Friday, May 6, 2016
FFB/FIRST BOOKS: Mare's Nest - Carlyn Coffin
CHARACTERS: Sally Nash is a sort of early female example of "Jeff" Jeffries, Jimmy Stewart's wheelchair bound photographer from Rear Window. Coffin's character in Mare's Nest (1941) pre-dates Woolrich's narrator whose original story "It Had to be Murder" appeared in Dime Detective magazine in February 1942. The similarities of the leg injured narrator are remarkable even to the inclusion of a masseur and physical therapist just as Jeff has the wisecracking Thelma Ritter as Stella, the insurance company nurse/masseuse. Also notable is Coffin's use of an eavesdropping bit that is very reminiscent of Lucille Fletcher's classic radio play (and later movie) "Sorry, Wrong Number." In the opening chapter Sally overhears a muffled conversation below her bedroom window. At this point she is bedridden (though later her cast is removed and she is able to use a wheelchair and then finally crutches) and can't move at all to see who is below. She can only rely on her ears yet is barely able to make out the second voice though the first is clearly a man's. Distinctly she hears the second voice say, "Someday someone will kill you!
Because of the plot device of a recuperating narrator invalid the story is often limited to Sally's bedroom and the adjoining library but it never feels claustrophobic. On occasion Sally is lifted into her wheelchair and makes it down to the first floor as in the first few chapters where she joins the rest of the house guests for a dinner party being held by her brother Martin Hood, a wealthy playboy and world traveler, who intends on making an announcement about his life and estate. But the majority of the story takes place upstairs in the two rooms where Sally is being watched over and treated. The library that adjoins her bedroom becomes of great interest later on when certain incriminating documents are being searched for and the contents of Martin's safe need to be explored.
The guests for the weekend include Martin's explorer buddy the foppish Richard Fenniton; Katherine Wells, Martin's fiancee, Peggy Embrie, one of Martin's old flames who thinks she is going to marry Martin; the "ugly faced" Dr. Edmunds the younger of Sally's two physicians, Miss Baer, a nurse with dreams of working on a ship hopefully one piloted by Richard. The servants include Miranda, a stern and extremely articulate African housekeeper; Hebe, a black maid who seems to be used for comic effect but soon proves to be as formidable as the housekeeper.
Rounding out the cast is the mysterious Dr. Wagner who enters the story when Martin dies from a sudden illness but whose death turns out to be an insidious form of poisoning that nearly goes undetected. The actual method is once again utterly bizarre (lots of these lately) and interestingly also incorporates the horse motifs that recur throughout the novel. Wagner is a forensic pathologist but as the story progresses he takes on a more sinister role and reveals that he must have ties to either the CIA or FBI though it is never stated which. That the story is set in Maryland makes the presence of federal government agents all the more likely. Sally never knows who among the many servants and workmen visiting "Mare's Nest" may actually be working for Dr. Wagner and this adds another layer of paranoia to this very well told story.
As an example of the HIBK suspense thriller Mare's Nest is original in concept, literate in style without ever being self-consciously "prosey", and incorporates some brilliant scenes of detection and misdirection. If the culprit is not altogether surprising towards the end that is no real criticism against Coffin. She delivers a first novel that is so accomplished, well plotted and filled with interestingly complex and often unexpectedly fresh characters that the book might well be the work of a veteran.
The murder method is alluded to in an epigraph where Coffin tells us she learned of its existence in a book by African American writer Zora Neale Hurston. I immediately thought, "A voodoo murder!" since the Hurston book Coffin read was Tell My Horse, about life in Haiti and Jamaica. Was I ever surprised when Dr. Wagner describes exactly how Martin was killed. Made my skin crawl. This extremely unusual means of murder and its geographic origins prove to be one of the most important clues in identifying the killer who must have a knowledge of the country and its customs.
Coffin went on to write a handful of detective stories, one of which I know was published in the short-lived Rex Stout's Mystery Monthly (May 1947) and one more novel Dogwatch (1944) which I will be reviewing in the future. Towards the end of her career she also wrote children's books including Noel and His Friends (1986) about a "clever rabbit".