Eleanor Lee Waddell (1905-1975) was like Laverne Rice, (who I reviewed a couple of weeks ago), in that she only wrote one mystery novel. She was the youngest of five children and her father was a Presbyterian minister. Eleanor grew up to be a teacher and secretary, and during WW2 her war work was filing data. Since the 1920s, when her family moved there, Eleanor spent most of her life in California. Her time in education was no doubt put to good use in creating the setting of her book.
‘Refreshingly different, this unusual tale of murder and intrigue takes place at a private school built on a desolate mountain ridge of the California sea coast. With the sudden disappearance of Alrik Lind, attractive young headmaster, Drake’s Anchorage is thrown into a state of turmoil. What was the mystery behind the murder of Miss Breckenridge, Lind’s eccentric secretary? Why was the school’s reputation in dire jeopardy? Who was the ex-GI that was found lurking on the school grounds? What was at the base of the vicious whispering campaign against Lind? And why was the beautiful and wealthy widow, Mrs. Maxwell II, so anxious to find out the real truth?’
Whilst some stories deliver their murders within a matter of pages, today’s read begins with a different kind of mystery. The reader, like Mrs Maxwell II and Miss Blossom, student parent and teacher respectively, is are given hints that something is not right at the all-boy’s school Drake Anchorage. It then transpires that Alrik Lind, the headteacher, has disappeared under something of a cloud, but we don’t know why. The teachers and school staff, who are not dealing with the situation well, talk around the issue and are more concerned with what needs to be done to save the school from scandal. The students, more briefly, seem to be trying to track down which fellow students know more than they are letting on. The student viewpoint is not gone into much and instead their, at times, aggressive actions add to the mysterious situation going on Clouds of trouble are brewing over Drake’s Anchorage and as the novel unfolds the situation becomes ever more nightmarish, as normally nice people start acting out, making it harder to pull out the genuinely malevolent characters at work.
As I progressed through each chapter I was waiting for more information to drop, to pinpoint exactly what is going on and why Lind left. However, no direct information is given until three quarters of the way through the book. Keeping the reader in the dark on certain things can maintain suspense, but I felt Waddell deploys this strategy too much. I felt like I knew too little, so when peculiar and violent events started happening, I didn’t have the information required to puzzle them out. Moreover, due to the lack of revealing, at the earlier stages, I felt the book took a while to get moving.
However, one of the things Waddell does well in the story is to provide a nuanced depiction of how the different school staff respond to Lind’s departure and whether they believe in the accusation levelled against him. In the main the staff seem rather self-interested and are more interested in increasing their own power and improving their own positions. Miss Breckenridge is the only one who overtly sticks up for Lind, and she is not long for this world… The type of school this is set up as, (with a focus on physical activities), was quite interesting and at the start of the novel we find out about the difficult or troubled students that Lind helped.
Once the action picks up and a local Sheriff arrives on the scene I hoped the detection element would supersede the earlier suspense focus. However, again in order to delay the solution being revealed, Waddell overuses the technique of having characters prevented from sharing information or have them decide that sharing would not be good idea. I felt this led to some ridiculous moments in the text. On the whole the story felt gagged by certain characters who prevented others from speaking or held their own tongues. As soon as this gag is released then the solution is arrived at. I find that type of mystery development less satisfying, especially when there is little cluing given to the reader prior to the ending. That said, there is one crucial scene which I completely misread. I poked holes at it, for being rather inaccurate, yet its very inaccuracies should have told me that something else was going on. If I had clocked that at the time, I might have had a better idea concerning the who.
Obfuscation is important in the creation of a strong mystery, but I think this story has reminded me of the need for writers to use the right techniques for the right amount of time. Too much mystery can be as bad as too little. Waddell has some nice ideas in this book and the indirect approach at the start works well for a while, but unfortunately the final result was not as good as I hoped it would be.
Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)