Sunday, December 25, 2022

Deck the Halls with Bouts of Horror! Hall of Death (1960), by Nedra Tyre

State Training School for Girls at Chalkville, Alabama, which operated for over a century,
from 1909 until it was hit by a tornado in 2012.  More pics here

Her cabin'd ample Spirit,

It flutter'd, and fail'd for breath.

Tonight it doth inherit

The vasty Hall of Death

Requiescat, Matthew Arnold

Earlier this year crime fiction publisher Stark House reprinted as one of their "twofers" a pair of mystery novels by one of the more original and interesting mid-century American crime novelists, Nedra Tyre (1912-1990), a native of the state of Georgia, which has been much in the news of late.  A social worker by vocation, Tyre also published six mystery novels and more than forty short crime stories.  These latter works start, I believe, with "Murder at the Poe Shrine" in 1955 and cease with "The Teddy Bear Crimes" in 1987, just three years before Tyre's death in a Richmond, Virginia area nursing home at the age of 78.  All of the short stories were published either in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine or Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine.

The American hardcover edition
reminds me of the 1962 horror film
Carnival of Souls or a brunette
Village of the Damned (1960)

I hope to see Tyre's short stories collected soon, but in the meantime Stark House this year reprinted one of Tyre's most highly regarded crime novels, Death of an Intruder (1953), together with her final effort in the novel line, Twice So Fair (1971); and they likely will be following up this year with two additional lauded Tyre mysteries, Mouse in Eternity (1950), her debut crime novel, and Hall of Death (1960).  This pair of novels most draws, among her crime writing, upon her own field of social work.  

I like Death of an Intruder, but Hall of Death is perhaps my favorite among Tyre's novels.  It is, I think, a more substantial book, at about 65,000 words versus, as I recollect, Intruder's barely 40,000.  (Arguably Intruder is really a novella.)  

Hall if also more firmly tethered in reality (albeit a nightmarish sort) than Intruder, which is really a kind of fantastical horror tale.  In her subtitle to the latter novel Tyre herself termed it a horror tale in three partsHall of Death, on the other hand, is a genuine detective story.

Tyre clearly found real life inspiration for Hall of Death in the 1950s scandals at the Georgia Training School for Girls in Adamsville, Georgia, now a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Atlanta.  (The Georgia Training School of course was segregated.)  Below are some evocative recent pics of the area on Youtube:

Tyre's novel is set primarily (and unnervingly claustrophobically) at the Training School for Girls in the city of some unnamed, obviously southern and rather backward, state.  However, as Tyre's friend Celestine Sibley, a beloved longtime columnist at the Atlanta Constitution, noted when reviewing Tyre's novel in 1960, the connection of her pal's fictional school--more a prison, really--to the Georgia school for delinquent girls is obvious.  

Six years earlier Celestine Sibley herself had written a series of articles about the problems at the Georgia school, contrasting it very unfavorably with Florida's Industrial School for Girls at Ocala.  Sibley condemned Georgia's school for its "inhuman treatment of students" (including shaving their heads as punishment--see this pic from the Digital Library of Georgia), not to mention "recurrent runaways, old and inadequate facilities and unsuitable or untrained staff."  

Sibley thought it telling that at the Florida School the entrance sign cheerily read "WELCOME!" while at the Georgia school the sign read forbiddingly "Enter on Business Only."  At the Florida school, walls gleamed with fresh paint, while at the Georgia school walls were scrawled with profanity.  At the Florida school, "shining window panes [were] framed with crisp curtains and potted plants," while at the Georgia school "shattered window panes" had been replaced with "boards and iron bolts."

In Hall of Death, Tyre excels at portraying this grim atmosphere of pervading gloom.  "If you've ever been in a penal or reform institution of any kind," Celestine Sibley assured her readers, "....You'll smell the tired old plumbing, hear the rats in the walls [and see the cockroaches in the kitchen--TPT], taste the sponge cake and canned fruit."  

Ace pb reprint
obviously trying to appeal to the
market for delinquency fiction

What the girls at the school are forced to endure, Sibley noted, is not wanton cruelty, but the banality of bland societal indifference--"a terrible bleakness engendered by the fact that the state, which held them as wards, was really indifferent to them.  They were cared for by the 'Manual of Operation' put out by the State Department of Welfare and there was nothing in the manual that mentioned love or healing damaged spirits or restoring confidence. So the girls themselves and the nine women staff members are grimly suitable figures for Miss Tyre's drama of hatred and murder."

The narrator and protagonist of the story, Miss Michael (I don't believe we ever learn her first name), is the idealistic new assistant to the stolid, by- the-book school superintendent, Miss Spinks.  At one point the latter woman bluntly tells her new assistant (who also teaches English and grammar at the school): 

"Miss Michael, please don't philosophize.  Just try to protect yourself."  

So Miss Michael keeps speculations like these to herself: 

No one ever seemed to look directly into a girl's eyes.  I suppose there was too much agony and defiance in them.

To establish contact with angry, hostile persons the easy way is to appeal to their anger and hostility, to claim their emotions and hatred as your own.  The way to love and kindness is infinitely more difficult. [This applies to politics too--TPT]

Sounding like a lot of people today in her bleak commitment to blanket punitive incarceration, Miss Spinks lectures Miss Michael with fatalistic finality:

We're carrying out instructions and it's not for us to question them [Just following orders!--TPT].  I'd like to have an adequate staff.  I'd like to have comfortable buildings.  But we have to make out with these barns.  You'll get along much better, Miss Michael, if you don't criticize.  We haven't a rehabilitation program.  The girls are here to be punished.  They don't want to change themselves and there's nothing we can do to change them.

In spite of Spinks, Miss Michael tries to reach the girls somehow.  She makes connections of a sort with two of them in particular: an angel names Lucy and a devil named Johnny.  With interesting results, to say the least.

For readers interesting in learning about a certain horrid place in terrible time, Hall of Death delivers.  In its own way it's as memorable a female institution mystery novel as Dorothy L. Sayers' Gaudy Night or Josephine Tey's Miss Pym Disposes, though it would never be as generally popular on account of its pervasive gloominess.  Nedra Tyre herself loved British novels of manners, including manners mysteries, but her tone in this particular book is altogether more earnest and frequently dark.  

However, there is also a very nice little mystery tucked away in the text of this book, which, after all, includes two suicides, a couple of murders and another attempted one.  It's fairly clued, with some nice strategies of deception.  In other words, it's a genuine detective novel, unlike Death of Intruder.  Like Celestine Sibley, Anthony Boucher, a great fan of the author, highly praised the book, as did others.  "Told with a perception and sensitivity that few mystery novels can match," declared the Miami Herald of Hall of Death, "it is a story of chilling violence."  


  1. Sounds interesting.
    Mind you, only wicked and depraved (and probably corrupt) people could allow a building as ugly as the one in Alabama to be put up!
    Did Nedra Tyre work in Alabama? How long did she work as a social worker for? It sounds as if Miss Spinks had the same attitudes as Miss Michael when she first started working there which adds a further irony to the situation.

    1. I couldn't find a pic of the Georgia school but the contemporary AL one was sufficiently eerie I thought! That tornado was an act of God if ever there were one. I think Nedra did social work in several states, though she was headquartered in ATlanta. I'm guessing probably AL, TN and NC. I think she stopped in the early Fifties when she took a teaching position in VA, but as I recall she may have been involved too in refugee work at that time.

    2. P. S., so ironic to have such a phallic building at a women's reform school!