Monday, September 29, 2014

Higher Aims? Mouse in Eternity (1952), by Nedra Tyre

Native Georgian Nedra Tyre is one of the "domestic suspense" writers highlighted by Sarah Weinman in Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives who was unfamiliar to me.  I quite liked the Tyre story that Weinman anthologized, and I also enjoyed the one included in John D. Macdonald's interesting late Fifties collection of crime stories by women, The Lethal Sex.

Weinman notes that Tyre wrote more than forty short stories, which mostly were published in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine.  Tyre also authored six crime novels over two decades. This imbalance suggested to me that perhaps Tyre's talent was more suited for short fiction; and my reading of Tyre's first crime novel, Mouse in Eternity (1952), confirms this suspicion.

Tyre's first published book, Red Wine First (1947) is a collection of first person narratives based on her experiences as a social worker with clients in three southern states during the Second World War. This is an interesting book, having something of the quality of that American southern classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.  But it's not a novel, nor, strictly speaking, a collection of short stories. Rather, it's more a gathering of  fact-based dramatic monologues (this is the form as well of the two Tyre crime shorts I read).

Even though Tyre seems clearly to have had strong inclinations toward "straight," or "mainstream," writing, five years later she turned to the potentially lucrative crime novel market with the oddly titled (for a mystery) Mouse in Eternity. The title is derived from a poem by the foreign correspondent Paula Lecler:

When I measure myself by the grasses
Then I am good and tall;
When I measure myself by the mountains
I do not exist at all.

It is very, very curious
How one may either be
A cat that nibbles a moment
Or a mouse in eternity.

I loved these lines (especially "A cat that nibbles a moment/Or a mouse in eternity"), which suggest that Tyre had "artier" ambitions in mind than writing a "mere" puzzle (see Masters of the "Humdrum" Mystery for my discussion of the disparagement of strongly puzzle-oriented mysteries at this time).

The novel is set among Atlanta social workers--write what you know, as they say--and initially it reminded me rather of Christianna Brand's delightful workplace mystery, Death in High Heels (1941), wherein, as in Mouse, a hated boss is killed.  Unfortunately, I thought the pace in Mouse dragged and by the time I was halfway through the novel I had completely lost interest in the narrative.  There just was not, I felt, enough of a crime interest to sustain this book as a crime novel.

Interestingly, from the evidence of Mouse Tyre herself clearly had a genuine interest in crime literature, because throughout the novel her female social worker protagonist, Jane Wallace, and Wallace's intellectual male invalid friend discuss crime fiction with the true fan's passion.

murder story?
At one point Jane names twenty crime writers whose books she has on her shelves (the list is forthcoming), much to the disgust of her friend Peg, who thinks crime writing is hopelessly lowbrow:

"Many intelligent people like murder stories," I said...."Some of the finest writing ever done has been in mysteries --even your precious Henry James tried them."

The Turn of the Screw is not a murder story."

"It's placed among mysteries--how else would I know about it?"

Jane names her favorite mystery short story as "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole" and her favorite mystery novel as The Nine Tailors ("Nothing touches it.").  Her invalid friend names his as "The Two Bottles of Relish" and The Moonstone.

I'm with the invalid friend!  How about you?

I'm afraid that I did not find Mouse in Eternity anywhere close to the level of the above classic crime novels, but I'll have another post about the observations on crime fiction in Mouse; for me they constitute the most interesting parts of the book.


  1. Surely that name is an anagram of summat! Am all agog to hear the list, but the book itself sounds a bit of a dud.

    1. Yeah, I just didn't like the book much, but at least there were the side disquisitions on detective fiction. More on that soon!

  2. "The Hands of Mr. Ottermole"

    And I'm with Tyre on this one -- perhaps the most powerfully affecting crime short story I've ever read. I first encountered it as a child, aged perhaps 10, in that OUP anthology edited by, I think, Dorothy Sayers, and I doubt I slept a wink that night. Even thought later readings didn't have the same sledgehammer-between-the-eyes effect, I still get the creeps thinking about that first time.

    It's Ottermole, by the way, not Ottermore.

    1. Thanks for catching the typo, I always try to keep out, but sometimes they creep in! I assume you've read Lord Dunsany's "Bottles" tale, that's always been near the very top for me. Of course they are both great twist tales.

    2. Just saw I left the "h" off "Sarah Weinman" too! And I've typed her name so much the last few months that should be an automatic reflex by now! It never ends!

    3. Just saw I left the "h" off "Sarah Weinman" too!

      Been there, done that kind of thing . . . :)

  3. How else would she know about The Turn of the Screw! That says a lot about Jane Wallace, doesn't it? I don't blame Peg; Jane does sound lowbrow. :^) Don't have much to say about Tyre but in passing I have to say this since James comes up in your post...

    I'm not sure if anyone has ever written about James as a sort of accidental grandfather of noir, but I think he really was. The Turn of the Screw may not be not a murder story per se but The Other House definitely is and it was reviled by critics at the time for being sordid. And there is a rather devilish plot, not exactly criminal but decidedly amoral and avaricious, in The Wings of the Dove. Kate Croy, like Lydia Gwilt, is a forerunner to the manipulative, self-interested femme fatales of modern noir fiction.

    1. John, I did find myself thinking that Jane could expand her horizons a bit. I mean, it is okay to read a non-genre book occasionally!

      I've been meaning to read The Other House someday, got a copy when it was reprinted by, I believe, New York Review Books. I read The Turn of the Screw back in grade school, actually wrote my first term paper on it. Never quite thought of it as a "murder story"--a ghost story, yes. But Tyre also seems to view Onions' The Beckoning Fair One the same way.