James Harold Wallis was an Iowan writer of poetry and mystery fiction. He was most prolific between 1931 and 1934, publishing seven novels in that time – most of which featured his series detective Inspector Jacks.
His most influential work was his 1942 novel Once Off Guard which was adapted into the movie The Woman in the Window. This film is frequently cited as the first to be labelled by contemporary critics as a ‘film noir’, although previously issued movies are now seen as being part of that film style.
He published his last novel, The Niece of Abraham Pein, a year later. That work is his most political, clearly motivated by deep, personal concerns related to the war.
Currently it seems that all of his work is out of print though most can be obtained at reasonable prices. Do be careful if buying copies of Once Off Guard as some editions, particularly those reissued under the new title to tie in with the movie, are abridged.
While I have not read all of his books yet, of those I have I would most strongly recommend Murder Mansion which prefigures some ideas from And Then There Were None, Cries in the Night and his inverted mystery The Servant of Death which is a good example of the howcatchem style.
Murder by Formula (1931)
Inspector Jacks #1
A club’s Arts Committee meet to discuss a new exhibition but talk turns to mystery fiction and one shares their idea of a perfect murder. At the end of the evening it is discovered that one of their number is dead.
Wallis’ story unfolds at a steady pace with several further attempted murders but while this should retain the reader’s interest, none of these developments are particularly shocking or outrageous.
The Capital City Mystery (1932)
Inspector Jacks #2
A wealthy congressman vanishes during one of his wife’s society Sunday night suppers.
Not so much a fair play mystery as a thriller but the capital setting and the development of the cast of suspects is handled well.
The Servant of Death (1932)
Inspector Jacks #3
This story follows Eyliffe, a man from a notable New York family, who has found himself indebted to a college friend who now owns his house. One way out might be marriage but Eyliffe soon learns that he has a rival and begins to wonder if murder might be a solution.
Wallis creates a memorable killer and I think his reasoning for that person’s actions throughout the novel make sense, even if we might view some of those choices as being bizarrely risky or foolish.
Cries in the Night (1933)
Inspector Jacks #4
The abduction of an actress seems to be connected to four previous abductions. No ransoms were received nor were any bodies found so what happened to the women?
The blend of thriller elements and fair play detection works well and makes this one of his most successful efforts.
The Mystery of Vaucluse (1933)
Inspector Jacks #5
A professor is found stabbed to death at a college campus with no signs of a culprit and a puddle of water next to them.
…One part of the solution feels well-worn, but the setting is interesting and Wallis’ stakeout sequences are tense and thrilling.
Murder Mansion (1934)
Inspector Jacks #6
Also known as The House of Murder
One of New York city’s wealthiest women dies leaving a will that seems sure to be challenged, kicking off a media circus about who will inherit the estate.
It boasts a strong puzzle mystery and some exciting twists and turns all born out of its engaging premise and interesting mix of characters.
The Woman He Chose (1934)
A young lawyer wins a case to save the life of a woman charged with murdering her husband. Soon after he proposes to her and they marry but they find their lives filled with unexpected and terrifying events.
I have not read or reviewed the title though I do own it.
Once Off Guard (1942)
Reissued as The Woman in the Window
A college professor, left alone for the Summer while his wife and child escape the city on vacation, meets a woman whose portrait hangs in a gallery’s window. This sets up a chain of events that will lead to murder and an attempted cover-up.
Though Once Off Guard is a novel which shows plenty of promise I feel that the work is simply too long and too repetitive.
The Niece of Abraham Pein (1943)
As war with Germany grows increasingly likely, the locals in a small town in New Hampshire turn against Abraham Pein – a Jewish refugee who recently arrived with his niece. When his enemies notice she has not been seen in town for days rumors spread that he has murdered her and he soon finds himself on trial.
…Wallis writes boldly, with passion and conviction, building to a powerful if not surprising ending.