, Italian, German, and Russian, a man who had once possessed a reading knowledge of Latin, ancient Greek, and Hebrew. He leaned back in his chair, a signal that he was ready for coffee. As I walked into the kitchen, he called after me: "You know, I heard something about Fleckstein recently."
I did a rapid about-face. "What?"
"I'll think while you get the coffee." I returned and poured the coffee, watching him as he twisted the lobe of his ear between his fingers. "I know," he finally responded. "I had lunch with Clay last week, and he said one of his partners had a neighbor of ours for a client." Claymore Katz, who had been Bob's roommate at Columbia, was a criminal lawyer who specialized in white-collar crime—securities fraud, tax evasion, bribery.
"Was it a criminal thing? Did Claymore say what it was about?"
"It must have been something criminal, but he didn't go into detail. Look, it had to be something interesting if he bothered to mention it to me. I'm sure he was trying to see if I knew anything about the guy." He pushed his coffee cup back an inch and stood up. "I'll meet you upstairs," he said, giving me his knowing look. "Hurry up with the dishes."
I worked slowly, patiently scraping the gristle and the remaining green beans into the garbage, carefully rinsing the dishes before stacking them in the dishwasher. Why should a suburban dentist need a high-priced criminal lawyer? Some sort of Medicaid fraud? Not likely. Fleckstein's patients were drawn from the Shorehaven community, and the community could pay its own way.
"Judith," Bob called in a hoarse whisper from the top of the stairs. "I'm waiting for you." I finished hurriedly, leaving the broiling pan to soak overnight. He was indeed waiting, I saw, as I passed through the hallway to the stairs. His Valentine present lay on the shelf where he had left it, unopened. I walked up the stairs to him. "Hi," he said softly, standing slim and naked and erect. He didn't like to waste time. "Ready?" He asked me that three nights a week.
"Bob, could you call Claymore tomorrow and try to find out some more information? Please?"
"Come on, Judith. Who cares?"
"I care. It's interesting."
"Clay probably doesn't know anything."
"But maybe he does. Or he could speak to his lawyer friend."
"How would that look?" he demanded.
"It would look like you're curious. Tell him I asked you to find out what's going on. Clay likes me. He'd do it for me."
"I don't have to bring you into it," he snapped. "Come on, Judith, it's getting late and I want to get to the office early." I stepped toward him and ran my hands over his chest and stomach, firm from his daily prelunch workout, hairy and warm. "Come on," he urged. "Let's do it in bed. Okay?"
We did, finishing neatly in our usual twenty minutes. It was fine; one hundred watts of sexual incandescence discharged, a baked potato's worth of calories consumed, a faint aura of warmth and friendliness established that lasted through the night and into the first few minutes of the morning.
Excerpted from Compromising Positions by Susan Isaacs. Copyright © 1978 Susan Isaacs. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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Meet the Author
Susan Isaacs (b. 1943) is a New York Times bestselling author of mysteries and literary fiction. Born in Brooklyn, she worked in New York politics before writing her first mystery, Compromising Positions, in 1978. A runaway success, the story of a housewife-turned-detective was adapted into a film starring Susan Sarandon and Raul Julia. Chairman of the literary organization Poets & Writers and a former president of the Mystery Writers of America, Isaacs is a winner of the John Steinbeck Award, the Marymount Manhattan Writing Center Award, and the Writers for Writers Award. She lives and works on Long Island.
- Sands Point, New York
- Date of Birth:
- December 7, 1943
- Place of Birth:
- Brooklyn, New York
- Honorary Doctorate, Queens College
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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My sister-in-law gave me this book many years ago. It is a delicious murder mystery/love story. The first time I read it I was a stay-at-home mom and identified in many ways with the main character. I have reread it several times through the years and always near Valentine's Day. It is great fun!
This book has some of the greatest one liners in history. A good read on everyday life... raising children, trying to keep a marriage going while being an individual with a brain and some needs. Universal themes and a good mystery too! Great fun. Hollywood thought so too and made the movie! The author is funny and talented beyond words!
If you want a good mystery, read something else. If you want a love story based upon adultery, then this is the book for you. I thought the book started out with a lot of potential to be a good who-dun-it. It took a turn when they introduced the affair. This was the only mistake the book makes. Other than that, it was pretty good. I've read much better though.
I love housewife turned sleuth stories. Susan Isaacs is hilarious. I actually laughed out loud. Its a great read if you just want a little light sex & murder. It is so 70's east coast suburbia.. reminded me of my moms friends. The whole white upper middle-class housewife as victim is a little annoying. They act like they have been sentenced to life in prison, instead of a beautiful home in the suburbs with a charge card and a new car every 2 years. If they are not happy with their neglectful husbands - I mean who lets their man slide on Valentines Day - they should tell them. Not screw the local cop. And I agree with other readers, the end was a non-ending.
Okay, it was written a few decades ago so it is dated. That aside: unappealing characters, unconvincing plot, and a lame non-ending. I finished it and thought "Who cares?"
Thougt it a little better than book but was still a moderate cozy except for a few grafic sex details though this was no doubt considered very on edge subject matter her friend in book was very nicely portrayed in movie
Great fluffy read