Thursday, June 20, 2013

Cobweb House - Elizabeth Hughes Holloway

A decrepit house on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi, an oppressive household overseen by the hawk-like Captain Jasper Yancy, a cook who practices voodoo, and a mysterious death should make up the ingredients for an exciting bloodcurdler of a mystery. I was all set for something along the lines of Mary Roberts Rinehart in a Southern Gothic setting.  But Elizabeth Hughes Holloway's first and only attempt at a detective novel is a largely unimpressive mixed bag.  Part of the problem can rest on the shoulders of her insipid heroine Anna Sue.

A batch of chatty letters written by Anna Sue to her boyfriend Jim serve as our introduction to the cast of characters made up of her grandfather Captain Yancy; two aunts, Aurelia and Maude; Veechie, the cook; Mr. Webley, the family lawyer; and a mysterious man on the beach. We never really understand why her grandfather invited her to visit or why she has decided to stay for several days since she seems to dislike the house intensely and is more than worried about the relationship between her two submissive aunts and the domineering Captain. Anna Sue is kept up at night by the typical noises and strange going s on in the creepy mansion and does the requisite spying on family members, targetting Veechie as her enemy and the wicked villainess of the piece.  So dark is the portrait of Veechie seen only through Anne Sue's prejudiced eyes that I was convinced she would be redeemed in the end as a genuinely decent and good woman. Anna Sue, on the other hand, grows increasingly childish as the story progresses.

Amid all the fear and dread and oppression Captain Yancy dies in his bedroom. A sudden death, all agree, yet most likely natural due to his seventy years and failing health. But suspicious circumstances once again witnessed by Anna Sue lead her overly developed imagination to the conclusion that murder was done. She writes to Jim to come to the house and get to the bottom of the mysterious events. Jim arrives and learns of Aunt Aurelia's sleepwalking incident, the weird voodoo rite Veechie performed in the kitchen, and the disappearance of $200 in cash and over $15,000 in securities from the captain's study.  Criminal behavior and murder seem more and more likely.

As an amateur sleuth Jim does yeoman work though it's offset by long interruptions and distractions that take the form of several lover's tiffs and arguments with his soon-to-be wife. Anna Sue has a tantrum every twenty pages or so forcing Jim to pause in his detective work to placate and soothe her. She provides most of the clues for Jim but due to her intense dislike of the servant Veechie, who admittedly is painted as a spooky menacing presence, she never sees things clearly. Jim tells her she'd never make a good detective and Anna Sue responds, "I'd never want to be one." Holloway stops short of having her stick out her tongue and saying "So there" but the reader can read between the lines.

Cobweb House (1931) includes an introductory note from the author giving credit to Magic Island by William Seabrook as her source for all voodoo related information. With that bibliographical tidbit under her belt I expected a lot more voodoo in the story. But there is really only one scene and it is partially witnessed by Anna Sue. A cross made of burned matchsticks is found and elicits terrified reactions from Veechie and a few locals for it is a death omen. It seems to be the only proof that a voodoo practitioner is either in the house or visited recently. One barely described ritual in a dimly lit kitchen and a burned cross are all Holloway picked up from Seabrook's utterly intriguing book? Sad.

Chemical analysis done on a medicine eye dropper is the only real evidence Jim has to prove a case of murder. The scene at a college professor's chemistry lab, however, is ineptly handled. Holloway either doesn't understand or never bothered to research how a chemist would find poison in a distillate. He ends making a dilution of a trace of dried liquid found in the eyedropper and injects that into a guinea pig. When the animal dies the professor is satisfied the liquid was poison. Never mind that the victim supposedly took the substance orally in a glass of medicine. Doesn't sound like an experienced professor of chemistry to me. More like mad scientist nonsense lifted from a Universal Studios monster movie. A supposedly scientific scene like this makes me question if Holloway ever read Seabrook's book for her other research. No wonder the voodoo scenes are so sketchy.

In spite of all these disappointments and an overall lack of verisimilitude I stuck with the book to the final page. If the revelation of the murderer is not all that surprising (after all, there are only five suspects) at least the unmasking is done with flourish. Veechie transforms from voodoo spook into Captain Yancy's Nemesis achieving a satisfying, appropriately melodramatic finale when she pulls off a trick that requires no voodoo magic. Jim takes credit for solving the case, but it is clear that Veechie did all the work.

Cobweb House is sometimes easily found in its very attractive, surreally illustrated, Dell mapback edition. I found a copy for $6 at the Printer's Row Book Fair in Chicago a few weeks ago. Almost thirty copies are currently available on-line at prices ranging from $15 for a collectible copy to $2 for a battered reader. The hardcover edition is rather scarce.  I have yet to see a first edition of this book with a DJ, but courtesy of the huge collection of DJ facsimiles at Mark Terry's website I am displaying it here.

3 comments:

  1. I first spotted this post for the Dell mapback cover. Then I saw the mention of the Mississippi Gulf coast, which could be appealing because I spent some summer vacations in my youth in the Biloxi/Gulfport area. (Because our only vacations ever were there when my father had his two week "training" for Air National Guard in that area.) Your review doesn't entice me to read the book... although I might give it a try anyway. But I would get it just for the mapback cover anyway. Thanks for the interesting post.

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  2. John, you had me at "A decrepit house on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi.." I simply adore decrepit houses on the gulf coast of anywhere - a setting always ripe for murder. I especially love a decrepit house full of shifty characters. This one really sounds like the author might have intended a 'woman in peril' story and then somehow changed her mind?

    Heroines of the time were always kind of moody and prone to hysterics. It went with the territory.

    LOVE the cover!! Naturally I pinned it to my Vintage Mystery Pinterest board. :)

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    1. I liked it but only because of the ending. Anna Sue is a whiney baby, Yvette. I can take the "woman in peril" type if the heroine isn't a complete ninny. You may tire of Anna Sue as I did. But I did perservere to the final page. I had to. I was hoping for more Voodoo and spook stuff, but it's a bit disappointing in that department.

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