I was reading the TV Tropes entry for The Bluebeard and it made me recall a short story (probably less than 20 pages) I read probably in the early 2000s, I think part of a mystery anthology. The protagonist is an older woman, well-off, possibly a widow herself. She meets an extremely charming older gentleman and, for some reason, gets suspicious of him, so she starts investigating his past. She comes to find that he's hiding several previous marriages, the women of which each died, leaving him a widower who inherited their estate.

And in the end... she decides to stay, figuring that now that she knows what he plans to do, she can avoid it, leaving him more and more nervous about her. And, ultimately, she figures she's already led a long and interesting life, so if she dies, it's not a great loss. I think she's also set things up so that, if she dies, people get notified of what she's learned so that he can't pull this off after her.

I might have read it in an Alfred Hitchcock anthology, although it also seems like the sort of black humor that might fit Harry Harrison (who wrote several novels about crime mysteries) and there's a faint part of me that wants to tie it to Agatha Christie.

1 Answer 1


This is Donald Westlake's short story "Never Shake a Family Tree", which appeared in his collection The Curious Facts Preceding my Execution and Other Stories (1968) and no doubt elsewhere.

The woman has two hobbies, and one of them is genealogy; her unmasking the would-be lady-killer begins innocently enough, as she looks into his ancestry.

Her other interest is gaming (I think) and she has decided that it will be amusing to try and outwit the man. She is playing with loaded dice: she has already left papers with her lawyer, ensuring that her husband cannot win.

In the meantime, since he needs to give the world the impression that they are an utterly happy couple, she can treat him as brusquely as she likes, and does!

The story reads as if it were from her diary, and ends on something like, "He's expecting me to go for a drive in his new convertible — but I won't go!".

I believe the villain is a younger man, which is the only detail that doesn't match the question.

  • I have read a lot of Westlake. I've requested a copy from the library to confirm. Commented Apr 23, 2022 at 3:58
  • I was reluctant to offer half-remembered quotations, when Westlake wrote so well himself (and I suppose I was hoping for a cry of recognition!). I'll edit my answer. I'll be curious to see if my library can find a copy—it will be interesting to see how accurate my memory was.
    – Barnaby
    Commented Apr 26, 2022 at 1:05
  • I found a copy online at archive.org/details/nevershakefamily0000unse. It is precisely the right story, and Gerald is indeed her age. Commented Apr 21 at 0:34

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