"I still pinch myself and
say it isn't true. I still wake at night to reach for the tangible
proof within touch of my hand. If anyone should say to me, "Those
things didn't really happen to you last summer; they're just
part of some story you've read," I'd probably have dazed
moments of wondering if I couldn't distinguish between reality
and fiction anymore... "
The Crying Sisters, 1939
I was twelve when my mother gave me a copy of The Crying Sisters to read.
I still remember lying in bed on a hot summer's eve in Los Angeles,
the scent of jasmine and smog drifting in the open window while
I read of the eerie call of loons across a Minnesota lake and
"death crying in the night, when I saw it indicated by a
plantain leaf and discovered in a plaything, when I saw it rising
in a muddy bundle from the lake."
Mabel Seeley, the author of The Crying Sisters (1939) and six other
mysteries, is nearly forgotten these days, but in the 30s and
40s she was a popular crime writer who received rave reviews
from such arbiters of literary fashion as the New York Times,
the Saturday Review and the New Yorker. Her
novels were published by Doubleday and distributed by The Crime
Club. The Chuckling Fingers won the Mystery of the Year
award in 1941. Then in the early 50s, Seeley gave up writing
to focus on her new marriage.
Sound like a feminist's nightmare come true?
Despite the reprint covers of the 60s, which mostly featured wholesome-looking young women fleeing gloomy chateaux with solitary window lights, Seeley did not write romantic suspense as the genre is understood today. True, a self-reliant Seeley heroine did usually get her man -- as well as the murderer -- but that seemed to be more or less one of the perks of being a self-reliant heroine rather than the ultimate point of these tales. The typical Seeley heroine is smart, frank and strong-willed. She's not afraid to go toe-to-toe with the Seeley hero, who is himself a decent chap with a fully-developed set of opinions.
When Seeley's heroine
narrates in The Chuckling Fingers, "... but Heaven
defend me from ever again having to stand helplessly by while
it becomes more and more apparent to almost everyone but me that
the person I love most in the world is murderously insane...
" she is NOT speaking of a brooding, hawkishly handsome,
misunderstood man. Nope, she's talking about her SISTER.
Pretty darned refreshing,
if you ask me.
Unlike such female crime writer contemporaries as Delores Hitchens and Leigh Brackett, Seeley's women are not private investigators. They are ordinary mid-Western women -- women caught in extraordinary circumstances and fighting to save those they love -- as well as themselves. Nor are they really amateur sleuths because we know, as we turn the last page, that the Seeley woman is too practical to get involved in a murder case more than once.
The Seeley female protagonist is a working middle-class woman: a librarian, a copy-writer, a stenographer. No free rides for this lady -- even if she ruefully wishes for one. These characters are uniquely American: sassy, tough-minded, loyal, independent. A Seeley woman wouldn't know what to do with a French Count if she fell over one in her native Minnesota woods. She doesn't pack a gat. A fedora is not something she accessorizes comfortably. And despite the chauvinistic attitudes of some of the Seeley male characters (real life, anyone?), the Seeley protagonist manages to hold her ground and still get the guy.
I admit my preteen
mind reeled as I read of Janice Ruell, a small-town librarian
who has just been jilted... Jilted? When The Crying
Sisters opens, Janice is living a life of "quiet desperation"
Recklessly, she takes a job with taciturn Steve Corbett, posing
as his wife. It's the first out-of-character thing she's ever
done and it is a turning point in Janice's hitherto unremarkable
Raised on a steady
diet of Nancy Drew, the Dana Girls and the Hardy Boys -- and
despite the brutal realities of my own schoolyard battles --
I had trouble with this. Janice was not popular? Janice got dumped by her boyfriend? She had an ordinary unglamorous job? Her mother... (gulp)... died? (Well, Nancy Drew's mother was dear-departed too, but in every other way things were cheery and bright: she had lots of "chums" and a shiny roadster and good old Ned Nickerson to fall back on -- oh, and most importantly, a housekeeper). This hired-to-take-care-of-some-grumpy-guy's-kid was a bit too much like real life. Before many pages in, I believed that Janice could end up at the bottom of The Crying Sisters
Had I But Known...
Janice had things
easy compared to some of Seeley's characters. In The Beckoning
Door (1950), Cathy Kingman is eaten alive with jealousy of
her chic cousin Sylvia who inherits the estate Cathy feels should
be rightfully hers. Worse, Sylvia callously breaks up Cathy's
romance. During the course of the novel, Sylvia and Cathy do
not grow to understand each other and share sweater sets -- Sylvia
gets murdered and Cathy is the prime suspect. In The Whistling
Shadow (1954), Seeley's final novel, Gail Kiscadden
is middle-aged. Her son dies and her newborn baby grandson
is kidnapped and held for ransom. Hardly the stuff little girls'
dreams are made of.
And yet, viewed against
the current trend of tough girl bounty hunters and wise-ass chick
PIs, there's something revolutionary -- and admirable -- in these
stories of average janes who come face to face with evil and
refuse to back down. Let's face it, the Girl Next Door -- sorry,
the Woman Next Door -- probably doesn't have any training
in the martial arts, works nine to five at a job that bores her,
and likely will not marry some bloke in a castle by the
sea (with or without menacing dwarves) or even a museum curator
with a cool Manhattan loft.
These novels are amazingly
contemporary and realistic. In Seeley's first effort, The
Listening House (1938), the sinister Mrs. Garr's corpse
is shut in with her equally sinister dog and cat -- with sinister
results. Despite cover blurbs that offer tripe like, "A
haunting fascination leads a young girl to a strange deception
and a dangerous love... " (Say what?) these books are closer
kin to the modern crime novel than the traditional romantic-suspenser.
Which leads to me
to style. (It's a chick thing.)
Seeley takes a lot
of heat for overusing the Had I But Known device. In point of
fact, it's an effective stratagem in these tales told from a
conversational, first-person point of view. Not everyone used
the HIBK as skillfully certainly, but this should hardly be held
against Seeley. For the rest of it, her prose is natural and
surprisingly modern in tone. She writes well, and is especially
gifted at creating mood.
wasn't inviting. It smelled
old gas. It smelled animals confined to cellars. The
ghosts of long-fried dinners, the acridity of long-burned cigarettes
haunted the air that was a thicker, foggier dark than the gray
day outside; a murk that might have been the grime of the outside
walls floated loose and suspended in the halls."
The Listening House, 1938
Dialog is another
Seeley strength, and some of the best takes place between the
Seeley heroine and the man she will land on the last page with.
Though surrounded by dark forces and stalked by murderers, there
is always an easy give and take between these two, characterized
by bracing honesty and frequent laughs.
Love American Style??
THE MYSTERY NOVELS OF MABEL SEELEY
The Listening House
The Crying Sisters (1939)
The Whispering Cup (1940)
The Chuckling Fingers (1941)
Eleven Came Back (1943)
The Beckoning Door (1950)
The Whistling Shadow (1954; also known as The Blonde with the Deadly Past)