In keeping with a recent goal of mine, today’s review is for a book which has
endured enjoyed being on my TBR pile for some time, around about a year. This is my first experience of this author although I have been aware of them for a while. There have been two recent-ish reprints for this author from Berkeley (which is an imprint of Penguin Random House). Aside from this one, the other is entitled The Chuckling Fingers (1941).
However, Mabel Seeley garnered quite a lot of praise during her writing career, including for this title:
‘Miss Seeley is to be welcomed as a very promising author of detective fiction’
The Times Literary Supplement
‘Miss Seeley, with a good story to tell, ingenious plot and counter-plot, characters diverse and clearly seen, lifts her book into the first class.’
‘The Crime Club have discovered a genius in Mabel Seeley. The author’s style is unusual: she tells her story in natural everyday language, but she puts it ‘right over’ – and what a climax!’
Manchester Evening News
‘So packed with weird thrills that it grips from first page to last … Should take its place as one of the best thrillers of the season.’
‘First-rate whodunit, with enough of romance to give it a Mary Roberts Rinehart appeal… This is a newcomer in the field – a good ‘un.’
Kirkus Review (from 1938)
‘Beautifully told by a writer who is expert at finding horror in commonplace settings. Recommended for highest honours.’
The New Yorker
‘Q-and-A technique and large use of newspaper clips effective […] Adroit, suspenseful’
The Saturday Review (1938)
‘Blood-curdling affair, drenched with old evil and grisly incidents. Sleuthing able, but it’s the background and people that make it hum […] Especially good’
The Saturday Review (from 1953 when the novel was reissued)
I found it interesting how the reviews present the novel in different lights. Some see it as ‘blood-curdling’ and as ‘one of the best thrillers’, suggesting a story which is a relative of the gothic or sensation novel. Whilst others focus on it being ‘detective fiction’ or describe it as a ‘first-rate whodunit’. The key is perhaps one reviewer identifying it as being part of the Mary Roberts Rinehart school of mystery writing, yet I would not say Seeley doggedly follows the Rinehart mould and I think she does mix things up a bit. The selection of quotes also show how readers can see completely opposing things in a book, as on the one hand we have one reviewer commenting on the novel being ‘packed with weird thrills’, whereas on the other hand another commended the author for being an ‘expert at finding horror in commonplace settings.’
‘After losing her copywriting job, young Gwynne Dacres seeks a place to live when she stumbles upon Mrs. Garr’s old boarding house. Despite the gruff landlady and an assortment of shifty tenants, Gwynne rents a room for herself. She spends her first few nights at 593 Trent Street tensely awake, the house creaking and groaning as if listening to everything that happens behind its closed doors. A chain of chilling events leads to the gruesome discovery of a mutilated body in the basement kitchen, dead of unknown circumstances. Was it an accident or murder? Under the red-black brick façade of the old house on Trent Street, Gwynne uncovers a myriad of secrets, blackmail, corruption, and clues of a wicked past. As she closes in on the truth, the cold, pale hands of death reach for Gwynne in the night…’
For a mystery which has at least one foot in the Had-I-But-Known camp, I was surprised to find that it commenced with a three-page floor plan and a dramatic personae list too. These are quite old school detective fiction components (which is not a criticism) and therefore a little more unusual to find in a HIBK or suspense driven mystery.
What is more expected is the choice of first-person narration from Gwynne Dacres, who is looking back on the murderous events which took place at Mrs Garr’s boarding house. We get a pleasing flourish of foreshadowing in the opening pages:
‘Since agreeing, I have made seventeen entirely separate and different beginnings. I have begun with the cat’s swift sneak and hunch under the book case of that dark hall. I have begun with my first sight of Hodge Kistler chinning himself on the bar. I have begun with those terrifying hands reaching for my throat. I have begun with the opening of a door that led to an unimaginable hell. But with any of those I have to stop too often for explanations.’
I felt this was suitably intriguing and moreover, I didn’t feel the author overdid it. The reader gets little doses here and there, but we are not subjected to endless extended passages.
Gwynne is not an inexperienced young heroine. She is a divorcee who must work for her living and one who at the start of the story has just lost her job due to the incompetence of her boss. Consequently, she is in a financially precarious position and the way this is all portrayed I felt we see a maturing of the heroine in jeopardy character type. If I had to think of a parallel author, Lenore Glen Offord springs to mind. Financial insecurity is something which hounds most of the characters, and poverty is a driving force behind many actions in the book. I think this is one of the ways this story is bestowed a grittier edge, diverging from a more middle-class brand of the HIBK mystery. There are a few other ways it is interestingly gritty, but I will leave you to find them out. A non-interesting gritty component I will flag up is that there are a couple of paragraphs you should probably avoid, if animal cruelty is upsetting. They do not overly impinge upon the plot so jumping over those passages should not particularly hinder your reading experience. Although this is another example of how vintage crime fiction does not automatically equate to cosy crime!
One trait of the HIBK novel which is found in full force in The Listening House, is the high frequency of the female lead being attacked, as Gwynne faces poison, beatings, and strangulation in the story. Fortunately she has a remarkably robust head! Her ability to beat the odds is touched upon by the investigating police officer, Lieutenant Strom, who says to her: “I don’t see how you’ve kept alive this long. As far as I can see, you know everything that everyone wants kept secret. As a finder-outer, Mrs Dacres, you’re the tops. As a putter-togetherer, Mrs Dacres, you are bottoms.”
Readers who enjoy a good puzzle in their mysteries can sometimes shy away from trying any detective fiction which is labelled as being of the HIBK variety. But reflecting upon the book I think there is a puzzle-y strand to it. For example, whilst we get lines that seem to act as strong signposts as to what is going on, such as this…
‘I used to think, afterward, that I’d never depend on my judgement of people again. because my first impression of Mrs Garr, as she stood there blocking her open door, was pleasant. It was her hair.’
…the narrative is also structured to set you up to think about characters in a certain way, or it directs your attention down a particular path and the reader must consider whether these pointers are helpful or misleading. Furthermore, the backstories to various key characters are not revealed at the last minute or in the denouement with the solution, but they are disclosed much earlier in the novel. I don’t think the reader will feel cheated by this story and information such as alibis and motives are available to the reader to ponder over.
Despite the central death not occurring for a while, this is a mystery which has plenty of action to keep the reader engaged, (such as a surprising early death in chapter 2) and it is action which is relevant to the central narrative. A good stock of incidences, small and big, ensure the first two-thirds are intriguing for the reader. I think there will definitely be one aspect of the mystery which 99.9% of readers will anticipate before the characters do – yet whilst this could normally be a bit irritating, the author actually uses this to good effect and the delay in the characters discovering something adds an additional layer of obfuscation. When it comes to amateur sleuthing, Gwynne is one of the primary contributors, even if she takes a little while to get going. She is aided by Hodge Kistler, although she cannot immediately trust him completely, as circumstances initially seem to implicate him in the central crime. He offers up a love interest for Gwynne, but it is by no means certain how things will pan out there.
As the reviewers I quoted above suggest, Seeley does not stint us on atmospherics and from early in the book once Gwynne has moved into the boarding house, she has a sense that her every move is being listened to. I felt this specificity of being listened to, rather than being watched in general, added a different form of sinisterness. There is a special kind of eeriness to silence.
Considering the book as a whole I think it is too long. It could have done with being cut down as there was a slowing down of pace and a loss of energy in the final third. Nevertheless, I enjoyed how the ending upends certain expectations and I definitely think I would read another book by this author.