Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Not Your Maiden Aunt's HIBK: The Listening House (1938), by Mabel Seeley

Triangle reprint edition, jacket art by Zaccone
In his landmark genre survey, Bloody MurderJulian Symons wrote that Mary Roberts Rinehart's mystery fiction seemed designed specifically to be read by "maiden aunts"--obviously an intended put-down of the author's work yet one seemingly belied by the fact that Rinehart's crime novels was so widely read and praised by male book reviewers.

However, whatever one thinks about Rinehart (I like many of her books, myself), would Symons have written the same dismissive line about Mabel Seeley (1903-1991), especially her first impressive crime novel, The Listening House (1938)?  This emphatically is not your maiden aunt's HIBK.

Though it has appealing floor plans like something out of an S. S. Van Dine Philo Vance novel, Seeley's book, set in fictional Gilling City (St. Paul, Minnesota, where Seeley moved with her family in 1920 and graduated from the University of Minnesota in 1926), has a much grittier edge to it than Van Dine extravaganzas like The Green Murder Case (1928), because Seeley draws on St. Paul's real-life past of endemic civic venality.

F. Scott Fitzgerald's
St. Paul boyhood home
"During the 1920s and 1930s," notes Catherine Coles, "St. Paul's Police Department was riddled with corruption." In particular, police Chief Tom Brown, in office from 1932-1934, writes Amy Goetzman in her interview with Tim Mahoney, author of Secret Partners: Big Tom Brown and the Barker Gang (2013), "not only had too many connections with the underworld but also was a full player in some of the most blatant crimes committed by the city's Prohibition-fueled gangland--including murder."

Although in her novel Seeley hid St. Paul behind the name of Gilling City, she draws heavily on its miasma of corruption in The Listening House. Seeley once argued that

Terror is more terrible, and more convincing, if it is aroused by incidents which are within the reader's possible experience.

For the horrible events that take place in The Listening House, Seeley didn't need a ruined castle, a mysterious monastery or a remote country mansion; she merely needed an old boarding house presided over by an elderly woman with lovely white hair.

basement floor of
the "listening house"
After getting fired from her job as a copy writer (on account of a male superior's error, for which she was blamed), our heroine, Gwynne Dacres, has to take a downscale apartment while looking for another job over the summer of 1937. For a surprisingly low rent, Dacres is able to get two nice rooms on the ground floor of old Mrs. Garr's house (illustration 2 gives a better idea of the structure of the house than the Zaccone jacket in illustration 1).

However, Dacres soon becomes irked with her landlady's intrusive and increasingly paranoid behavior. The lodgers themselves are a mixed lot of men and women, though Dacres develops a repartee relationship with handsome second-floor boarder Hodge Kistler, whom she first glimpsed while he was in his room doing chin-ups in his shorts.

This being a mystery, not romance, novel, however, it's not long before our heroine has stumbled across another male body, a deader this time, pushed over the concrete embankment behind Mrs. Garr's house. Could anyone in Mrs. Garr's household have been responsible?

In the classic manner of an HIBK heroine, Dacres starts snooping around, eventually putting her own life in peril.  Then there is another death, this one is the house itself and really quite horrific. (It is also, incidentally, a locked room problem, one of two such in the novel--neither is a patch on John Dickson Carr's stuff, but they are pleasing to see.)

Real-life events, slightly fictionalized, are referenced to great effect in The Listening House--it is indeed a very believable milieu that Seeley portrays. (I suspect Seeley draws on additional events from St. Paul's past, of which I am unaware.)  The love element is really well done, not too obtrusive, with an undercurrent of winning humor.  The mystery is well-managed and most readers, I suspect, will be kept in doubt until the end, even though Seeley gives readers a chance to deduce the solution for themselves.

first and second floors

Gwynne Dacres is a great character, a twenty-something divorcee and thus not your typical HIBK virginal ingenue or aged spinster. She makes mistakes, like any real life investigator might, but she is smart and determined and altogether a winning personality.

There also is a bracing sexual frankness to the book that no doubt impressed reviewers of the day and should impress readers even now, nearly eighty years after its publication. Anthony Boucher in particular was a great admirer of The Listening House, continuing to favorably reference the novel in reviews many years after it was published.

Disappointingly, when Afton Press reprinted four Seeley novels, it failed to include The Listening House, probably her best crime novel, and it since has become increasingly scarce.  I hope it will return to print in some form, because it is one of the best 'thirties American crime novels that I have read.

Note also this excellent laudatory review of the novel from six years ago by Kevin Killian, although you might want to peruse the review after you've read the book (there is quite a lot about the plot that I have refrained from mentioning).

6 comments:

  1. Just about to start reading my first Seeley in fact (ELEVEN CAME BACK) and am really looking foreward to it, thanks for this - can't help noticing that poor my Symons getting it in the neck AGAIN ...

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    1. Hey, I'm just defending the honor of Mary Roberts Rinehart! But I actually think Symons might have liked Seeley, or at least her first novel, I really do. Hope you like Eleven, that's probably her least characteristic mystery. My three favorite by her are Listening House, Whispering Cup and Whistling Shadow. A lot of people put Crying Sisters up there too, but I've had trouble getting past the basic premise (woman goes off with man she has known for two days, pretending to be his wife).

      Eleven is her easiest to find, because Seeley's sales were so high by that time they printed a ton of copies of that one.

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    1. I'll be talking more about Sam Zaccone art in future.

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  3. I am very fond of Mary Roberts Rinehart's books too. No matter what Symons said. And I'm no maiden aunt. Ha. At any rate, thanks for introducing me to this author and this book. It sounds a treat. Too bad it's so hard to find. But I'll add the title to my Vintage TBR List anyway.

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    1. I've been writing about Symons and nineteenth-century women writers and a great many of them got passed over or dismissed in Bloody Murder too. But even Symons might have liked this Seeley book. I'm going to try to find out whether there are any plans to reprint it; it's odd that it wasn't when four others by her were.

      I like Rinehart too!

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