Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Murder Rooms: Museum Piece No. 13 (1946), by Rufus King

First off, another piece on a "forgotten book"--Q. Patrick's Death and Dear Clara (1937)--should be posted on Saturday.

Now, just a few notes about my newest books.

Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery is now available at Amazon on Kindle for $17.99.  If you have Kindle and have been thinking you might want to read Masters, it's never going to get cheaper than this!

The paper version is now in thirty-nine university libraries (the book has been out now for three months).  I'll post a list of them later this week. There might be one near you!

I am also very pleased to note that the eminent Allen J. Hubin--who succeeded Anthony Boucher as the New York Times Book Review mystery fiction reviewer, founded and edited Armchair Detective (I fondly remember reading all the issues at Louisiana State University in the 1990s), and is the man behind the massive bibliography Crime Fiction--posted on Amazon of Masters that it "is a marvelous work, thorough, well balanced, free of the clutter of academese.  Edgar Committee, Mystery Writers of America, take note!"  That made my day, I can tell you.

Also, my book on Todd Downing, the 1930s Native American detective novelist and critic, is almost completed and will be published this year, along with reprints of six of his novels.  I'll be writing more about the Todd Downing book soon.

Now back to the books by other people!

Marry in haste, repent at leisure.

The idea behind this old adage supplied the plot for countless novels of what used to be known as the "woman's suspense" mystery subgenre (and their numerous film adaptations).  Of course, come to think of it, in the suspense novel the woman who marries in haste doesn't really have that much time to repent at leisure.  Usually she realizes that there is Something Wrong, that the bloom is seriously off the rose, well less than a year into the marriage.  Sure, the little things mean a lot, but it's also important to be absolutely certain that your new husband isn't really that brides-in-the-bath murderer everyone was talking about a couple years ago....

Usually suspense novels of this sort are associated with women writers, but some of the men tried their hands at these too, including Rufus King, much blogged about here lately.

In 1942, Rufus King, reflecting the tenor of the times, turned away from straight detection (his series detective Lieutenant Valcour made his last appearance in 1939) and began writing what are more properly seen as hybrid detective-suspense novels.

 Museum Piece No. 13 is perhaps the best known of this series of later Rufus King novels, because it was filmed in 1947 by the well-regarded director Fritz Lang as The Secret Beyond the Door (to be precise the film seems to have been based on the serialized version of the novel in Redbook, which carried the same title as the film).  My review of the film will be posted on Steve Lewis' Mystery*File website (I will post a link when it is posted there).

As far as the book is concerned, it is rather good, I think.  To be sure, one has to get over the conceptual hurdle that the rich, pliant New York City widow Lily Constable would marry handsome newspaper owner Earl Rumney, himself recently widowed, when she hardly knows him and that she would hand over a quarter of her fortune over to him to plow into his failing newspaper business.  King portrays Lily no so much as stupid, but as so essentially good-natured and accommodating that she lets strong personalities run right over her.

When she gets to Earl's classical mansion Blaze Creek (located, nebulously, in the town of Lebanon Falls), Lily (now Lily Rumney) finds herself in a full-fledged Gothic pickle.

Husband Earl's menage, which includes his sister and her husband, his secretary, his son from his first marriage and an absolutely horrid leftist woman celebrity newspaper columnist (she's one of those very political people who doesn't talk to you but rather orates at you), are uniformly hostile to, and contemptuous of, Lily.

And then there's Earl's little hobby, which no one in the town but Lily seems to find really rather disconcertingly odd (I found this odd).  It seems Earl Rumney "collects" rooms where murders have taken place.  He's just installed room number thirteen, but he won't allow anyone, including Lily, to see it.

Just what lies beyond the door?

The idea of a collection of murder rooms is ingenious and some of the descriptions of them and the people that they represent are truly creepy (and rather modern in their unpleasantness).

Here's a bit of a discussion between Lily and Earl's strange secretary, Miss McQuillan, that takes place as the secretary takes Lily on an impromptu tour of the museum wing of the house.  One of the exhibits is the childhood bedroom of Race Blandrick.

"What"--Lily couldn't help it--"had the child done, Miss McQuillan?"
"Well, his crime career started at the age of thirteen, when he had a habit of tying up and torturing children in the suburbs of Boston.  It reached its climax toward the close of the last century, when he mutilated and killed a boy of four and a girl of nine."
Lily said almost desperately: "It's late.  I think no more today."

Soon Lily is on the phone consulting with a New York psychiatrist she met recently at a dinner party.  She thinks Earl may have a little problem, that he's perhaps a trifle morbid. Fortunately for Lily, the psychiatrist is fine with diagnosing the case over the phone.  He suggests that Lily make a wax impression of the key to Room 13....

This is the sort of book one doesn't want to say too much about, for fear of spoilers, so I just will add that, in spite of occasional over-writing, a fine narrative tension is maintained and the ending is unexpected.  Museum Piece No. 13 is an excellent example of the postwar suspense novel that lives on today as the"psychological thriller" in the hands of such accomplished modern writers as Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters.

Note: Here's a review of the book by Diane Plumley.  She liked it too!


  1. In the film, beautiful the scene of the fire! What then is the final scene, in which you understand many things that are mentioned in the previous scenes. But still the film doesn't follow the novel. For once, it seems almost better the movie that the novel on which it is drawn.

  2. Very intriguing to hear about the book having only ever seen the film (which is fun if minor Lang and which unfortunately was just one of many projects made on the back of the successs of REBECCA). I'm not sure I've ever read anything by King though he did used to be printed fairly regularly in Italy as I recall (Pietro can set me straight ont that one). Thanks Curt.

  3. Hi, Pietro, Sergio

    I'm afraid I wasn't too crazy about the film. Maybe I was biased against it because it hugely changed the book. I will go into all this in m review for Mystery*File.

  4. Sounds like "Race Blandrick," was based on real-life murderer Jesse Pomeroy. As a true crime fan, I've noticed a lot of references to real criminals in golden age mysteries.