Originally Published 1943
The Varak Valley is a region of small farmers and traders. Its seclusion tempts the mathematician, Walter Dyce, to make his summer home there. To this rustic, suspicious community come Abraham Pein and his youthful niece, Esther Kiesen, exiles from Nazi tyranny. Esther’s strange disappearance sets in motion a dramatic train of events. Pein’s enemies place him on trial for his life. And the progress of the case of the State vs. Abraham Pein keeps one guessing and wondering until the final chapter brings a startling denouement.
It has been a while since I last wrote about any of the works of the American mystery writer James Harold Wallis in part because getting hold of them is quite difficult. With the exception of his novel Once Off Guard which was later reissued under the title The Woman in the Window, his mysteries do not seem to have been reprinted since they were initially published in the 1930s and 1940s. I was understandably very excited when I happened upon an affordable copy of this novel.
The Niece of Abraham Pein was one of the last novels published by Wallis although he would live for a further fifteen years after its publication. It was published in 1943 and it is clear that this was a book written to remind readers of the Nazi persecution of Jews, to encourage support of the war effort and to influence readers to be on their guard against similar attitudes developing in the United States.
The story is narrated by Arthur Dyce, a headmaster from a New England preparatory school, who has bought a holiday home in a small town in rural New Hampshire. In the summer of 1939 he takes his annual holiday only to find that the usually peaceful community is riddled with tension and suspicion at the arrival of a pair of Jewish refugees who had escaped from Nazi Germany several years earlier.
Dyce feels that Abraham Pein and his niece Esther are the victims of racial and religious intolerance and he tries to intervene but with no success. When his enemies notice that the niece has not been seen for a few days they begin to ask questions, causing Pein to become agitated and evasive. Before long the authorities are checking up on his story and, unable to confirm it, Pein finds himself arrested for her murder and placed on trial.
Deeply disturbed and concerned that Pein will not be given a fair trial, Dyce contacts Clenard, a lawyer friend, who reluctantly agrees to take on the case as a public defender. The lawyer notes that while he finds Pein to be an unconvincing witness, the authorities have been unable to produce a body which puts the prosecution at a disadvantage and he feels optimistic. The rest of the book details the pair’s efforts to construct a defense and then the conduct of the trial itself.
Though there is a mystery here concerning the fate of Esther, this book is not structured as a detective novel. Instead it is presented as a legal thriller in which Dyce and Clenard are less focused on detection of the truth than they are in presenting a defence.
Typically in legal thrillers the protagonist would be the lawyer for the defendant but Wallis opts instead to present the story through the eyes of an outsider to the community. I think this is an interesting and effective choice on several levels. Firstly, it gives us an authoritative moral voice within the story to identify those antisemitic forces within the community and to act as a witness to some of the most crucial developments in the case before it goes to trial. While we know Dyce feels sympathetic to Pein, we are also aware that he is an inherently trustworthy narrator and that facts he establishes are likely to be truthful allowing us to focus on other questions.
Secondly, this creates a secondary character, Clenard, to act as Pein’s lawyer who is able to examine the situation on legal merit as opposed to a sense of moral justice. This has the benefit of creating a dynamic where the defence and progress of the trial are explained to Dyce and also to the reader. This helps the reader follow the action of the trial and to understand how new evidence will affect Pein’s chances.
Where Dyce is principled and rigid sometimes seeming a little patrician in his attitudes, Clenard is a much more grounded and pragmatic figure. He recognizes the problems inherent in their case, even though he has faith in the judicial process.
The problem is principally that Abraham Pein does not trust them or the American legal system. Pein cuts an interesting and ambiguous figure, simultaneously sympathetic and suspicious. It is pretty clear from the moment he is introduced that he is a victim of antisemitic prejudice and persecution first in Russia, then Germany and then in the United States. While we understand the forces that have made him hard and bitter it is clear that his treatment of his niece was frequently violent.
The tension is derived from not knowing exactly what evidence the prosecution will produce to support their case and our uncertainty as to what actually took place in that house. While I suspect many readers would be able to deduce some elements of the book’s conclusion from consideration of my brief outline and the themes of the novel, even if you know where this is ending up the journey there is pretty effective.
There are surprisingly few sensational developments in the trial and it is clear that the author aims to accurately portray the American legal system with equal time given to the arguments of the prosecution and defence. In this I think he is quite successful.
Judged purely as a mystery or thriller I think it is a little less successful, in part because so much of the conclusion can be inferred at the start and Wallis does not provide many surprises. I think though that Wallis understood that he was using a genre as a vehicle to discuss societal issues. In that respect this work is more successful as Wallis writes boldly, with passion and conviction, building to a powerful if not surprising ending.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Person’s Name in the Title (What)