This house lived only in the dark.
|this abstract 1988 paperback edition|
actually captures the scene well
Australian author Arthur Upfield (1890-1964) made a hit in the United States in the 1950s with his Inspector Napoleon Bonaparte ("Bony") mysteries, though the first one appeared, I believe, as early as 1929. Anthony Boucher was a great fan and advocate of the series, as was Jacques Barzun. Indeed, most everyone seemed to like Bony (well, okay, not Julian Symons).
As a "half-caste" aborigine detective, Bony attracted attention in the 1950s, a time when the status of racial minorities in general was starting to get a lot more public notice. Today the portrayal of Bony by Arthur Upfield, a white man, is considered controversial by some, though in the 1950s liberals and progressives like Anthony Boucher were more than pleased to give the series their endorsement.
Upfield's 1952 novel Venom House is something a bit different for the author, because, as the title suggests, it centers around a domicile, rather than the bush. For many readers a great part of the appeal of the Bony series was following the detective's wilderness tracking skills.
The cursed family in the novel is the Answerth clan, whose forbears robbed and murdered the local Aboriginal people on their brutal way toward establishing their local cattle and sheep empire. The bone was pointed at them, with dire consequences--so the locals in the nearby town of Emerson (mostly owned by the Answerths) believe.
First the land around the family mansion flooded, isolating the house on an island surrounded by dead trees. Then there's the history of violence within the family itself, with fratricide, mistreatment of wives and suicide. No wonder the Answerth mansion has been dubbed Venom House!
Now two bodies have been found in the lake around Venom House: that of Edward Carlow, a prosperous butcher and Answeth protege and old Mrs. Answerth, the mother of Morris Answerth and stepmother of Morris' half-sisters Janet and Mary. Carlow was overpowered and drowned in the lake, Mrs. Answerth strangled and thrown into its murky waters.
Suspicion can't help but center on the Answerth siblings, despite the fact that Janet and Mary run most everything in the area. Mary, a "mannish" woman who seemingly can master any man in a brawl, is especially feared. Janet, the much more feminine of the two sisters, hides her fist in a dainty velvet glove. As for Morris, he's not quite all there. Morris, who boasts he can snap necks like carrots, is kept confined to two rooms on the second story (or so it's thought). Then there's the housekeeper, Mrs. Leeper, who used to be a nurse in an insane asylum....
Venom House is an interesting crime novel, full of Australian local color that should prove especially interesting to non-Australians. Upfield has a leisurely and measured narrative style that does indeed remind me of the English Humdrums Freeman Wills Crofts and John Street (Julian Symons thought as much), but Bony, despite his tracking skills, seems more intuitive and less dependent than Crofts' and Street's sleuths on material clues. The book actually is not as viscerally thrilling as I have probably made it sound, but it's a good tale nevertheless.
Note: There's been a lag on the blog, I know, since Friday, but I have been very busy with the proofs of my Todd Downing book, plus helping with the reprinting of six of his novels. The good news all these books should appear in November (early December at the absolute latest) and I think they look really good! The fantastically knowledgeable Bill Pronzini, who rediscovered Downing back in the 1980s, has been kind enough to write a preface for my book.
It's a great mission of my mine to get more Golden Age mystery authors back into print and I will keep at it in the year to come, rest assured.
I will be back later tonight with another Halloween post. Like Dracula, I will keeping late hours!