|Triangle reprint edition, jacket art by Zaccone
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
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"
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).