The Niece of Abraham Pein by J. H. Wallis

PeinIt 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)

Once Off Guard by James Harold Wallis

OnceOffGuardI first encountered Wallis’ work after Kate suggested I try The Servant of Death, one of his inverted stories. Wallis had a relatively short but prolific career as a mystery novelist, turning out at least one book a year for the better part of a decade but most of these are now extremely difficult to come by.

Once Off Guard is probably the title that the author is best remembered for. In the various articles I have read about the author it is one of the two novels that gets mentioned most often, the other being Murder by Formula, which I suspect reflects that it was adapted and turned into a Fritz Lang picture, The Woman in the Window. Following that movie’s release the book was reissued under the title, often in an abridged form.

Professor Wanley has stayed in the city for the Summer to teach some courses and earn a little extra money while his wife vacations. One night after he has dinner with a few friends at his club he decides to read a little erotic Greek poetry, sip some brandy and then take a walk to look in an art gallery window.

As he stands looking at a painting a woman who resembles the model comes up to him and propositions him. Overcome with the potent mix of poetry, alcohol and beauty, he finds himself going home with the woman and cheating on his wife for the first time. He regrets his decision later that same evening as he prepares to take a walk of shame but suddenly the woman’s boyfriend enters the apartment and seeing Wanley, attacks him. In the confrontation, Wanley is passed some scissors by the woman and stabs the man killing him.

Wanley and the woman realize that if they were to report the death that there would be no other witnesses and even if the Police didn’t charge them, Wanley’s infidelity would be revealed. Instead Wanley agrees that he will dispose of the body but an added complication is that the murdered man is one of the most prominent men in America and within hours his disappearance is noticed. A hunt gets underway to find the man’s killer and Wanley feels certain that at any moment he will be discovered…

The title for the novel comes from a discussion between Wanley and his friends at the start of the book in which they talk about how an action taken instinctively when off guard can destroy a life. What follows puts the ideas of that discussion into effect, demonstrating how someone might end up making a series of catastrophic choices that would have far worse consequences for them. This is a similar approach to the structure of Murder by Formula and it does allow the author to work with and develop a theme. Wallis’ decision to employ an inverted form works well with that choice, ensuring the reader’s focus stays on the psychological effects that Wanley’s decisions have on him.

While it turns out to be an effective way of exploring that theme however, I think the work does become rather repetitive and dreary. While Wanley’s cycle of guilt convinces psychologically, it confines the narrative and can feel overwhelming to read. This can make the novel feel like a heavy and ponderous read, particularly as the middle section of the book contains few unexpected developments.

One of the choices that I found grating was the repeated references to the foulness of the ‘harlot’ that Wanley had slept with. While Wallis does point out at one point that Wanley is being somewhat hypocritical in thinking that way as he had made the choice to cheat on his wife, it does reflect that this character is portrayed exclusively as a temptress and libertine rather than anything approaching a three dimensional character.

The heavy-handed tone of Wallis’ writing frustrates in part because it threatens to overwhelm some of the more promising aspects of the story. One of the aspects that I liked most was the way that he has Wanley realize that he can exploit some of his friendships at the club to extract information about how the case is progressing. This is potentially a dangerous game as in asking questions he is also exposing himself to scrutiny and it does lead to one of the stronger sequences in the book in which Wanley takes a car ride to see the crime scene which is the tensest moment in the whole novel.

That sequence provides a possible blueprint for an altogether more interesting take on the novel in which Wanley plays a far more active role in getting close to the investigation. Instead the character comes off as self-pitying and strangely passive at moments in the story, making it hard to feel either any great hatred or any sympathy for him.

The ending, when it arrives, seems to be contrived to produce a surprise for the reader and I do think it is cleverly engineered but I didn’t find it wholly satisfying as a repayment for the time invested in reading the piece. Still, I did appreciate its tone and thought it worked well enough to pull things together.

Though Once Off Guard is a novel which shows plenty of promise I feel that the work is simply too long and too repetitive. With a little judicious trimming I feel that the book could have felt a little less overwhelming, the character study may have benefited from providing some relief and these good ideas would have been given a little more room to breathe. It is nowhere near as interesting or entertaining as The Servant of Death and while I am curious to watch the movie which is being re-released on DVD and Blu-Ray in the US this Summer to see if any significant changes were made, my overall feeling is one of disappointment.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by knife/dagger/etc. (How)

Murder by Formula by James Harold Wallis

MurderbyFormulaHaving selected The Servant of Death as my most recent Book of the Month I was keen to return to Wallis as quickly as I could. Given that his books are out of print and owned by relatively few libraries in the United States, this proved a little more challenging than I had hoped but I managed to track down a copy of his first mystery novel, Murder by Formula.

While the title may have you expecting a case of poisoning, the formula referred to in the title is actually a somewhat fourth wall-bending reference to the conventions and tropes of mystery fiction. Right before the murder takes place, the victim engages in a conversation in which they all discuss the common plot elements, devices and tropes that they think make for a good crime story. One of these is that the crime should take place by the end of the second chapter. Wallis obliges almost immediately and within a few paragraphs our victim has been murdered.

That victim is Andrew Wingdon, a celebrated writer who is a member of his club’s Arts Committee. The group meets to discuss a proposed theme for a new exhibition but following a fine dinner they sit in The Asylum – a large and dimly lit room which is housing a collection of medieval weaponry. The group share their opinions of mystery fiction and the most enthusiastic of them describes how he would murder someone in that very room. Wingdon is found the next morning, seemingly killed in exactly that way.

