The Cellar at No. 5 (1954) by Shelley Smith

The San Francisco Chronicle described today’s read as an ‘inverted mystery […] of dreadful credibility’ and as such the narrative gives more page space to the build up of the crisis moment. This is reflected in the blurb my edition came with:

‘Mrs Rampage lived by herself in a large house cluttered with her precious objects d’art. Her daughter lived half a world away and her only other relative, a niece, had no time for the old lady. So Mrs Rampage was persuaded, much against her will, to take a companion into her home, a poor but very respectable widow named Mrs Roach. Mrs Rampage was a little eccentric and Mrs Roach had her own ideas of how things should be done, but the two got along very together – for a while.’

However, I do not think this blurb does justice to the two central female characters who live out their surnames quite well. Mrs Rampage is spoilt and insensitive, uninterested in the needs of others, excepting her daughter who lives in Malaya. Mrs Roach on the surface is a forbearing and patient woman, whose hard work has left her with little to no financial security. Yet as the book progresses this saintly demeanour is revealed to be hiding a very self-centred criminous plot, which deftly removes Mrs Rampage’s credibility and social lifelines. But when it comes to the crunch which of them will win out?

Overall Thoughts

Anthony Boucher, writing for the New York Times, declared that Smith’s book is ‘often subtle and interesting’ and that it deserved ‘high marks as an understated study in intimate domestic evil.’ I think these comments sum up the story well, not least because the book predominantly takes place inside Mrs Rampage’s house. The reader can vicariously experience how cooped up the two must feel and Mrs Roach’s insidious behaviour appears all the more villainous as a consequence, as Mrs Rampage feels thoroughly trapped.

This novel put me a little in mind of Celia Fremlin’s work, as both writers knew how to write about women well, in particular older women, and the precarious states they can find themselves in. Both of Smith’s female protagonists, despite the differences in their finances, are vulnerable for one reason or another, and you could argue that it is this which drives Mrs Roach to do what she does.

Judith Flander in The Invention of Murder (2011) comments on Count Fosco in Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (1859). She suggests that:

‘Fosco, a fat, amiable, chuckling monster, represents a new, more psychologically reflective type of villainy, one in which a superficially respectable – a likeable – man, a man you would invite into your home turns out to have a completely separate, secret personality. He bursts on the world as a new type of fictional malefactor: the man who smiles and smiles and is a villain.’

I was reminded of this passage when reflecting upon Smith’s novel, as Mrs Roach felt like a literary descendent of Count Fosco. Whilst for Fosco it is his amiableness and jovial nature which wins people over, for Mrs Roach I think it is her demeanour of sensibleness and her patience, which convinces people to believe in her and she is also able to evoke a great deal of pity. Yet as the story develops we notice there is another side to her, in the way there is another side to Fosco. It starts off quite small, just with a diary entry which omits a number of details about a day, but very quickly it begins to snowball and the reader realises what is really going on. The deadliness of Mrs Roach’s social veneer is also mentioned in the text when Smith writes that:

‘She maintained always a gently smiling decorum, a beautiful convent-bred latency. This decorous calm might unnerve Mrs Rampage in time to come but at present it merely fascinated her.’

Naturally the reader knows what is going on before Mrs Rampage does and when she begins to get an inkling, it soon becomes too late to do anything, or so it seems. Even one of Mrs Roach’s closest friends has an uncomfortable realisation that she didn’t know her as well as she thought she did. The more power Mrs Roach gains, or perceives she has gained, the more her other side is shown. The cat and mouse situation between the two is well-executed, which is something Sergeant Cuff picks up on in their assessment for The Saturday Review: ‘Excellent interplay of character and taut handling lend this job high distinction.’

It was a smart move by Smith to make neither of her protagonists wholly likeable or completely awful and if anything their behaviour only degenerates as they continue to reside together in the same house. By her characters not occupying polar extremes, sympathy becomes a much more complex emotion to dish out and if you think about it, it is interesting to see within one’s self who you side with, if you had to pick one. For me, despite knowing of Mrs Roach’s difficult finances, I didn’t want her scheme to succeed. That is not because I particularly like Mrs Rampage. I imagine she would be a terrible person to live with or to have as a friend, but for some reason I seem to expect better behaviour from someone like Mrs Roach, whilst Mrs Rampage’s selfishness seems almost ingrained into her personality, so my expectations for her capacity to act in a kind way are lower.  

The New York Tribune wrote of this tale that it was ‘one of Miss Smith’s most telling tales, maneuvered with a sort of inexorable malice while altering its mood from light amusement to horror and then to a fiercely poignant finale.’ The changing ‘mood’ of the narrative is something I agree with and is another strength of the piece as the things which once amused suddenly begin to horrify. The revealing of the crisis moment in the text is effectively done, with some nice delaying action and I feel overall Smith problematises the idea of the final victor. That said I think I would have liked a denouement with a stronger kick, however the one it has is still fitting.

I have another title by Smith in my TBR pile, so expect another review of her work, at some point in the future.

Rating: 4.25/5

See also: John at Pretty Sinister has also reviewed this title here.

5 comments

  1. Thank you for the review, I wasn’t sure about this one when reading the blurb but your suggestion of the Fosco-ness of Mrs Roach has me intrigued (I mean who doesn’t love Fosco?). I recently read Smith’s An Afternoon to Kill and The Ballad of the Running Man and both were very good. She does ‘write women’, the male characters tend to be cyphers circling the woman at her novels’ centres. So far I haven’t been wowed but I am keen to try more of hers (I have Background for Murder on the TBR insanely high tower) as she’s unusual, not traditional crime novels not traditional thrillers and both I’ve read are so different as to have almost been written by different authors. Hope the goats and chickens are keeping well.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks. Yes the goats and chickens are doing well, though not very impressed by the weather today. An Afternoon to Kill is my favourite by Smith so far. I’ve not thought about her characterisation of men, but in my next read I will try and remember to look out for it.

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  2. Glad this one got more of a rave than the last Smith review I read here. One of my favorite “badass biddy” crime novels this is my second favorite of Smith’s books. I still think This Is the House is her finest mystery novel. Also, Come and Be Killed is the better of her “badass biddy” crime novels. Have you read that one?

    What’s the next Smith book you have lined up? Is it An Afternoon to Kill? That seems to be her “masterpiece” in the opinion of many others, including Martin Edwards. But I saw through her ruse in that book very early on.

    Have you read The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss? It’s in the same mood and theme – elderly women playing cat and mouse with each other. It’s almost an American version of Smith’s Come and Be Killed, as a matter fo fact. Very similar plot. The antagonist in that one — a murderously selfish and avaricious woman — outdoes both Roach and Rampage in terms of cruelty and narcissism.

    Liked by 2 people

    • I reviewed An Afternoon to Kill a while ago on the blog and I did enjoy it a lot. It was what convinced me to give Smith another go. My next Smith book is Background to Murder. I’ve not read The Forbidden Garden, but it has been on my TBB list when you recommended it on a previous occasion.

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