This week for Friday Fright Night I am reviewing Ruth Sawtell Wallis’ debut novel, Too Many Bones. This title, along with her third novel, Blood from a Stone (1945), have been reprinted by Stark House Press. It is hot off the press, having only been released three days ago. Too Many Bones won ‘the annual $1000 Red Badge Mystery Prize from publisher Dodd Mead for the best first novel by a novice mystery writer,’ and I can well see why. With such a title and such a cover, I thought it was a very appropriate choice for this blogging meme. Expect night-time disappearances, waxworks and chilling discoveries in a museum outside of opening hours… Are you brave enough to read on?
‘When Kay Ellis is offered the job of assistant anthropologist at the Henry Proutman Museum, she is at first excited to have a fulltime, well-paying job in a new town. But things turn sour when she meets the museum’s owner, Zaydee Proutman, the ageing and self-centred widow of the museum’s founder. Zaydee has her sights set on Kay’s supervisor, Dr Gordon, as husband number two, and sees Kay as nothing more than competition. Even the director, Alpheus Harvey, seems to look at her askance – he had expected a K. Ellis, not a Kay Ellis. In fact, the only encouragement Kay receives is from Alice Barton, the museum’s librarian. So when Zaydee disappears one dark night, why does the sheriff think Kay has something to do with it?’
When perusing through my modest TBR pile I have to admit aside from the bold cover, it was the unusual setting which drew me in. Too Many Bones, is not only set in and around a provincial small-town museum in America, but the protagonist is a newly qualified female anthropologist who goes to help catalogue a collection of 600 skeletons. I must say this is my first anthropological mystery, and this setting is not a gimmick that is briefly mentioned and then forgotten; it is fused to the very core of the plot and is used at times in gruesome ways… What makes this setting so effective is that Ruth Sawtell Wallis was writing about what she knew as she was an anthropologist herself, and I imagine the gender discrimination Kay Ellis faces in the book, was something Wallis experienced herself. In the book Kay’s pay is reduced as her employer Zaydee feels that a female anthropologist is less deserving and in less need of the higher salary a male colleague would be entitled to. Similarly, according to Curtis Evans’ usual intelligent and interesting introduction, Wallis believed her university job in the 30s had been terminated because her husband was also employed at the same university and it was felt inappropriate for them to receive a dual income during the Depression. Her career then vaulted into government work for the remainder of the decade due to difficulties of getting work in her field at universities because of her marital status and gender. Curtis also points out that the museum setting was based on one Wallis had come across in Three Oaks in Michigan. It too had a semi-famous businessman, rich due to his production of corsets, who built a museum in his local town.
This is a suspense novel rather than a traditional detective novel. The opening lines evoke this style from the get-go:
‘Whenever I think of Hinchdale I think of death. Death brought me there – the death of six hundred men, women, and children – and I thought it was fun. Death sent me away – one death – and I may never laugh freely again.’
Moreover, on first entering the museum, Kay says that it was ‘dark and cold [… and that] I had a vague impression of a human form in its twilit distance, a feeling of being watched, but there was no sound or motion.’ Yet whilst this is a fair point to make it is a bit of also a misleading one. Mysteries centred around heroines in jeopardy attract quite a bit stigma and at their worst it is probably justified, yet for titles such as today’s by Wallis, such negative stereotypes do it an injustice.
To begin with I think Wallis provides the reader with an unusually structured mystery, which gives it a refreshing quality. It felt like you were reading something quite different. Firstly, we have the build up to our dead body and the disappearance of Zaydee. This takes 75 pages out of a 159 paged book. There is a risk of making the reader impatient by leaving it so late, yet I don’t think there is much danger of it happening here, so thoroughly does Wallis engross you in the life and growing tensions within the museum. Moreover, when we reach this point the circumstances we are presented with give us a lot of questions, as we don’t know what has happened to Zaydee and how the dead body we do have relates to her. Initially Kay is in the spotlight, raising the tension levels. These are then lowered once a police solution is arrived at. Yet we know it can’t be the right one. After this point the tension rises once more, and succeeds the previous levels attained, as Kay uncovers more and more about what might have occurred. But as her knowledge increases, so does her sense of personal danger, as her knowledge leaves her unsure of those she knows, especially Dr Gordon. She and the reader do not get the full story until the last few pages making this a very tense and fraught read, not least because Wallis does not conclude her story on a conventional note.
