One technique which I have found quite helpful for finding new reads/authors is to search online for specific book imprints and in the case of Amazon seeing what other titles are suggested. Whilst this does not bode well for my TBR pile(s), it has meant I came across today’s read, which was reprinted as part of the Pandora Women Crime Writers series; a series I definitely plan to explore further.
Hilda Lawrence (1906 – 1976), was an American mystery writer, who worked for Macmillan Publishers, in their clipping department, as well for reading to the blind. She didn’t write many mystery novels, as apart from today’s read, she only wrote three others: A Time to Die (1945), Death of a Doll (1947) and The Pavilion (1948). In 1949 a collection of novellas/short stories was published under the title of Duet of Death.
An unusual aspect of this story is that it is in the domestic suspense subgenre, yet it has a male protagonist, Mark East. He is employed by a Joseph Stoneman, to work for him as a secretary. Stoneman is staying with some friends called the Moreys, who are living in a remote country home on a mountainside near Crestwood. It is a cold and snowy evening when Mark arrives. Yet from the very start things are not what they seem. Why does Mark not want to be spotted getting off the train? Why does he conceal one of his suitcases in a linen closet? And things are no less suspicious with his employer and friends. Why does Stoneman seem so anxious, yet so unwilling to reveal his real reasons for summoning East and the truth behind his injuries? What is actually wrong with the seemingly highly strung and depressed Laura Morey? (A character who evokes echoes of Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White.) The servants too are incredibly uneasy, with one of them planning to quit the next morning. There is equally something odd going on with Laura’s children. From the first night of East’s stay death strikes and continues to strike as the days mount and the householders decrease in number, though definitely grow in feeling terrorised and afraid. I am trying to be circumspect in my detailing of the plot, as being a suspense novel the plot is not entirely linear, with many threads to follow. Equally I think it is a story that you shouldn’t know lots about before reading.
The strength of Lawrence’s writing style hits you the moment you read the first page; the wintry setting, the small town locale is captured immediately. Her drawing of characters and their manner of doing things quickly pleases. Her ability to create and maintain suspense and a tense atmosphere is also evident in the opening pages and is kept up pretty well throughout the tale. She uses two characters from outside the Stoneman household effectively to reveal information about that household’s inmates. Miss Beulah Pond and Bess Petty are brilliant elderly spinster characters and I think Lawrence has fun using them later on in the plot to do some minor amateur sleuthing. Beluah in particular has a sharp mind and tongue and the nosy nature of the pair of them is summed up well in the phrase, ‘benevolent hawks.’
Whilst it could be said that Lawrence is a literary descendent of Ethel Lina White, I think Lawrence uses gothic overtones much less frequently. Moreover, Lawrence’s decision to have a male protagonist also produces a radically different effect on the story. I think this is because when female protagonists are used in domestic suspense novels they invariably come across as HIBK heroines or at very least have a strong tendency to walk into danger every other chapter. This is not the case in Lawrence’s book though. The tension and the way it is depicted and experienced by the characters feels different. In a way it feels much less emotional and personal. This might be due to the story being told in the third person and I am not surprised that other readers have commented on a similarity to the tension John Dickson Carr creates in some of his books. Although Mark is no heroine in distress, I wouldn’t say he is a stereotypical he-man hero either. This is like much of the rest of the characterisation, where everyone is not quite what they seem, with the violent events creating a change in many of them. Stoneman for instance seems to become less vulnerable, whilst Laura is incredibly hard to pin down. Is she good or bad? Sane or mad? The seeming lack of a motive for the crimes adds to the unnerving atmosphere of the story. The solution when it is finally unfurled is clever and surprisingly complex. Though readers should bear in mind that this is a suspense novel, so the solution is not one I think readers can wholly figure out for themselves, as information is at times withheld near the end of the story via telephone conversations for instance. However I wouldn’t let that put you off giving Lawrence’s work a go, as this story was a thrilling read and I’ll definitely be giving her work another try soon (hopefully). It is a shame Lawrence is not as well-known as she should be, though thankfully some reprints from the 80s means that getting copies of her work is relatively easy.
Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item (Silver Card): Spooky House/Mansion