Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Murders in Minnesota: The Chuckling Fingers (1941), by Mabel Seeley

Mabel Seeley
In 1941, when critic Howard Haycraft pronounced Mabel Seeley (1903-1991) the "White Hope" of Had-I-But-Known writers, Seeley had published four mystery novels in the last four years.  She would publish a fifth mystery title in 1943, but then only two more over the rest of her life, in 1950 and 1954 (she also published two mainstream novels, in 1947 and 1951).

So, ironically, Seeley's career as a crime writer had just about peaked in 1941, the year Haycraft made his pronouncement.

Yet if she wasn't the "savior" of HIBK, Seeley was a highly-praised mystery author for a time.

Seeley's first novel, The Listening House, was seemingly universally raved; a dozen years later, Anthony Boucher called the book "one of the best of all first mystery novels."  Her third novel, The Whispering Cup, he deemed "even more admirable" (indeed, Cup became Boucher's gold standard for Seeleys; when Eleven Came Back appeared in 1943 Boucher groused that the novel was slick but no Whispering Cup).

As a mystery author, Mabel Seeley in those years enjoyed not only uncommon critical, but also commercial, success.  At a time when mystery novels averaged about 2000 sales per title (before the paperback revolution sales of mysteries mostly were confined to rental libraries), sales of Seeley's The Chuckling Fingers had topped 20,000 by October 1941, surpassing the total for Gypsy Rose Lee's The G-String Murders (see the Popular Library paperback cover illustration below too; I'm guessing this novel wasn't selling only to women in that incarnation).

This doesn't even consider the value surely accrued from serialization in glossy women's magazines, or "slicks" as Raymond Chandler derisively referred to them, a staple of such hugely successful HIBK writers as Mary Roberts Rinehart and Mignon Eberhart (truthfully, the term "romantic suspense" might be a better one, but HIBK is what stuck).

One of the peculiar strengths that Mabel Seeley brings to her novels is the sort of plain, Middle American settings that she uses.

Where Rinehart and Eberhart tended to set their books in the abodes of the upper crust, Seeley elects more humble locales for her murderous mayhem (even The Chuckling Fingers, which deals with a moneyed family, stints readers of the trappings of great wealth). Seeley's heroines also hold "actual jobs," as academic Catherine Ross Nickerson puts it ("nurses, librarians and stenographers"), in contrast with the upper class spinsters and helpless ingenues we often see in the books of Rinehart and Eberhart (the latter women's respective nurse protagonists, Hilda Adams and Sarah Keate, excepted).

In The Chuckling Fingers, the protagonist, Ann Gay, comes to visit the Lake Superior shore home of her cousin, Jacqueline Heaton, recently married to Bill Heaton, a much beloved timber king (in contrast with his grandfather, Rufus Heaton, Bill is a conscientious capitalist, careful to responsibly harvest lumber and scrupulous and generous in his dealings with everyone).

She Walked in Horror and Fear
(a--ahem!--striking cover)
Ann learns that someone has been playing malicious tricks on members of the household, which includes, besides Bill and Jacqueline, Bill's three cousins (Myra Heaton Sallishaw, Phillips Heaton and Octavia Heaton) and Toby Sallishaw, Jacqueline's young daughter from her first marriage, to the late Pat Sallishaw, son of Myra and her deceased husband, John.*

*(a family tree is provided, thank the Lord)

Could someone in the household be murderously insane?  Or is a devious villain afoot, trying to make it look like someone is mad?  These are the questions that Ann Gay asks herself as the pranks continue, and as, with deadly escalation, the dead bodies start to pile up, like cords of Minnesota wood.

But what the hey with that title, you may be asking, what does it mean?  Well that's a good question.  I give props to Seeley for coming up with a very odd'un.  But it's easily explained.  The Fingers are rock formations that resemble the digits of a hand and the "chuckling" is the noise made by the underground river below them.  It's never quite as creepy as Seeley tries to make it, but it nevertheless makes for an interesting setting.

I liked the mystery plot here much better than that in The Crying Sisters, which The Chuckling Fingers resembles in some ways (in addition to the similar titles). Where the opening situation in Sisters struck me as extremely implausible (a supposedly levelheaded woman decides to go off to a remote lake resort with a surly man she has known for a couple of days and pretend to be his wife, all because she tales a liking to his young son), Fingers' Ann Gay behaves much more sensibly.  Moreover, the narrative in Fingers is far less meandering.

this jacket gives readers the fingers
I wouldn't say that Fingers is a classic of the genre, but it is an enjoyable 1940s American mystery.  As a pure detective novel, it disappoints, however.

Near the end of the tale Ann and the man who obviously will become her future husband have no idea who the murderer is.  In order to find out, they have to resort to a baiting a trap for the killer.

I eventually guessed who the fiend was and the motive (for the most part).  However, I can't really say I deduced this, there not actually being the clues to allow one to do this (there are hints, but no more).

Still, Fingers is a good tale, with some clever elements.

I somewhat take issue with Catherine Ross Nickerson's presentation of Fingers as a feminist novel, however.  Nickerson pointedly writes that in Fingers Ann Gay tries to help her "sister, not a boyfriend or husband" (actually it's her female cousin, not her sister).

Here Nickerson is advancing the idea of independent sisterhood, and I think there is merit in this view (Ann indeed is very committed to Jacqueline). Yet Nickerson does not mention that throughout much of the novel Ann Gay is collaborating in mystery investigation with a man, who clearly functions as her romantic interest.

Near the end of the novel, when Ann Gay is setting up her trap for the killer, her male friend arrives to take over: "He'd taken command," declares Ann happily, "and I saw the wisdom of his generalship."  Hard to imagine those lines today!  And the novel ends in the classical manner for this sub-genre: with the man and the woman locked in a passionate embrace and readers confident that they'll soon be hearing the peeling of wedding bells.

