Cold Bed in the Clay (1947) by Ruth Sawtell Wallis

This is the second book in Eric Lund series, the first of which I reviewed earlier this week. The pair have been reprinted together by the Stark House Press. In the introduction to this reprint, Curtis Evans comments on how the writer’s own work/life experiences in Iowa provided likely inspiration for this university town set tale. Eric Lund is in the area as he is doing some talks but goes on to become unofficially involved in the case that follows. Nancy Barr Mavity wrote of Cold Bed in the Clay that ‘such things shouldn’t happen to nice people […] Miss Wallis makes you believe that they can – and do.’

Synopsis

‘Audrey Adriance and her husband Don move to the university town where he has been recently employed. They are welcomed into the neighborhood by next-door Professor Dexter and his wife Rachel, and are soon introduced to the rest of the group: Clifford Cox and his formidable wife, Beulah; the Grays, Thornton and Edna, and their daughter, Margaret; and the Dexters’ guest, Detective Eric Lund. At a party that night, Audrey discovers an undercurrent of tension, heightened by her recognition of the unsavory Mr. Cox. Or could it just be that her immediate attraction to Thornton has set her on edge? Secrets are implied here. And perhaps the biggest secret is her own and Don’s—a secret that soon leads to sudden death.’

Overall Thoughts

From the opening pages you can tell that Ruth Sawtell Wallis is writing about a setting that she knows well. The story begins at a commencement ceremony, in which students receive their degrees. I was interested to read this comment on the demographic of university students: ‘From mortar-boards cocked at impertinent angles, bright thin tassels of a dozen hues twisted and swung over masses of hair, more or less blond, more or less curled, covering the necks of the girls. In June 1945, less than one in ten of these graduating seniors was male.’ It makes sense but it is not something I had thought about before.

The ceremony also provides Wallis with the opportunity to introduce us to the key characters who will become suspects, victims and possibly even killers. But who has which role? The characters which arouse the most suspicious in the mind of the reader are Audrey and Don Adriance and the writer is good at engaging our curiosity in this couple. It will take quite a few chapters until we discover the secret that lies in their past.

Romance is never achieved without encountering obstacles in the fictional worlds Wallis devises, yet I think this mystery shows relationships at their most fractured and problematic. There are no rose-tinted spectacles. The first third of the tale is focused on building up the psychological layers of the group and the way the newcomers are interacted with. Don and Audrey’s marriage is shown as existing upon a knife’s edge. Suffice to say Don quickly comes across as a major pain in the bottom, but it takes some time to dig beneath his difficult behaviours. Interestingly though, I didn’t find Audrey automatically engendered sympathy. Despite the attention to detail in the characterisation, I actually found for the first time with this author that I didn’t have a character to really latch on to and I felt quite detached from them all. The number of characters was not huge, yet the reading experience made it seem like there were. I wondered if this was a case of an author writing about what know/using a setting they’re familiar with, having an adverse effect on the story. It is not something I have considered before but I thought perhaps it could be a problem here.

The first third has you waiting for something to happen, and I think Wallis leaves the reader hanging a little too long before death strikes. However, when it does it is surprising and continues to do so throughout the rest of the narrative. Observing the reactions to this initial death was interesting, but I felt the investigation into it and other matters was less successful. The suspects hide too well behind their respectable veneers, to the extent that the solution has to be delivered by Eric Lund. I also felt it a shame that the werewolf clue did not lead anywhere, (and yes, I am going to be annoying and not say anymore!).

So all in all I have to admit this is my least favourite read by Ruth Sawtell Wallis. It just didn’t quite work for me. If you want to see her at her best, then I would recommend Too Many Bones (1943) and No Bones About It (1944).

Rating: 3.5/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)

2 comments

  1. I liked this one, of course, but thought the start (mostly the first chapter) was a bit slow. The mystery turned out to be interesting, I thought, as was the pretty acid depiction of academia in a midwestern town.

    The other one in the twofer has rather a Gothic feel, I think.

    Liked by 1 person

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