book review

Murder Mansion (aka House of Murder) 1934

I’m a sucker for out-of-print, non-dust-jacket-having, old-timey mysteries. For all the masterpieces on my bookshelves, The Stingaree Murders and The Mystery at Chillery are my favorite objects. It is entirely possibly that I overrate such books because of their feel. I love when they have eighty-year-old notes written in the flyleaves. I love the discoloration of the pages (Maybe, it’s mold and I shouldn’t be so romantic about it, but hey, death by novel is an honorable way to go.) My copy of Murder Mansion has a sticker from an antique shop called The Copper Kettle in Rockland, Maine. The shop was torn down in 1960 to make way for a bank. I love the thought that somebody in the shop bought this exact copy and read it. MM has also got a map and a challenge to the reader. It’s a cool thing to own is what I’m trying to say.

Would I like it as much if it were on my kindle? I can’t say for sure. The storytelling is relaxed, taking its time to set up the plot gears. There is lots of fun to be had…and some complaints to be lodged–naturally, I enjoyed it a lot (especially the elements and tropes) while recognizing its flaws.

The Problem: Elderly Fannie Bristow is nearer death every day. Her fortune of $101,270,343 (Needlessly explained in stupefying detail!) has no destination. None of the media know of any possible heirs/heiresses. She’s feeling particularly bad near the beginning of the novel, so the butler sends for a doctor to perform a blood transfusion. It goes swimmingly…until she dies the next day. A will is found (once again, painstakingly described–the will has its own damned chapter!) The money is to be split among her servants (though not all of them) and the hospitals of New York. Author J.H. Wallis does a fantastic job giving us the circus atmosphere involved with celebrity death. We understand why the papers would make such a big deal of the situation. We also understand why Fannie’s death brings a host of “long-lost relatives” out of the woodwork. Eventually, the 200(!) or so claimants (Again, given its own chapter!) is legally reduced to four. They move in the mansion while waiting for the courts to decide the fate of the hundred million. It’s here that the novel becomes an old-dark-house story, and it’s a good one. There’s a lot of tension as the list of inheritors begins to shrink.

The Investigation: A mixed bag. Inspector Jacks and his fellow police are great. There’s one cop in particular who made me laugh quite a bit. The weird part (I know this might sound nitpicky) is the original impetus for the investigation. What is Jacks’s reason for launching an investigation into Fannie’s death? He says it is because there’s nothing suspicious about any of it. I’m serious. That’s why they put tails on about 15 different characters. I understand Jacks turns out to be correct, but this is seriously shoddy policework. It might be the worst I’ve seen in a detective story. There is nothing about Fannie’s death from pneumonia that should arouse any suspicion. I realize there are moments when other detectives have had sneaking suspicions, but they always have at least a semi-logical reason to harbor such feeling. Jacks thinks natural deaths automatically have something suspicious about them. I guess that means he investigates everything. Even funnier, his superior soon calls off the investigation, saying they had better stop before spending a lot of taxpayer money. Dude, you’ve had an army of cops tailing people day and night, some of them spending hours drinking in nightclubs. It’s too late to save the taxpayers money.

The Solution: As I said before, MM has a challenge to the reader. It’s an honest challenge. Because the book is fairly clewed, I think most readers will solve it, but that does not make it any less fun. By the time the solution comes, the book has really started cooking with its plot and atmospherics.

Some small complaints:

  1. Wallis uses the old-fashioned way of introducing the servants. Instead of describing them while in action, he takes an entire chapter to list them and give us their characteristics. It’s the kind of telling that modern readers tend to find cringy and with good reason. It’s like an apb report.
  2. He tells us the future. I personally love this device…when it’s used once. After 4 times, I begin to lose my patience. It goes something like this.

MM: “But she would not survive the night, for the killer had other plans.”

James: “Oooh, how fun!”

MM: “Inspector Jacks didn’t know how little time the man had left.”

James: “Okay. Okay. I get it.”

MM: “If Dorothy had only noticed the unlocked door…”

James: “Cut it out, Wallis! Just tell your damned story!”

3. Wallis gets a lot of mileage from juxtaposing the investigation with the suspects living in fear, but he only brings this element into the last third of the book. It ends up feeling a bit lopsided. This might be the fallout from reading too many Carr novels too quickly. Carr seemed adamant about structuring his novels for maximum effect. Here we have a bit of a shaggy-dog mystery. It’s nice, but a bit more focus and structure would have done it some good.

Murder Mansion is no lost masterpiece, but you’ll enjoy it. I certainly loved cracking it open and returning to its story of suspects dying in a creepy old house. The book was mentioned on a recent episode of the podcast In GAD We Trust. Aidan from Mysteries Ahoy! is a fan of Wallis and chose him as the author he’d most like to see reprinted. You can get the other Wallis titles (and a lot of other ones) by giving it a listen.

One final note: I’ve been posting more than usual lately, but that’s probably going to end. I may not break internet silence for a month or so. Hopefully, I’ll have an update when I return. I might even have a shitty sketch. It’s a bit of a shame because my views have been quite high the last couple of weeks; however, the purpose of this blog is, was, and always shall be to advertise my novels. So, while I apologize for any lengthy absence, rest assured, it is necessary.

5 thoughts on “Murder Mansion (aka House of Murder) 1934”

  1. Firstly let me say how much I appreciate that you went out and tracked down a copy and read it. As I *think* I said in my comments on the podcast, one of the reasons that I wanted to get these in print is so that I could read opinions from others about them. Clearly I am a happy guy today!
    Your comments about the book are all fair – I can’t really disagree with any of them. Wallis’ background lay in journalism and that focus on providing the reader with lots and lots of detail (often burying the reader with lots of detail with the idea that it will lead to overlooking the important clue) and putting hook lines in “Had I but known” style is common throughout his work. I probably overlook that slow buildup because of how it accelerates towards the end when we reach the whittling down stage but I also just enjoy the legal case stuff and the circus you refer to with the question of what will happen to that fortune. It all feels very New York and very credible to me.
    As for the idea of death by reading a slightly moldy old mystery novel – sounds like the genesis of a short story idea to me… 😉

    Liked by 2 people

    1. It makes a lot of sense that he would have a background in journalism, not only because of the enormous amount of detail (the list of hospitals, the minutiae of the will), but also the interest in the media–even ending with Jacks’s surprise about the good press.

      Like

  2. It’s so interesting, those name and notes in a book from the 30s/40s. That someone read the book, and it sat who knows where for how many years. And then it somehow came to you, and hopefully it will go to someone else some day in the somewhat distant future. It’s even better when it’s some odd ball story like The Stingaree Murders, isn’t it? Like, what did the previous reader think of that one?

    Anyway, I still need to track down a copy of The Mystery at Chillery, and maybe I’ll keep an eye out for this one as well. Thanks for the reminder.

    Liked by 1 person

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