Skeleton Key (1943) by Lenore Glen Offord

Source: Review Copy (Felony and Mayhem)

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Flashlight

Skeleton Key

By and large most of the crime novels I read fit into the categories of detective or thriller novels. Very few of them can be classed as suspense novels and I was intrigued by the term Sarah Weinman applies to Lenore Glen Offord’s novel Skeleton Key (1943), calling it a ‘domestic suspense’ novel. A novel of this type though, seems hard to pin down, as although such novels involve female detecting characters, Weinman in the introduction to my copy suggests that Offord’s novel is neither pure hardboiled nor cosy detective fiction and that it avoids the Had I But Known School. Consequently within this review I plan to look at this angle of the book and how far it meets my own expectations of a suspense novel. Additionally I am also going to touch on the use of the WW2 setting, the detecting role Georgina Wyeth (the main female character) has in the book and compare it to the other male detecting characters.

Skeleton Key begins with a misunderstanding. Georgina Wyeth, widow, single mother and magazine subscription saleswoman ends up with a typing job after she is wrongfully assumed to be the secretary Professor Paev (one of the residents of Grettry Road, Berkeley) was waiting for. Professor Paev is everything you expect a scientist to be in fiction, supposedly ‘mad,’ paranoid about being spied on and jokes to his neighbours that he is making a death ray. Suspense begins to edge its way into the novel when Georgina sees freshly dug earth in the Professor’s garden- grave shaped – but she gets a grip and tells herself that people don’t kill and bury people in their own gardens.

At an air raid meeting, run by Mr Hollister the warden, Georgina gets a chance to meet the other members of Grettry Road. There is Mrs and Mr Gillespie, who is devoted to his wife and works nights; there is also Ralph who is Mrs Gillespie’s brother whose nerves are bad and who openly quarrels with Hollister; there are the Devlins, with Mr Devlin often working away from home and Mrs Devlin babying her 17 year old son Ricky, much to his annoyance and chagrin, who would much rather be getting involved in the local air raid warden work. Claris Frey is also there with her father, Peter who is stone death and there is also Todd McKinnon, who is a writer of detective stories for pulp magazines.

Hollister is not a popular member of the street, whose warden duties put most people on edge. No experienced detective fiction reader is therefore surprised when one night Hollister dies after being run over by Ricky’s jeep. It occurs during an air raid, but Georgina who unexpectedly had to work late alone at the professor’s is convinced his death wasn’t accidently. She brings her suspicions to Inspector Nelsing, although she is not keen to take up any subsequent role in the investigation. Her plan to remain aloof, however, collapses under the weight of gossip and rumour which floods Grettry Road, with many residents treating her like a confidante. In particular she spends a lot of talking with Todd, who unlike her is very keen to do some amateur sleuthing and solve the case. His thoughts on the different types of killers there are was particularly interesting. One of the key questions surrounding the case was whether it was a premeditated or spur of the moment killing. The way the professor was drawn from his home that night through a bogus call suggests planning, but who could have known an air raid was going to occur?

Perhaps an even bigger question to answer is what was Hollister doing there, especially in light of his former profession and the fact he possessed a number of skeleton keys. Suspicion falls on and oscillates around all of the residents, with such changes happening several times within one police interview. As expected there are a number of people who have secrets to hide and solid alibis are hard to come by. Where has Ralph gone? What is the professor working on that is so secret? A strand of romance also runs through the story but is not too pervasive or gushy. Within keeping of the suspense genre, Georgina’s life is put in danger many times with a dramatic finale at the end of the story, leaving her wondering if she can trust those closest to her. The killer at the end is a good choice and deliberate narrative obscuration delays the finding out of the killer. That and the fact Georgina tells Inspector Nelsing she is not interested in finding out the killer’s name. The same can’t be said for the reader of course…

Gender and Comparing Detecting Roles

Georgina is a very reluctant detective who sees herself first and foremost as a mother, much to Inspector Nelsing’s annoyance when it means she does not want to continue being involved in the investigation in case it leads to her death, leaving her daughter an orphan. This is not a bad intention of course and perhaps shows up the more reckless side of detecting which may forego or dismiss family responsibilities. Initially I did wonder if Georgina was going to take on a Miss Marple like role as she likens Grettry Road to a village:

‘There was a little more tolerance, not quite so minute a knowledge of other people’s affairs; but it had most of the other traditional elements, the self-elected grande dame, the eccentrics, the restless youngsters, the village siren.’

However, Georgina has no interest in this role. I also found Georgina to be a quite contradictory and complex character, which Offord surprisingly manages to hold together. This is indicated early on in a description of her:

‘One glance at Georgina Wyeth left you with no more than a vaguely pleasant impression. A second proved unexpectedly rewarding; those who troubled to take it saw her eyes and thought “lonely”; her mouth, and thought “sweet”… the set and tilt of the jaw spoke of stubbornness and humour, and more than hinted at a peppery though short-lived temper.’