There's also this sentiment expressed at one point by Ann Gay, which seems to show that she subscribes to some extent to the idea of separate spheres for the sexes:

"Queerly I felt embarrassed, as if I'd looked at something I shouldn't see; the love one man can have for another is something no woman should ever look at."

It's important to remember that HIBK novels were, after all, genre books cut to a pattern, no matter how good individual ones might be.  The idea that a protagonist, if young, attractive and female, might actually get killed--or, worse yet, be left single at the end of the novel--apparently was anathema to publishers, if not the authors themselves.  To me, the knowledge that everything will always work out for the heroine in the end somewhat qualifies the "breathless suspense" that these novels always were said to have.  It makes HIBK a kind of "cozy suspense," if you will.

However, the HIBK suspense novel would live on, into the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, as "psychological suspense" and "Gothic suspense" (anyone familiar with genre books will immediately recall, I'm sure, all those paperback Gothics in the late 1960s and early 1970s, with the beautiful women wandering at midnight in their nightgowns around the grounds of crumbling estates).

Books by Celia Fremlin and Ursula Curtiss, for example, were harder-edged, but still placed a premium on domestic suspense (I would say the harder edges made them more suspenseful).  The early Ruth Rendell suspense novel Vanity Dies Hard (1965) is an exercise in HIBK devices (Rendell herself is now embarrassed by this book, but it's a fine, late example of the form). There's obviously something perennially appealing about HIBK, to men as well as women (whether the men admit or not).  It's simply a form of suspense, and who doesn't like suspense?

the Afton edition
Golden Age crime writer and critic Todd Downing, born in 1902, loved reading Rinehart and Eberhart in the 1930s (he reviewed mysteries from 1930 to 1937), then later on became a great devotee of Dorothy B. Hughes and Margaret Millar.

I prefer Hughes and Millar myself, but it's interesting to see a reader--and a male one at that (one who also read John Dickson Carr, Ellery Queen and Dashiell Hammett)--graduating from this one group of female suspense writers to the other as the decades passed.  I'm sure he would have liked Mabel Seeley too!  Plenty of male critics did.

Note: Four of Mabel Seeley's seven mysteries, including The Chuckling Fingers, are available in beautiful hardcover editions from Minnesota's Afton Historical Society Press. You just don't see this kind of deluxe treatment much anymore!  These editions have especially fine dust jacket art--rather resembling WPA murals from the 1930s I think--by Paul S. Kramer.


  1. I have to admit, you have roused my curiosity sufficiently about Mabel Seeley to have a look; I am not a fan of the HIBK school so you've communicated your enthusiasm well!
    I'm wondering if you have any comments on the short piece of humour by Ben Hecht called "The Whistling Corpse" -- first published in EQMM in 1945, but I found it in Howard Haycraft's "The Art of the Mystery Story". Is this meant to parody specifically "The Chuckling Fingers" or is it just a generalized potshot at the HIBK, do you think? Or have I mistaken it altogether?

    1. Noah, I would say that's a vary funny parody of the really bad HIBK. I probably should find a really bad example of it. I'm sure they've reviewed something like it over at mysteryfile! Maybe Blood On Her Shoe by Medora Field. I always recall how Jacques Barzun wrote that it was "unfit for rational consumption." Perversely that always made me want to read it!

  2. I like to use the term "woman in peril" to describe most of what Mignon Eberhart wrote. While she may not have invented the subgenre she did a great deal to improve and re-invent it throughout her career.

    How odd that Afton did not reprint Seeley's two most lauded books: THE LISTENING HOUSE and THE WHISPERING CUP. Copyright problem, perhaps? Lack of copies?

    Well, I have to chime in now with my brief taste of Seeley. I think THE CRYING SISTERS touted as one of the best of 1939 was undeserving of the praise. DEATH AND THE MAIDEN was published the same year and compared to Seeley's book it's a masterpiece. I may exaggerate with my analogy but the Quentin book is certainly much, much better than ...SISTERS. I have that exact reprint edition of THE CHUCKLING FINGERS with the looming digit-like rocks on the DJ. I may just give her a second try after this review.

  3. Yeah, John, I like the term WIP for Eberhart too. She's really not strictly speaking HIBK, except her Sarah Keates, as I recollect. I got kind of tired of the Eberhart damsel in distress formula, but she does it better than about anyone. I quite like some of them, however, like Fair Warning. The heroines often are so passive though.

    I do think Eberhart and other women's suspense writers in the 1930s were very important in changing crime fiction. Like a lot of hard-boiled writers they moved the genre away from the dry emphasis on the puzzle and toward emotions and action.

    It is weird why Afton didn't reprint those two Seely titles you mention. The Listening House has an urban fictional setting as I recall, though it's supposed to be fairly close to Chicago.

    But The Whispering Cup is clearly set in rural Minnesota, so I would have thought that would have been a sure thing for Afton. Cup was reprinted in paperback, but is rather surprisingly rare (though Afton should have been able to find a copy).

    As you know I agree with you that Crying Sisters is disappointing. Part of the plot as you mentioned in email was like something out of Cornell Woolrich, but the whole thing just drags.

    1. Of course! A Minnesota publisher reprinting mysteries set in Minnesota. I overlooked that connection.

  4. Of course the trouble with the WIP acronym is that it's commonly used for Women in Prison movies ... :) Fascinating stuff Curt, not an author I am even remotely familiar with but great to hear about these new editions though - thanks chum.

    1. Well, like I say above, "it's simply a form of suspense, and who doesn't like suspense?" Of course Eberhart really plays up (1) peril and (2) panic on the part of the heroine, hence the WIP idea in her case.