In New York City an elderly woman lives alone in a mansion, cared for by a handful of old retainers. Her family had been one of the city’s most prominent and one of the nation’s richest and when she dies after receiving a blood transfusion in her home a media circus kicks off as everyone wants to know what will become of the money (and if they can get a slice of it).
In the days following her death a will is produced, apparently signed in the last days of her life without anyone’s knowledge, leaving large sums to three of her servants and the remainder divided up between medical charities. Distant relatives emerge however and decide to challenge the will, seeking to break it on the grounds that she was not in her right mind.
The four closest family members identified by the courts as next of kin meet and discuss their options. They have to stay in the city while the case progresses and so they decide on a whim to all stay together in the deceased woman’s home, partly out of their curiosity and also to experience living in such a grand home. While the glamor of the house doesn’t quite match their expectations, things nonetheless seem to be going well until one of the party is discovered dead in their bedroom in an apparent suicide…
If you haven’t been following this blog for long the chances are that you will not be familiar with J. H. Wallis. He has been largely forgotten as a mystery writer with most of his work having been out of print for decades and is generally only remembered in connection with The Woman in the Window, an early film noir movie adapted from one of his last books. Having now read several of his books I think this is unfortunate as while his prose can be a little earnest and stiff, he creates clever mystery plots and also showed a willingness to experiment by trying different styles such as legal thrillers and inverted stories.
Murder Mansion may be my favorite of his books that I have read so far and a lot of the appeal comes from its core premise: that someone is knocking off claimants to an estate to extract a bigger share of the proceeds estate. This not only means that we have a clear and strong motive established for the murders from the start, it also creates a scenario where the killer is among the potential victims and risks exposing themselves the closer they get to success.
There are elements of this situation and the way Wallis handles it that evoked a later and much more famous work: Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None… For instance, characters reference the “Ten Little Indians” song on several occasions in the story, saying things like:
“Four little claimants, as snug as could be.
One turned on the gas, and then there were three.”
Sure, the execution is not quite so crisp as Agatha’s, nor does Wallis quite succeed in using it to cultivate a sense of impending doom. This is partly because the rhyme never forms the focal point of the murder sequence, usually coming out of the discussions, but it is also because there are fewer deaths and so we never quite get time to feel a pattern developing. Still, I will always find tontine crime stories highly engaging and this proves no exception.
Wallis’ characters come from a range of backgrounds and each feels quite distinctive making the story easy to follow (while there are only four heirs, we do meet a pretty large cast of characters including servants, lawyers and doctors, so this proves quite helpful in keeping everything straight).
As there is no need to establish motives for each character the focus instead is on developing our understanding of their personalities and instincts. This is managed through showing their differing opinions on matters like how they should handle the servants and their expectations from the estate or how they should handle the discovery of a body. I felt these disagreements, though sometimes quite small and apparently insignificant, between the characters gave insight into each character and what they would be capable of.
While Wallis creates several credible suspects it should be said that he does undo a little of his good work by the way he uses the omniscient narration to provide us with information we could not otherwise have known based on what we have witnessed up to that point. Sometimes, such as with the revelation that the elderly woman had been killed, this information can and should be welcomed as advancing our understanding and allowing the reader knowledge that gives them an advantage over Inspector Jacks (who approaches the case from the base assumption that it was a natural death) but there are times later in the story where he reveals a character’s innocence through sharing their state of mind, significantly reducing the field of suspects.
I would add that though Wallis develops a strong cast of suspects and people involved in this case, his series detective feels a little bland and uninteresting. Attempts to provide us with a little insight into his tastes when off duty add little to readers’ understanding of the character while he can seem curiously passive at points in the case when it seems likely that further murder attempts might be made.
It may be that previous stories provide a stronger sense of his character and personality and this may be presuming prior knowledge of the character but there is little here to capture the imagination or make you feel you know him. There is nothing here to hate or even really dislike but it does feel odd to spend as much time as the reader does with him without even knowing him a little.
In terms of the plotting of the mystery, I think Wallis’ efforts are largely successful and I was pleasantly surprised to find it was constructed around a real puzzle for the readers to solve. The clues are clever and are laid out pretty clearly for the reader though it is possible that they miss the significance of information.
That does not mean that every aspect of the solution made perfect sense – I had questions about one character’s actions prior to the murder though I did manage to make up an explanation for myself of how it all came together. Still, for the most part I think the setups and executions of each development in the mystery worked well and I think Wallis brings them together with a clever, if rather fantastic, explanation at the end.
I have read several mystery novels by Wallis at this point and I feel quite comfortable saying that his is quite comfortably his strongest effort. It boasts a strong puzzle mystery and some exciting twists and turns all born out of its engaging premise and interesting mix of characters. It is, of course, not perfect and I certainly wouldn’t advise breaking the bank for it but it is definitely worth a read should you ever stumble upon a copy.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: At least two deaths with different means (How)