Friday, September 28, 2012

It Was a Dark and Snowy Night....The Doll's Trunk Murder (1932), by Helen Reilly

Helen Reilly (1891-1962) published over thirty mystery novels between 1930 to 1962.  She was the mother of suspense writers Ursula Curtiss and Mary McMullen, though she herself probably is best known for the Inspector McKee police procedurals she wrote in the 1930s and the 1940s.  Her books after World War Two are more suspense-oriented (though I believe most or all still have Inspector McKee), as is her very early, non-series mystery The Doll's Trunk Murder.

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...
Here's the infamous lurid bondage cover of the Popular Library paperback edition of The Doll's Trunk Murder.  Yes, there is a trunk of some sort on the cover, but no one on earth will ever pay it much notice, I expect.

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.


  1. Have you ever noticed how many novels of exceptional workmanship to be released in 1932? Every so often spout another novel of 1932 and I stop to think about this strange thing.

  2. Pietro,

    just imagine what it was like back then, when every year you had a Carr, a Christie, a Queen, a King, a Crofts (or two!), etc.

    I was a bit disappointed with the finale of this one, though it had good elements and I love those F&R endpapers!

  3. I happened to finish reading this novel today. I have the paperback with the bondage cover. I I didn't care for this one at all. After the first twenty pages or so, it just drags along. It doesn't help much that there's a long spell where Brierly is waiting for Sheriff Craven to return to the house, and he just seems to wander about doing nothing. I was thoroughly bored. By the end I didn't much care who did what. I'm surprised I was able to finish it.

    This was quite a disappointment because I've read almost every other novel Reilly wrote and liked them a lot. Even the duds were entertaining.

  4. Mark,

    Yes, I felt like there was a plateau in that one part when Brierly is waiting around for Craven to return. It did feel aimless. I thought the book picked up somewhat after that, but nothing lived up to the opening of the book.

    Overall, I felt like it was a mistake using Brierly at all! It would have been better to tell the stories of the people arriving at the house, then shifting the perspective over to Craven. Craven is a lot more dynamic than Brierly, but he's off the scene much of the time.

  5. Hi Curt - just how many books are we talking about? the number seems to have vanished from your opening sentence ...


  6. Thanks for the link and plug as always, Curt. I just have to mention that I bought a few old mystery novels yesterday and the previous owner's name inside one of them is...are you ready?...Margaret McCleneghan! How's that for eerie coincidences? It's book by Ann Austin, BTW. Another American mystery writer no one reads anymore.

  7. Sergio, corrected!

    John, I've had Murder Backstairs for over a decade and still haven't gotten around to reading it! Looks very chatty!

  8. John, interesting about Margaret McCleneghan. I didn't even pick up on your comment originally. Would be great to bring all her mysteries together. I wonder who she was?