Wednesday, March 30, 2022

FIRST BOOKS: The Seven Sisters - Jean Lilly

Mr. Spencer, a gemologist, visits newlywed Nancy and Stanley Kent at the famed Prentice mansion. He informs them that he is doing research on the renowned Prentice Dowry Chain, an elaborate jeweled necklace made up of seven star sapphires known as the Seven Sisters. Much to Mr. Spencer’s dismay Nancy, Mrs. Prentice’s granddaughter, has never heard of the Prentice Dowry Chain and knows nothing about its existence among the many valuables in the house. Stanley, however, a clever young man if there ever was one, leads Spencer to a portrait of one of the Prentice ancestors. It’s Nancy’s great grandmother who is wearing an elaborate necklace and Spencer stands in awe of the painting sighing almost inaudibly, “The Seven Sisters!” Spencer allows the family to try and locate the necklace and he promises to return at a later date hopefully to examine the jewels in person. Thus begins a strange and macabre adventure involving buried secrets, stolen jewels, and murder.

I was utterly unprepared for what awaited me in the pages of The Seven Sisters (1928), the first mystery novel of Jean Lilly. The rambling narrative meanders through Stanley and Nancy’s courtship, an overview of Prentice genealogy, the setting up of the house, the relegation of the dozens of ancestral portraits that covers the walls, etc. etc. and so forth. This meandering all seemed to be going nowhere for the first 75 pages. Finally when Spencer shows up and delivers his two page monologue on the mineral composition of gemstones, the phenomenon of asterism, the difference between faceted gem cutting and the en cabochon method I started to see this would be yet another mystery novel about a missing item of jewelry and the crimes that follow in the wake of the jewels’ recovery. Little did I know that the story would take a bizarre detour into the land of pulpish gore and macabre thrills.

A star saphhire displaying
the asterism effect
Nancy’s grandmother Penelope, the only occupant in the Prentice home other than the handful of servants, refuses to talk about the Seven Sisters. A few days after Spencer showed up she dies of fright when a different strange man appears and confronts her and her gardener/handyman about the Prentice Dowry Chain. Just before Penelope dies she utters a fragmented message: “Under……” Stephen takes the message to be a literal clue to the necklace’s hiding place, most likely beneath one of the oak trees that line the property. He spends one night digging and to his shock (and the reader’s) he uncovers some skeletal remains. Buried with the bones he finds an engraved pocket watch. Only a capital R is legible while the other two letters in the monogram have been worn away.

Increasingly the story becomes like Harry Stephen Keeler webwork concoction. An apt analogy because this is a book from E. P. Dutton, publisher of Keeler’s books from 1927 through 1942. Along with disinterred skulls and skeletons and the engraved pocket watch we get anonymous letters, a mystery woman residing in Room 34 of a hotel on Andover Road, an acrobatic burglar, and another buried body!

Surprisingly, with a small pile of buried corpses and a break-in at the Prentice home there’s not a single policeman in sight. Stephen in trying to protect the family name does call the coroner but tells him as little as he thinks the coroner needs to know. Stephen may be clever with his dying messages and handy with a shovel but he’s extremely foolish not to report the nuttiness going on at the Prentice property. His foolhardy decision to protect his wife’s family reputation leads to more death and violence. Coroner Bailey then takes matters into his own hands. He and Stephen turn sleuth and ultimately, after various wild adventures and more crime, the greedy culprits are tracked down, the necklace is recovered and the secret of the skeleton buried beneath the oak tree is explained.

Jean Lilly is as mysterious as the goings on in this debut novel. I know more about her husband and daughter than I do about her.  Jean McCoy Lilly (1886-1961) was born in Michigan and died in Pennsylvania.  She married Scott Barrett Lilly, well known professor of engineering at Swathmore College,  for whom an endowed scholarship is still named.  Her daughter Mary, born in 1910, graduated from Swathmore in 1933, studied painting at the Philadelphia Art institute and taught art there. Later she spent much of her life as an art teacher at Charlestown Elementary School in Malvern, PA.

Lilly is the author of four mystery novels with the last, Death Thumbs a Ride (1940), the easiest to find and the only other Lilly book that has been written about on the internet. While her first crime novel has no series character another Lilly mystery novel I own but have yet to read -- Death in B Minor (1934) -- features Bruce Perkins, her lawyer-detective who appeared in the last three books.

The Seven Sisters exists only in one US edition and is the scarcest of all the Lilly mystery novels. It was not reprinted in either hardcover or paperback during the author’s lifetime. While I enjoyed this oddity I wouldn’t break my neck (or bankbook) tracking down a copy. Despite its strange turn of macabre events it’s typical of 1920s American mysteries: not really a traditional detective novel but rather an adventure thriller overloaded with preposterous coincidences. Ultimately it all ends in a sadly predictable finale. With its old-fashioned prose style, unusual narrative tricks and creaky plotting it all reminded me of a book that might have been written in the late Victorian or early Edwardian era by either Richard Marsh or Mary Elizabeth Braddon.

1 comment:

  1. I've enjoyed Marsh and Braddon but as you say not a book to break the bank for but I will keep a weather eye out for it as I think it is somehting I will enjoy. the same appears the same for Lobaugh/Lowe books. Thanks for the reviews, I now have a copy of the Bjerke book in my to read mountain. Wayne.