Her complicated character is also evidenced in her interactions with both Inspector Nelsing and Todd, who do the majority of the detective work, although she does bring information to their attention. For example, when she first meets Inspector Nelsing Georgina over apologises to him, thinking her information lacks value. Yet on the other hand she is also capable of refusing to be bullied into helping him out. But again her reasoning behind her reluctance to get involved is that she is a coward, to which Nelsing confusingly says most women are and that she herself is not so helpless as she makes herself out to be. A line which interested me was that Georgina says she was ‘geared for a war, not for a murder’ and I think it intriguing that a crisis on your doorstep however small is far more disconcerting and disturbing than a much larger but further away problem.

Despite her language coming across as quite hardboiled at times, Georgina also puts her own abilities down with Todd, such as when he says to her, ‘Nothing like the lay mind – a sharp mind – to pull up a fiction plotter on his wildest flights,’ to which she responds, ‘I feel as sharp as a dishmop…’ Moreover, he also assumes a superior position by placing her in the Watson role. I think the most contradictory part of the novel in terms of gender roles is when Georgina rebukes Inspector Nelsing for his stereotyped views on women:

‘According to you, women are all cowards and liars, and spiteful and senseless! I suppose a policeman does get the seamy side, and not much else, but you – you ought to know better.’

Yet she follows this rebuttal by regretting fighting with him and then asking him to walk her to her door because it is dark, which somewhat undermines her challenge to traditional gender roles and opens up the male heroic role for Inspector Nelsing. In conjunction with this there are a number of moments in the novel where Georgina requires rescuing, which aligns her with the traditional literary role for heroines.

I think overall I was expecting a more independent and less stereotypical heroine, especially when she comes across as quite capable and tough at the start of the novel. Moreover, throughout the story she never seeks information and anyone looking for a proactive female sleuth will be disappointed.

Role of WW2 Setting

I think the WW2 background was definitely one of the strengths of this book and is brought to our attention very early on in the story with the suggestion that the war was affecting magazine subscription sales as it gave people a sense of ‘impermanence’. It also seems to bring out the issue of racism, which has a minor mention at the start of the novel, with the African American Mrs Blake, the professor’s housekeeper, choosing to segregate herself at the warden’s meeting and also suggesting that the residents no longer have servants because they were Japanese, although she calls them ‘Japs’. The assumption is I suppose is that they were sacked or placed in internment camps. The air raid is also a great situation for a murder as a blackout prevents fully reliable witnesses and adds to the suspense and drama. I think it was also enjoyable to see minor characters involved in the tracking of planes due to their bumbling and amateurish approach.

Suspense Novel Expectations

At the beginning of the story I felt the suspense element was a little forced as the quietness of the street isn’t really that eerie or sinister. Moreover, I find myself disagreeing with Weinman in her suggestion that this ‘domestic suspense’ novel is not like the Had I But Known School, as there some parallels between Georgina and the HIBK camp’s own female leads. In particular Georgina does have a lot of moments of remembering important details about the murder later on in the story during the investigation, perhaps making her own school of Had I But Realised/Interpreted Sooner. Additionally I’m not sure if the narrative was tense or suspenseful enough or perhaps it was not tense or suspenseful in the way I was expecting, as when reading the book it didn’t feel as suspenseful as Ethel Lina White excellent story Some Must Watch (1933), (which I can tell you from personal experience should not be read late at night, home alone in a house in the middle of nowhere on a stormy night).

Overall Thoughts

Despite my expectations of the central female character and my ideas of suspense not being fulfilled completely, I did actually enjoy this story a lot, though maybe not for the right reasons. Offord is very good at telling a story, with the narrative being engaging and her characters and dialogue drawing you in, especially in regards to the detecting trio. I also think the central mystery was a strong one and within the WW2 setting worked really well, with themes such as the suspicious scientist not being overdone.

Rating: 4.25/5

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  1. This was another great review and I definitely want to read this book.

    You may want to read Mary Collins if you haven’t already. She wrote six books, set in the 1940s. The books were not a series, but featured six different women who act as amateur sleuths. An interesting aspect of the series is that the books follow the trajectory of WW2; the characters suffer from melancholy and miss their husbands who are serving in the war. The last book, Dog Eat Dog, has a character who lost her husband in the war and has a little boy. All the books are set in California.
    Best Wishes,

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes this is definitely a book worth reading not just for its general story telling and mystery but I think it does have a lot to say subtly about women. Mary Collins does ring a bell though I haven’t read any of her works. Would you say her female amateur sleuths are a bit more proactive than Georgina? i.e. they actually want to find out who did it.


  2. I just picked this one up (in a Dell Mapback version) last fall. The draw for me is the academic slant with the Professor. When I sit down with it, I’ll be looking at how that works into the novel. I appreciated your look at Georgina’s character and the suspense aspect.

    Liked by 1 person

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