Friday, November 15, 2019

FFB: Boo Hoo: Not So Scary Houses of Horror - Carolyn Wells & Michael Crombie

Today's Friday's Forgotten Book post is on two books that belong more to Alternative Mystery category and are forgotten with good reason. Both published in the early 1930s each book shares some conventions already becoming mystery novel cliches in this early period. Horror House is an example of Carolyn Wells at her most turgid and unimaginative self pulling out every hoary cliche -- or as she would put it "hackneyed device" -- and then some. Michael Crombie (aka James Ronald, one of my favorite unsung and under-appreciated writers of the Golden Age) does the same in The House of Horror but at least he does it with tongue firmly planted in cheek. Both writers are known for their offbeat sense of humor: Wells was a punster and wordplay enthusiast, while Ronald was a master of witty banter and bitchy comebacks. But while both writers show their skill at comic scenes and dialogue neither book is a very good detective novel.

Let's dispense with Well's horror first. Horror House (1931) is her 51st mystery novel! It comes in her mid career, with 50 detective novels and close to that in juvenile books already under her belt. She was a veteran by 1931 and would write another 31 books before she called it quits in 1942. One would expect some snappy modernity to her writing by this point. But no, like so many of her 30s and 40s novels this one is still redolent of that bygone era when she was only a fledgling mystery writer. Her indefatigable detective Fleming Stone was growing ever grayer -- meaning colorless rather than aging -- and tiresome displaying his "transcendental" gifts at amateur sleuthing. The convoluted and utterly preposterous story is one of Wells' many attempts to emulate her more successful contemporaries. On the surface Horror House most resembles The Greene Murder Case(1928) in that it is yet another of those family decimation plots. A diabolical murderer is knocking off the members of a single household, one by one, using as many methods as he can get his hands on. Not satisfied with bullets (Wells has never used a gun in her books because she said she knew nothing about them and couldn't be bothered to learn) Wells' killer in Horror House dispatches his victims by stabbing, poisoning, automobile sabotage, and strangling.

15 century gauntlet
(courtesy: Metropolitan Museum of Art website)
The strangulation is particularly baroque as it is carried out with gauntlets taken from a suit of armor, affectionately dubbed Max by the Bailey family. But the victim had also partaken of alcoholic punch spiked with knockout drops in order that the strangling could be efficiently carried out. Clue #1 - murderer is not too strong and therefore either a woman or a feeble old person theorizes our genius Fleming Stone. If you know Wells then of those choices there is only one possibility and the murderer's identity is a dead giveaway. Nevertheless, I pressed on hoping that the book would elicit some cheap thrills, some more weird murders or an odd example of her histrionic melodrama. Instead I got cheap laughs, often at Carolyn Wells' expense.

Luckily not a secret passage in sight in this one, but the absence of that frequently used hackneyed device is made up for in annoyance factor by her choice of vocabulary and her treatment of one of the female characters. Poor Agnes, a housemaid of "exquisite beauty" prone to sneaking into Mrs. Bailey's boudoir to "loll in the luxurious furnishings" and dip into her mistress' cosmetics, is dismissed as an airhead. Referred to as "dumbbell" and having "an unattractive personality" she is relegated to the dumpster of red herrings, yet another example of Wells' overt class prejudice and snobbishness. The servants in Wells' books are never given any signs of cleverness, intellect or vivaciousness. Agnes may be beautiful but her beauty is of the Old Testament 'sinful' type -- to tempt men and be symbolic of the foolishness of vanity.

If you aren't irritated by this supercilious worldview then the strange word choices ought to set your eyes a-rolling. Some examples? Wells prefers inutile to 'useless', persiflage rather than 'mocking banter' pops up twice, a hostile witness at an inquest is heard "murmuring anathema all around". Instead of simply saying that Owen Bailey snorted she writes "well mannered though he was, [Owen] gave utterance to a sound that is colloquially known as a snort." All of those examples occur on a single page! I grew impatient with her florid syntax and antiquated vocabulary. Clearly this is her equally antiquated sense of humor giving rise as we approach the climax of the book, but I just wanted her to get the point as I reached a body count of four victims and occurrence of a second inquest in a nearly 300 page novel.

