Friday, May 6, 2016

FFB/FIRST BOOKS: Mare's Nest - Carlyn Coffin

THE STORY: After suffering a disabling injury in Puerto Rico that leaves her left leg crushed from a terrible riding accident Salina "Sally" Nash is sent back the US to recuperate at her brother's horse farm ironically dubbed "Mare's Nest." While there she undergoes a rigorous treatment plan to regain the use of her leg under the care of two physicians, one nurse and a physical therapist. She also becomes the inadvertent witness to a blackmailer's plot and assists one of the doctors who has ambiguous ties the federal government in the solution of several bizarre murders.

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.

INNOVATIONS: The entire novel is modeled after the Had I But Known/Woman in Peril formula as created by Mary Roberts Rinehart. In fact, it was one of four "Honorable Mention" novels that was awarded a publication contract in the second annual Mary Roberts Rinehart Mystery Writing Contest sponsored by her husband's publishing company Farrar & Rinehart. Coffin's novel was obviously the best of the four runners-up because unlike the previous years Honorable Mentions hers was the only book published on its own. The other three also-rans in 1941 had their books published in an omnibus blandly titled Three Prize Murders advertised on the rear panel of the Mare's Nest dust jacket. Of those three writers only Edith Howie went on to write more mystery books.

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.

THE AUTHOR: I thought I was so clever when I tried to prove that Carlyn Coffin was a pseudonym for the wife of noted English Professor and head of the English Department at Columbia University for over 20 years Harrison Steeves, who also coincidentally wrote a mystery novel (Goodnight, Sheriff) in 1941. The book is dedicated to "Harrison of whom I am very fond in all moods, including the subjunctive" and Coffin's bio on the rear DJ flap mentions that she the wife of a college professor. Aha! Must be a joke hinting that her husband is a English professor. But no, turns out that is her real name and her husband was Harrison Coffin, head of the humanities division of Union College in Schenectady, NY during the 40s and 50s. This was proved in a quick Google search to discover the closest college to Schenectady after I learned that both Coffins were living there according to the 1940 census. (Thanks Steve Lewis and Allen Hubin!) This led me to finding a 1986 newspaper interview with Coffin where she talked about her husband and her writing. Seems so obvious, right? Why not just look for Harrison Coffin to start with? Let's just say I like to make things difficult for myself.

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".

EASY TO FIND?  Uh... What's the usual answer to that question, gang? That's right. Very few copies floating out there. Published only in a US hardcover Mare's Nest can join the pantheon housing the hundreds of rather scarce mystery novels I write about. I found only six copies for sale online. Libraries might turn up more copies. Mare's Nest was reprinted once but not as a paperback book. It appeared in the pulp digest Two Complete Detective Books (Spring 1942). The book really is good enough for a reissue. Why it wasn't reprinted in the 1940s or 1950s by a leading paperback publisher remains a mystery greater than those in its pages.


  1. Sounds like a winner, John. Now this is one I want to read. But thanks for letting me know that it's hard to find. GAK! Love the cover too. There are some used book stores around this area, can't wait to try them with list in hand.

  2. Another fascinating read that I will probably only get to enjoy by proxy - but that's OK, the John F Norris shelf at chez Angelini is wildly over-stocked as it is!

  3. I must wait until our used bookstore reopens in July to search for Mare's Nest. Your methodical search for Harrison Coffin (knowing intuitively Google often punishes first efforts, just for kicks) is most impressive.

  4. Sounds very interesting, John, but also out of reach for the time being. That is OK, I have too many books to read anyway. Maybe someday I will run into a copy.