Death of an Intruder (1953) by Nedra Tyre

Nedra Tyre was a new-to-me author, when a copy of two of her stories, arrived in the post. The book in question is a twofer by Stark House Press and alongside today’s read, the reprint also includes Twice So Fair (1971). Curtis Evans writes the introduction to the re-issue, and I very much enjoyed learning more about Tyre’s life. She was a social worker and her first publication reflected this, as it was a series of monologues based on her experiences, published under the title Red Wine First (1947). For some it was a bit too gritty, but in a 1954 newspaper interview, Tyre commented on how being a social worker was the ‘background for murder’ that ‘was just what I needed.’ Tyre only wrote 6 novels but wrote many more short stories for publications such as Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine and Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine.

Synopsis

‘Miss Allison has been taking care of everyone else all her life. After the death of her aunt, it is time for her to take care of herself. So she buys a nice little house, fixes it up just the way she wants it, and settles down to her cozy, single life. Then there is a knock at the door. The woman on the doorstep seems fairly ordinary—just like any other middle-aged woman, just like herself, in fact—but after introducing herself as Miss Withers, the woman walks right in. And spends the night. And the next. In fact, nothing Miss Allison says makes the least impression on Miss Withers. And nothing she can do will budge her. Miss Withers is here to stay, taking over Miss Allison’s life one room at a time. And that’s when Miss Allison decides that her only solution is murder.’

Overall Thoughts

Being fond of a good inverted mystery, I thought this story had an intriguing premise, making you think what would you do if someone showed up at your house one night and refused to leave? (Answer: Basically, anything but what Miss Allison does!)

Curtis’ introduction helpfully explores this niche sector of the crime fiction world, looking at examples from the world of film as well:

‘Like Kind Lady, the classic 1935 suspense film starring Basil Rathbone in full villainous form that was based upon Horace Walpole’s short story “The Silver Mask” (both of which works are referenced in Nedra’s novel), Death of an Intruder is a sort of genteel home invasion story, but here there is a feminine despoiler at work. the novel, subtitled A Tale of Horror in Three Parts, is a major (albeit largely forgotten) example of the “psycho-biddy” subgenre of suspense fiction, where, in its most classic form, two isolated middle-aged or elderly women find themselves claustrophobically locked in a battle of wills, seemingly unto to the death, for control over a house and/or estate. Other notable examples of this subgenre which followed Death of an Intruder into print are: Shelley Smith’s The Party at No.5 (1954), Henry Farrell’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960), Ursula Curtiss’ The Forbidden Garden (1962) and Elizabeth Fenwick’s Goodbye, Aunt Elva (1968).’

It’s a setup which is made for intense psychological conflict, and I was interested to see what direction Tyre would take her plot in. Part of that direction can be gleaned in Curtis’ further comments that:

‘Critics have condemned the term “psycho-biddy” for carrying misogynistic and ageist connotations and, at the least, it seems a frivolous term as applied to Nedra Tyre’s brilliant little novel, which in any event preceded the formal recognition of the subgenre. While Tyre herself with her tale’s subtitle termed it a horror story, what she obviously had in mind was classic supernatural literature and Gothic fiction. Gothics have been called, tongue in cheek, stories about women who get houses, but this adage indeed sums up the plot of Death of an Intruder.’

Rather than starting with Miss Withers arrival, the narrative begins shortly before the murder is due to take place and I love the opening line: ‘Miss Allison looked across the dining-table at Miss Withers, whom she was to murder at eight forty-five that night, and said: “Won’t you have some salt?”’ One of the features of this story that I enjoyed throughout the piece was the contradiction between the natural personality of Miss Allison: demure, ladylike, gentle, forbearing and the violent act she is planning to do. A key reason for my enjoyment was the character’s own awareness of this clash:

‘They ate silently; each concentrated on chasing recalcitrant peas around and across her plate. Miss Allison thought any small talk inappropriate to the occasion; one didn’t chat about the weather with someone shortly to be murdered by one’s own hand.’

And this self-consciousness is not without some humour:

‘Miss Allison departed in a flutter of gaucherie, putting her left glove on her right hand. She was so gentle, so proper, so completely a lady in its true sense, that it did not seem polite to take leave of someone going on a journey without some word of bon voyage, and yet she could not be so hypocritical as to wish Miss Withers a good time when she was to waylay and kill her. For a moment she hovered at the front door and said good-by, remembering that good-by was a contraction of God be with you, and she could wish Miss Withers that most fervently.’

While waiting for the time to act, Miss Allison switches to going over in her mind why she is justified in her course of action, listing the things that occurred all because of the arrival of Miss Withers.

