No Bones About It (1944) by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

For my first review of the new year, I decided to return to an author I encountered back in 2020 and really enjoyed. Wallis’ debut Too Many Bones (1943), is a definite must read. I was curious about the title of today’s read as whilst it makes a nod to Wallis’ background in anthropology, the plot itself does not involve that theme, unlike the writer’s debut and her third title Blood from a Stone (1945). However, the fact it does not include this theme is not a deficit as such, as instead it shows how well the author can operate outside of her familiar occupational milieu. This story is in fact the first of three books which feature Lieutenant Eric Lund.

Synopsis

‘The Peckhams and the Wests keep their loves and hates strictly in the family. Mattie Peckham is the keeper of the secrets, and takes great delight in tormenting everyone with them. Her brother Virgil West and his wife Charlotte live next door with their daughter Louise and her husband, Ralph Ogden. Ralph’s secret involves the suicide of his first wife twelve years before. Then there is Duncan West, just returned from years spent living in Europe. His secret is hidden in a youthful letter he wrote Mattie years ago. Could it have anything to do with the mysterious blonde who moves in next door? When second cousin Janet comes to visit, she finds herself included in Mattie’s cruel sport—but for Mattie Peckham, that sport is about to end.’

Overall Thoughts

Curtis Evans, who writes the introduction accompanying the Stark House Press’ recent reprinting of this title, has warm praise for this book asserting that it is ‘one of the finest examples of genteel dysfunctional family murder cases on the fictional criminal record, following in the path of S. S. Van Dine’s bestselling landmark, Philo Vance detective novel The Greene Murder Case (1928) – though No Bones About It is far more compellingly characterised…’ It was a relief to read that final statement, as my one experience of Van Dine’s work did not endear me too it! Equally having now read Wallis’ tale I can agree that the character psychology is top notch.

This is a mystery written in the suspense vein, yet Wallis’ approach eschews the suspense formula popularised by Mary Roberts Rinehart. Wallis provides a female lead, yet the book itself is not written in the first person and despite encountering more than one dead body, Janet never falls into the camp of heroine who endlessly falls into jeopardy. That is not the focus of the piece and moments of foreshadowing are minimal, but effectively deployed: ‘Not in a decade had so many members of the West family sat down together. These seven would never dine together again.’ Suspense fiction is a term which some readers find synonymous with the phrase weak plotting, but again I would say this is not the case here, as the author presents a well-plotted but unconventional puzzle. It is surprising what clues Wallis puts into place which you just don’t realise are there until they are pointed out much later.

Part of this cluing is set up with a prelude which is occurs on Christmas Eve, 12 years before the rest of the plot begins. It is a matter of three pages but displays the writer’s prowess in showing and not telling important pieces of information. A complex and fractured family structure is presented to us, and the reader has the challenge of seeing how it fits with the rest of the story in 1932. This is a challenge I think many readers will be able to accomplish, which is a nice boon and still leaves you scratching your head as to who has committed the murders in the present day.

One of the things I loved about the opening of the book is how the first chapter contrasts with the prelude in the tone and scene that it sets up. The first chapter zooms in on a particular house, Mattie Peckham’s, and stakes the claim of it being ‘the most horrible house in town.’ The chapter goes on to state that:

‘It would perhaps not be too much to say that it was the most horrible house in the United States of America, at least in so perfect a state of preservation. In shabby sections of little towns you can sometimes find the tottering remains of the monstrosities of 1876, but on the Peckham house the paint was shiny new […] On closer view the house was worse. There was a mad quality about it. Under second-story gables, doors opened out into space. The jigsaw patterns were insane. It smelled of owls in the attic and suicides in the cellar. It was not a house you would to meet on a lonely road at midnight. It was hag-ridden. On this sunny afternoon the door opened the hag stepped out.’

I felt that was a killer concluding line as the build-up involving the house is immediately paralleled with the woman who has come outside. Buildings are often used in fiction as a way of reflecting the personalities of their inhabitants and I wondered if we were supposed to read the text like this. The narrative goes on to suggest that Mattie Peckham also has a monstrous quality, in a shiny new way as opposed to a scruffy one: ‘Mrs Mattie Peckham did not really look like a walking corpse. It was not that her face was so old, but that her teeth and her hair were so new. Too white, too black, and far too abundant.’  

The start of the novel also sees three people returning to the area, many of whom have not been there for a decade at least. It is interesting to see the area through their eyes, as they note the things that have changed, but we also see who and what causes them to feel anxious about having returned. Mattie Peckham is a wonderfully awful matriarch whose unpleasantness is depicted with care. There is a chilling scene where Janet is manipulated into not only staying at Mattie’s home when she doesn’t want to, but also paying $20 a week for the privilege. Yet Mattie also seems to be able to leave her victims powerless to rebut her attacks. Ruth Sawtell Wallis is good at portraying the effect of Mattie’s death upon her family. Her death should be liberating but it is fascinating to see how it divides people.

Eric Lund also makes for an interesting police detective, and I enjoyed how the writer upends hard-boiled tough guy stereotypes with Lund’s scarring around his mouth. At one point in the story, he explains to Janet how he got them:

‘I couldn’t have got [the scars] in any less heroic fashion […] I was going to school one morning when I was about nine or ten and the wind on our beloved Minnesota prairie blew me into a barbed wire fence. It was twenty below, so I froze there, and when another kid pulled me loose, I left part of my face behind.’

I was also interested in how the author sets Lund up as a rival love interest for Janet. In a Patricia Wentworth mystery, you know who the young lady in the novel is going to marry, regardless of what obstacles are in their way, their love will survive. Miss Silver will make sure of it. But in a Ruth Sawtell Wallis novel, I would say all bets are off. No automatic certainty is provided, which maintained an additional tension within the piece.

So another good read by Wallis and I look forward to tackling Cold Bed in the Clay (1947) next.

Rating: 4.25/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)

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