Friday, November 2, 2012

Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves: The Sister of Cain (1943), by Mary Collins

I looked from one face to the other, searching desperately for some sign of guilt, the mark of Cain, anything that would end this frightful, bloody massacre that had taken place in less than a week....

Like Arthur Upfield's Venom House (1952), Mary Collins' The Sister of Cain (1943) is concerned with the odd dwellers in an old family mansion.   In Cain, these are the six Moreau sisters, who live in an Gothic Revival abode on Russian Hill in San Francisco (the house was based on the Monroe Medieval Mansion, which was torn down shortly after the novel was published).

Narrator Hilda Moreau is the bride of the lone Moreau son, David, who is far, far away, fighting in World War Two.  Hilda has come to stay at the Moreau mansion, but what she finds there makes her want to turn heel and head back to the Midwest.  Dominated by and hating their tyrannical eldest sister, Pauline, the Moreau sisters seem primed for murder.  Sure enough, Pauline is soon found stabbed to death in her room!  Nor is Pauline's violent death the last to take place in the Moreau mansion....

This copy of the Frank Hazell dust jacket is fragile, but still a beaut

Pauline turns out to have been quite a bad apple indeed (no one misses her except her scheming maid, Nanette), but, truth be told, Hilda finds the whole menagerie of "spinster" Moreau sisters a bunch of rather strange fruit.

There's twenty-year-old Rose, whom the other sisters, all older, insist on treating like a child (they all call her "Baby").  There's Marthe, who seems down-to-earth but turns out to be a dissembler.  There's Elise, the dipsomaniac.  There's Anne, a doctor whose initial friendliness soon gives way to hostility.  And there's sex-starved Sophie, more desperate than ever to land a husband now that she's turned forty.

All the sisters, it seems, had motives to murder Pauline--as did several other ladies!

Dedicated by Mary Collins to her fellow San Francisco native, the prominent feminist novelist Gertrude Atherton (1857-1948), The Sister of Cain is an interesting crime novel.  With the exception of a police detective (Irish) and lawyer friend of the family (not Irish), all the major characters--and suspects--are women.  Besides the woman doctor, there's a woman lawyer and a woman psychiatrist.  Additionally, Hilda before her marriage was a schoolteacher; and a wealthy matron complains bitterly that one of her maids plans to leave her to take up war work, specifically welding.  Servants these days, pshaw!

She had nothing to fear
Social detail in Cain frequently is fascinating. Hilda is pregnant by David (she isn't "showing" yet), yet she seems to smoke rather a lot.  When the police detective discovers that Hilda is pregnant he drops her from his list of suspects in Pauline's murder, presumably on the theory that a mother-to-be is incapable of harming anyone (hmm, smoking aside!).

In its day Cain was categorized as an HIBK (Had I But Known), "feminine anxiety" novel, but Hilda is too self-aware a narrator for true HIBK, I think.  She even expressly disavows such an idea--I certainly could not see myself behaving like the heroine of an HIBK mystery plodding around in the dangerous dark, she declares at one point (though in classic fashion she does manage while snooping to get herself clonked on the head a couple times anyway).

Hilda is an enjoyable narrator with, at times, rather an unusual way with words.  I was so starved for human companionship that I would have welcomed a cannibal woman clad in a G-string, she memorably declares early in the novel.  Like her sisters-in-law she doesn't hesitate to sling around swear words (bitch and hell are common expletives in Cain).

The mystery plot in The Sister of Cain is pretty interesting and there is a single good physical clue, one I didn't pick up on, shame on me!

Mary Collins published a total of six mystery novels in the 1940s, and on the strength of Cain I plan to look them up sometime.  I believe they all were reprinted in paperback by Bantam, so are relatively locatable, as old mysteries go.


  1. Never heard of her. An enticing review, for sure. Maybe the CPL has a copy. I think I ought to create a section of my blog called "Books Recommended by Other Mystery Blogs" and reveiw them when I'm done. I now have a growing pile of books that I've purchased based on reviews by you, TomCat and Bev.

    The bit about Collins written by Atherton (taken from a book she wrote about San Francisco) at the GAD page is equally enticing. And now of course I have to find all Collins'

    BTW - read MURDER BY LATITUDE last month, but chose not to review it. It was wonderful! I laughed when the surprise about the child's identity was revealed. King pulled off some misdirection comparable to JDC or Agatha with that. I'm not sure it's a masterpiece, but it's overall the best of his books I've read so far.

  2. Reading Mary Collins won't change your life, but I thought it was an enjoyable yarn.

    Glad you liked Latitude, I thought you would. I've really become quite the King fan now.