On the case is the enthusiastic young Inspector Jacks, a college graduate who joined the Police hoping that he would be able to become one of the leading men of his field. He seems reasonably smart and does a decent job following his leads, even if he does seem to write off two possible candidates for murderer far too quickly. I was pleased that he is at least challenged on this later in the novel and he does at least give a decent reason for why he had opted not to investigate one of those two characters. His failure to look into the other, the widow of the victim, is much harder to accept and she quickly becomes a (strikingly inappropriate) romantic interest for him.

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. In fact, those who were paying close attention to the discussion in The Asylum should be pretty clear about who the second victim will turn out to be.

The second killing does spin the investigation off into a more interesting direction and while I had little difficulty in figuring out the solution, I did enjoy the process of getting there. The only review I have read of this at Mystery*File implies that the mystery does not play fair which I do not entirely agree with, though it would be accurate to say that some of the most critical evidence is kept back until very late in the story.

I think it would be fair to say that Murder by Formula is hardly a classic in the field of detective fiction but it is a solid, entertaining read. If you can stomach the holes in the investigator’s approach and some slightly pulpy storytelling developments, it has some fun moments. It is nowhere near the quality of The Servant of Death though and if you are able to track down either of these I’d strongly suggest starting with that later title.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: A Journalist/Writer (Who)

The Servant of Death by James Harold Wallis

ServantAt the very start of 2018, Kate at CrossExaminingCrime wrote a review of Curtis Evans’ Clues and Corpses: The Detective Fiction and Mystery Criticism of Todd Downing. The book sounded fascinating and I duly ordered a copy but one of the things I appreciated most about Kate’s review was that she pulled out books that Evans liked as suggested reading for some of her fellow bloggers.

Kate’s reasoning for suggesting this book for me was quite simple: it is an inverted mystery and I make little secret of my love of this sub-genre. In what is something of a first for me, I was taken aback when right before the final chapter I was commanded to stop reading and decide how the murderer will be caught. Yes, there is a challenge to the reader in an inverted mystery!

The story is told from the perspective of Eyliffe Trent Van Maarden, a man born into a notable family who has managed through poor fortune and judgment to go from a comfortable existence to becoming heavily indebted to a lawyer he went to college with who loaned him money. He has lost his investments, his family home and now lives as a tenant of that lawyer, paying him monthly installments that barely touch the principal of the loan.

One possible way out would be through marriage to a childhood sweetheart who has become a wealthy widow. Eyliffe has been biding his time before making romantic overtures to her to try to make sure of his feelings. Unfortunately for him, while he has been thinking about making his move that same lawyer friend has been actively wooing her and Eyliffe is sure that it will just be a matter of time before they get married. Unless something were to happen to him first…

As with many of the strongest inverted mysteries, the book is essentially a character study of a criminal that forces the reader to assess that character and determine how and why they have made the choice to take a life. You might argue that Eyliffe is made by circumstance, his actions borne out of a sense of hopelessness. Alternatively, his sense that he is a victim and his paranoia may be skewing his perception of events. I would suggest that here it is the second of those options and I think this view is only reinforced by events that occur in the immediate aftermath of that murder.

Eyliffe is, as we have established, living on extremely reduced means and in humiliating circumstances. While we are told that he has realized that he loves Madeline, we might equally well think that he has decided that she could be his saving and his way to retain face and status. Given those circumstances, he seems a credible candidate to morph into a killer.

While Downing’s short review will try to sell you on the idea that he has committed a seemingly perfect crime, I think that is an exaggeration. The crime, while efficient, is hardly ingenious in its creation or execution. Certainly it seems unlikely that anyone might track him down based on the initial evidence but it is not particularly hard to figure out how they might trace the crime back to him. The journey to that point is entertaining though and I think there are some excellent false leads and developments dropped in along the way.

What I think makes this story interesting and what I think gives it a rather different tone are the ways in which we see Eyliffe’s crimes affecting his mood and behavior as the novel goes on. The tone is sometimes haunting, sometimes a little melodramatic, but I think it is effective and helps explain why he makes some of his choices, particularly in the final third of the novel.

With so much of the focus falling on Eyliffe and his actions, it will likely not be surprising that few other characters get much attention. Of those that do feature, Madeline is probably granted the most space but I did not feel we really got to know her. She is less important as a character in her own right than she is as an influence on our murderer and indeed she is written out of much of the second half of the novel.

One character who does make a big impression is the young law clerk Veede who lives in the same building as Eyliffe and has decided that he will study criminology in the hopes of finding his boss’ killer. Keep in mind that while a police investigation does take place in this novel, in fact featuring Wallis’ series detective, almost all of that sleuthing takes place in the background. This makes Veede the most visible threat to Eyliffe’s safety and because we have little idea what information he has been able to confirm or what he has deduced from it, we cannot know for sure how far along the case against him has become.

When Eyliffe is undone, as all criminals in inverted mysteries inevitably are, it happens quickly. I appreciated the opportunity to pause to consider the evidence and I liked the solution of how he would get caught a lot, feeling that it was tidy, simple and well explained. I also appreciated that there are some aspects of this story that give the book a strong sense of place and time, such as the suggestion that a scientific test might be applied to this case to identify the killer or establish a suspect’s guilty.

Overall, I felt that The Servant of Death was one of the stronger examples of the inverted mystery form I’ve read yet. 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. It sadly is not in print so if the concept of this one interests you, do keep in mind that it may be tricky or slow to track down. I do think it is worth it however for those that do.