In the early hours of the morning a man is woken by a woman’s scream coming from one of the boats off the shore of Port Washington. Investigating, he finds a man who claims that his boat was stolen and that his wife, the actress Daphne Eden, was taken or murdered by a pair of pirates.
Connecting Eden’s disappearance with those of four other actresses, whose bodies were never found, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case. He will have to discover the reason why these particular women were targetted and identify the criminals before they can strike again…
If you haven’t been following this blog for long the chances are that you will not be familiar with the work of James Harold Wallis. He has been largely forgotten as a mystery writer with most of his eight novels having been out of print for decades and little-reviewed on the internet. When he is remembered it is usually in connection with The Woman in the Window, an early film noir movie adapted from one of his final novels (which reminds me that I really should write about that film on this blog at some point).
Since first discovering Wallis’ novels about two years ago, I have worked to track them down and have now reviewed almost all of them. This novel was the only Inspector Jacks story I had not read which means that after this I will only The Woman He Chose, a legal thriller, left to read. It’s a strange feeling given how much time I invested in this project to be nearly at its end. Happily I can say that I feel that time was well-spent as I have enjoyed all of the books and the only disappointment I feel about the project is that the obscurity of these titles means that I have little opportunity to hear what others make of them.
Cries in the Night begins with a man being woken in the early hours of the morning by a woman’s scream. He recognizes that the sound came from the water and, upon investigating, discovers a man, Whitney Sinclair, who claims that his boat was stolen by pirates and that they either kidnapped or murdered his wife, the actress Daphne Eden. Sinclair is taken back to his rescuer’s home but before calling the Police he places a call in which he is overheard saying that he can’t have something uncovered.
The New York City police connect Eden’s disappearance with several previous cases also involving actresses, though they were much less publicized. No ransom demands were ever received, nor were any bodies discovered in those cases. Fearing more disappearances may follow, Inspector Jacks is assigned to the case and to test the theory that there may be some connection between these different cases.
Of all of the scenarios Wallis creates in his Inspector Jacks novels, I think that this is one of his most grabbing. Part of the reason for this is that this is his only case where we begin the book at a point at which the crime has already taken place, throwing us directly into the story. Not only that but because we join the story with the fifth crime, it means that a considerable amount of information has already been gathered, allowing Jacks to quickly focus on the most interesting aspects of the case.
I also think that the lack of information we have about exactly what has happened to those women helps to elevate the sense of mystery and tension. We may wonder whether the women are still alive and whether Jacks stands any chance of possibly recovering them all of which ties into the book’s most crucial question – why were these women kidnapped in the first place?
While the wide scope of this mystery may seem to suggest that anyone might have done the crime, the reader will likely find themselves focusing on a small group of suspects. These characters each have quite strong and distinct personalities that make enough of an impression that they can be easily distinguished from each other.
One of the things that struck me most while reading this was the way Wallis acknowledges the role race plays in how characters have been treated. This is most directly addressed in the way that the disappearances of four actresses, though each were talented and quite successful, were met with little attention. Daphne Eden, it is suggested, received more attention and media coverage as she was the first white victim. Similarly Wallis recognizes further inequalities in discussions about the victims’ careers and the opportunities they have been given. He would return to this theme much more forcefully a decade later in his final novel The Niece of Abraham Pein which discussed antisemitism.
In a passage later in the novel Wallis takes us to Harlem and describes the community and life there. I should say that while it seemed clear to me that Wallis intended to celebrate Harlem, there are a couple of descriptive phrases that do evoke some stereotypical ideas (principally that all Black people are happy and carefree). On the whole though I think these passages evoke a sense of respect for the community and the characters we encounter feel as dimensional as their white counterparts which is not always the case in Golden Age works…
As much as I appreciate the social context of this story, which also includes some reflection about the damage that the Great Depression has done to some personal fortunes and businesses in New York, the primary draw here for most will be the mystery and I am pleased to report that I think this one of the author’s most successful efforts.
Wallis’ approach here is to blend elements of the thriller and the fair play detective story which I feel is highly effective. While there are a few sensational developments, particularly in the final few chapters, Wallis does provide the reader with enough information to make the necessary deductions before they reach the Challenge to the Reader page. I will not claim that I think that every aspect of the solution here is likely or realistic, but I did find it to be entertaining and largely satisfying.
Overall then I found this to be one of the best examples of Wallis’ mystery writing I have encountered. The scenario he creates is intriguing and raises some interesting questions for the reader to solve. Unlike some of his other mysteries, this moves at a pretty slick speed, helped by the crime having already been committed at the start of the novel, and the inclusion of some thriller elements work well to raise the stakes and ensures that the book builds to an exciting conclusion.
The Verdict: The blend of thriller elements and fair play detection works well and makes this one of his most successful efforts.