Her final affront is the constant drawing parallels between detective fiction and "real life." As if the book we are reading is supposed to be some kind of extremely hip and modern 1930s crime novel reflective of the violent world of gangster ridden America. The plot and crimes are as ludicrously fantastic as the fiction she is constantly alluding to.

It was a relief that Wells had not resorted to filling her Horror House with secret passages as she usually does. But the same cannot be said of Michael Crombie. The House of Horror (1935) is a veritable labyrinth of secret passages, underground tunnels, priest holes and hidden rooms. There are so many passageways in Hunter's Keep, Wilmer Basingstoke's house, I was half expecting someone to press on a wooden panel and, rather than sending a gigantic portrait swinging open on its well oiled, hidden hinge and stepping into a shadowy corridor between the walls, to be spontaneously disintegrated and sent into another dimension. For not only are there people creeping about in these hidden corridors there are multiple disappearances of four separate characters, including the bloody corpse of Wilmer Basingstoke himself.

Coincidentally, this book also talks about about detective fiction, but there is an express purpose for it. Basingstoke is a crime writer. He began with true crime, Capote style true crime that uses the conventions of fictional narrative rather than reportage. He then branched out into murder mysteries. We get to read two full chapters of one of his novels over the course of The House of Horror. Peter Wootton, our lead detective -- in an effort to explain the relationship of the victim to the prime suspect, an escaped criminal known as "the Basher" -- pulls down a book from the Basingstoke's crammed library shelves and reads aloud from it to his Watson. Here was a chance for James Ronald (aka "Crombie") to show off his gift for narrative shifting but the tone and style of Basingstoke's book within the book is no different than the book we are reading about the characters at Hunter's Keep. Written with more blood and thunder and colloquial language the book-within-the-book serves no purpose at all. Those two chapters could easily have been replaced with a short dialogue scene. Wooton could have explained in a few sentences how Basingstoke wrote of his adventures in amateur sleuthing by turning them into novels and changing the names of those involved.

The whole of The House of Horror is lacking in any genuine thrills or scares. The title is hyberbolic and obviously meant to attract people like me with a taste for cheap lurid entertainment. The ploy of the title worked, but I can't say I'm at all satisfied with what I got. I'm sure some will find what occurs in its pages to be wildly entertaining. I only kept on reading for a few of the characters.

Philip Lavery and Irma Dering are two perfect embodiments of wealthy layabouts posing as sufferers of ersatz weltschmerz, bored with everyone except each other. Irma is a delight of brusque opinions and catty dismissals, a welcome contrast to the virginal goodness of Lucy Halperin. We're probably meant to hate Irma as much as Lucy does for her superior posturing and cruel barbs, but I thought Irma Dering was one of the best characters in the book. She crumbles under pressure when the body count gets too high and she has a wonderfully frank scene with Lucy where she admits to her fraudulent persona and wishes she could be more real like Lucy. These were the moments that made the book worth sticking with. However, The House of Horror overall is presented like a genuine parody of the country house murder mystery. In terms of plot it is the most stereotypical story I've read from Ronald who usually displays a more original and ingenious imagination in his crime fiction.

Despite the caustic humor and witty banter as a mystery novel this House of Horror is more House of Ho-hum. Ultimately, the various mysteries are self-defeating, the book one long shaggy dog story. Those of you who have read The Curse of the Bronze Lamp by Carter Dickson may know what I mean by that. Its abundance of cliches and "hackneyed devices", the ridiculous amount of secret passages and all the rest of its pseudo-Gothic trappings tip off the reader to the anticlimactic revelation in the final chapter. The House of Horrors collapses like a house of cards and the time spent reading of its many "baffling" disappearances and gruesomely bloody deaths proves to have been a waste, the story as flimsy as the pasteboard playing cards metaphorically lying at our feet.

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