Nevertheless, at the start of the book, when tension levels are low, Wallis cleverly upends some of the more sinister scooby doo tropes we are familiar with in novels and films. When Kay first arrives in the town a train station worker says she won’t last long around here, before breaking off and not saying why. Normally there are lots of scary reasons why this might be so, but here the answer is quite bathetic: Zaydee the museum owner is not going to want a young female working closely with Dr Gordon. The entry of Zaydee into the text is beautifully timed and worked up to, as to begin with she is not referred to by name and instead neutral phrases such as ‘proper sources’ are used. She is a very suitable potential murder victim, with her domineering ways and the fact her husband’s will left her effectively as the sole trustee, with the power to fire or pension off staff.
A typical component of suspense fiction is the love interest, and Wallis’ book is no different. Yet what marks Wallis out from the rest is her wonderfully creative use of this trope. Never have I ever been so unsure whether a male love interest is a good or bad guy! When he and Kay first meet it is a classic girl meets boy moment, but Wallis frustrates it through Zaydee who has her claws into him. The book does not make him out to be ideal relationship material and a key reason we and Kay can’t trust him is because he is highly ambitious and prepared to do whatever it takes to keep his position at the museum. His career would be made if he remained the sole person studying the skeleton collection and he quite openly says he would be willing to make compromises when it comes to integrity. The reader’s mind begins whirring at the thought, yet I doubt they will cotton on to how he does so. I can’t mention anything about that, due to spoilers but we know he is iffy material when Zaydee fires Kay unfairly and John Gordon is demonstratively unresponsive. Another more senior worker quits in protest, yet John does not even speak out about it. He blows hot and cold even after the disappearance of Zaydee and ironically when he gets more committed it is at a point when Kay really doesn’t know if she can trust him. It is not nothing that Kay’s mind flits to the Christie and Frank Vosper play, Love from a Stranger. All I will say is don’t expect a conventional ending to this romance!
So far my review has been relatively free of grim and scary details and some readers may be wondering what is quite so frightening about the book. The annoying thing is that the answer to that query is dead in the middle of spoiler territory. It is one of those moments where all you can say is: ‘It’s so cool, but I can’t tell you!’ Helpful I know… Curtis Evans adeptly hints at it by saying that: ‘In its sometimes grisly clinical detail the novel might be said to have prefigured Patricia Cornwell’s Edgar Award winning landmark 1990 crime novel, Postmortem.’ The element which I cannot tell you about works so well, not because you don’t see it coming, as I think most readers can anticipate it, but because of the way it emerges into the text. The scene in which Kay’s uncovers this particular truth is powerfully rendered, set at the museum after hours. Why this book has not been made into a film, I do not know!
What else is there to like about the book, which I have not mentioned already? Well Kay is a very good narrator. She is not an emotionless robot, but neither is she a sentimental drip. Her comparison of studying bones with a present-day death is explored well, but not overdone. Wallis is also a dab hand when it comes to characterisation; the hallmark of which is the ability to convey the sense of person in a brief snapshot-like sentence or two. For instance, Sarah Hawks, the woman Kay lodges with, is described as having:
‘grayed red hair, plump hunched shoulders, and hips wrinkled over by a brownish housedress from the hem of which tapered shoe soles and runover heels – she looked like a rutabaga that has spent the winter in the root cellar. A little faded and wrinkled, but still round and good at the core.’
A statement Sarah certainly lives up to. I don’t think you need to look at my final rating to know this is a book I strongly recommend, and I am really excited to read the next book in the Stark House Press twofer, Blood from a Stone. So stay tuned!
Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)
See also: John at Pretty Sinister has also reviewed this title here.
Oh, and before I forget here are the results for the poll I ran last week on which skeleton cover was the best…
In first place was the Dutch translation of The Body in the Library by Agatha Christie. A very deserving cover, with its unforgettable artwork. Then there were two joint runners up in second place: The Mamo Murders by Juanita Sheridan, (a favourite of mine from the Rue Morgue Press) and Helen Reilly’s The Dead Can Tell. Mathematically pleasing there were then three titles sharing third place: Nicholas Blake’s The Beast Must Die, Rufus King’s Holiday Homicide and Mary Robert Rinehart’s The Red Lamp.