The beginning of The Doll's Trunk Murder reads like an Old Dark House thriller, as traveler after traveler descends on a snowbound rural house in western Pennsylvania. Of course, murder has been done in the house, and murder will be done again....
I thought this novel had a tour de force opening section, detailing the (natural???) death of Mary Alice Greer, the elderly owner of isolated Three Mile House (I kept thinking of Three Mile Island); the house's subsequent purchase by the mysterious Miss Fenwick, the flight of Miss Greer's former maid, Minnie Stern; the sudden merciless snowstorm; and the arrival of the stranded "guests."
This part is magnificently Old Dark House-ish, with suspenseful prose and mysterious goings-on. There is a very unpleasant murder too, something nasty in the storage closet....
Helen Reilly has a good way with words, as in this description of Minnie Stern:
She always wore decent black that smelled faintly of camphor, had hard gnarled hands that never quite closed and a high stomach. Her corsets were something with which to frighten children....
Happily, Sheriff Craven is one of the people who turns up at Three Mile House and he is able to do some ad hoc crime investigating.
On hand too is a middle-aged bachelor named Richard Brierly, who for no particularly credible reason that I could ever figure out, is the narrative focal point of the tale. He's the Watson figure, I suppose (although the narration is third person); yet he's not particularly interesting, nor could I figure why Craven would allow him to be in on the entire investigation! Heck, Craven even delegates important parts of the investigation to Brierly!
|This is one of these great endpaper illustrations|
that publisher Farrar & Rinehart was doing at this time.
The captions confuse Susan Tait and Mrs. Brown,
but there's something very cleverly done here....
This suggests to me that at this point in her career Reilly did not quite have a firm grip on the police procedural. However, after the night spent at Three Mile House, this essentially is what the book becomes: a police investigation (with some improbable amateur bits by Brierly).
Unfortunately, the ending is what Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor in A Catalogue of Crime call huddled. There's a lot of explanation from Sheriff Craven, right up to the last paragraphs and the rather abrupt close. I couldn't really see how the reader is given a fair chance to deduce much of the (very involved!) solution. Which means that The Doll's Trunk Murder really is more a mystery than a fair play detective novel, making it something of a disappointment to me, despite its other admirable qualities.
|A cover that might have made|
even Mickey Spillane blanch!
Well, probably not, but still...
There really is a scene like this in the book too, although it's only described at second-hand after the event. Also the victim is a dowdy, middle-aged woman. There is an attractive young woman in the novel, but she is never subjected to this! But I suppose Popular Library knew how to sell paperbacks after World War Two.
This cover and the author are profiled over at the Killer Covers blog.
Also, here's John Norris' review of Helen Reilly's Murder in Shinbone Alley.
Note on my Todd Downing book: Everything finally done but the bibliography. This should be ready to go to press in October! I hope to have more detail on it soon, plus more blog posts every week. There has been a bit of a lag this week, I know.