The Black House (1950) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

I am back with a little more from the Littles today and an interesting feature of The Black House, is that it is the first mystery the Australian sister writing duo wrote, from a male character’s point of view. They would later repeat the experiment in The Blackout (1951).

Synopsis

‘When Henry Debbon accepted (most reluctantly) the job of being bodyguard to his boss’s beautiful red-headed daughter, he never expected he’d end up being shot at (twice), or have his clothes confiscated at a hospital. He also wasn’t prepared for hosting most of the people from his office at the house (painted black) in upstate New York he recently inherited from his very eccentric aunt. And though he thoughtfully poured out an extra glass of sherry in his aunt’s memory, he was just as surprised as the rest of his “guests” when she (apparently) drank it. A little ghostly imbibing was the least of Henry’s worries. Those unwelcome guests also included a potential murderer–an escaped convict who seemingly will stop at nothing to avenge himself on Henry’s boss for refusing to represent him. Worse yet, a major snowstorm has isolated them all from any help.’

Overall Thoughts

Henry Debbon likes to party hard and then regret it in the morning when he has to get to work. He is presented as self-confident, but still has some insecurity with exchanging sarcasm with the lift operator. Described as such, he is perfect fodder for a mystery plot in which he is to be the much put-upon character, due to the demands by others. His day doesn’t get off to a great start when he realises he has arrived to work an hour early due to misreading his watch. He is a firm believer in not having to start the working day too early, so is irritated by his boss who habitually arrives ahead of his employees: ‘There must be something wrong with a boss who would do that, instead of wandering in elegantly an hour later and thus giving his employees a little leeway.’

However, Henry’s earlier start does mean he is around to see a strange man go into his boss’s office. Yet when his boss, Claude, enters himself he claims the man is not there. More mysterious circumstances are to follow when the office worker who never leaves the office for a coffee break has disappeared.

The motivations for the action at the beginning of the book, regarding Claude’s secret bodyguard assignment for Henry, put you in mind of a 1940s comedy movie. Claude is adamant that his stepdaughter, Diana, is not know why Henry is hanging around her, so naturally things become awkward quickly.

An interesting aspect of the mystery plot in this novel is that certain people’s actions are open to more than one interpretation and a point raised early on is whether Diana or Henry is the real target of the gunman.

The hospital setting is only utilised for one third of the book as the story then switches to the remote house in the country that Henry inherited from his aunt. It is unusual for the Littles to abandon the hospital setting so soon, as it is one they were fond of deploying and I would have expected them to hold on to it. But I think it was perhaps not practical for the type of direction they wanted to take the plot in.

Whilst the comedy romance between Diana and Henry is not as anaemic as the one I came across in The Black Smith (1950), it was still pretty feeble and underdone. Diana up until the country house setting is quite snooty and spoilt but not a particularly vibrant character. She comes out of her shell a bit after this point, but like her counterpart in The Black Smith, she is still a bit too much in the background. The barbed comments between Diana and Henry made them look more like squabbling siblings to me.

The blurb mentions that Henry has to entertain a number of people from work at his house in the country, but it rather gives the impression of a planned social event. This is far from the case as it is only Henry, Claude and Diana who turn up originally. The Littles shoehorn in a friend of Henry’s and two people from Henry’s work into the narrative later on, but I am not sure they really added to the story. The Littles are more comfortable working with a large cast of characters, but in this instance I think the story would have been stronger if they had stuck to the main three characters and the policeman. In particular I think it would have heightened the puzzle of the story, which when examined independent of the rest of the narrative is quite an interesting and intricate one for the authors.

Rating: 3.5/5

2 comments

    • Yes, there are quite a few writing duos in classic crime, although two sisters is more unusual. The only other example I can think of is another Australian duo who wrote under the name of Margot Neville.
      If you want to try the Littles work the titles which I enjoyed the most are: The Black Gloves, The Black Shrouds, The Black Express, The Black Stocking, The Black Coat and The Black Iris.

      Like

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