Now it can’t just be me thinking that Miss Withers would not have stayed the first night if the house had been mine. The question of why Miss Allison didn’t phone the police from the get-go, is surely one that would pop up in anyone’s mind. Yet I think Tyre is good at presenting a set of circumstances where sheer force of personality on one side can override the doormat personality of another person. You have to buy into Miss Allison’s passivity for the piece to work and the author does provide a plausible backstory for it. This is useful as within days of Miss Withers “moving in” she is already completely redecorating rooms.

This is a story of pathos as when Miss Allison finally builds up a head of steam, she finds courses of action such as calling the police in or asking a Citizen’s Advice type bureau, are no longer possible or particularly helpful. It is easy when reading this book to just go “Oh well I would never be stupid enough to get into such a situation”, but as I was reading it did occur to me that we do still come across newspaper headlines which reveal the awful predicaments people can still get into, within this area. I think the best way of understanding the relationship between the two women, in this story, is that Miss Withers, like a paralysing snake or spider bite, rapidly erodes the susceptible Miss Allison’s personal agency. This is asseverated in the narrative itself when Miss Allison considers that her unwelcome guest had ‘another vampire characteristic’, namely ‘that gradual wearing away of strength, that gradual encroachment of power over another person.’

Nevertheless, Nedra Tyre does complicate the picture a bit, as arguably Miss Allison is securely trapped into a terrible set of circumstances, but some of the bricks which wall her in, are of her own making. I think this is particularly the case when it comes to the loss of a friend. Her friend is put off from speaking to her again, but once Miss Allison is made aware of this, there is nothing stopping her from going round ad patching things up, other than herself. Apathy is perhaps what replaces Miss Allison’s personal agency and autonomy. One consequence of all of this is that the issue of sympathy is more complex, less black and white.

One thing that surprised me, was the story’s brief interlude extolling detective fiction, a genre Miss Allison uses as a means of escapism. A lot of mystery writers are mentioned, and not just big names: Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, Eric Ambler, Josephine Tey, Ellery Queen, Michael Innes, Dashiell Hammett, Elizabeth Daly, Raymond Chandler, John Dickson Carr, Ngaio Marsh, Richard Hull, Edmund Crispin, Joseph Shearing, Edgar Lustgarten, Helen Eustis and Doris Miles Disney. However, the mystery’s biggest champion of detective fiction can be found in a bookseller, who only appears in one scene:

“You’ll find many people are snobbish about murder stories,” Mrs Martin said, “And more than half of the people who read them make apologies. They say they read them because it’s an interesting way to kill time or because their eyesight is too poor to concentrate on heavier stuff or because takes their minds off of their troubles or the world’s troubles. Even book review sections are snobbish toward them; murder reviews are shunted to the back, crowded on one page. And some of the best writers of murders treat them as illegitimate children. Look at Graham Greene. He’s written some of the best and yet he calls them entertainments. The Confidential Agent is extraordinary; far finer than his later so-called serious novels, but he describes it as an entertainment, not a novel. You’d think writers would be pretty humble and proud instead of apologetic to follow in the path discovered by Poe.”

This seller then goes on to express their own personal preferences when it comes to the genre, and I wondered whether these views matched those of the author:

“Each addict usually has a very circumscribed taste. As for me, I cannot abide the cute couples who solve murders together, the husband and wife team; I loathe love of any kind in a murder story, it’s got no business there, to my mind; I detest the hardboiled private eye; the pretty girl who takes a job in a large isolated mansion; anything to do with locked rooms or alibis where there are exactly two minutes when a crime could have been committed and all that elaborate falderal to establish just who had two minutes to spare. I think the greatest prejudice you will find is against the short detective story. And that’s a pity. Because the most precious gems in the field are short stories.”

Another theory I had was that maybe there was a degree of parody involved in this segment too.

Given the lack of power Miss Allison has or thinks she has, she differs considerably to those murderous protagonists we find in the inverted mysteries of Francis Iles and Richard Hull. Selfishness and arrogance tend to motivate their actions, which creates a certain dynamism. You get a certain enjoyment when everything blows up in their face. However, Miss Allison is too downtrodden a figure to follow this path. Her actions spring from desperation, yet her passivity put me more in mind of Lina McLaidlaw in Iles’ Before the Fact (1932), the prospective victim, not killer. A consequence of these differences is that Tyre’s novel is rather bleak and whilst the denouement fits the characters, it is a bit depressing and deflating. This mystery is ideal for those who enjoy exploring psychological state of characters under unusual/high pressure situations.

Rating: 4/5

Source: Review Copy (Stark House Press)

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