Sun 25 Jan 2009
MABEL SEELEY – The Listening House.
Doubleday Doran/Crime Club, hardcover, 1938; reprinted, 1953 [25th Anniversary of the Crime Club]. Paperback reprints include: Popular Library #69, 1944; Mercury Mystery 45, digest-sized, n.d.; Pyramid R-1009, 1964, plus several later printings.
It’s hard to believe that The Listening House, one of the cornerstones in the Haycraft-Queen collection, has been out of print for so long and that it isn’t a book everyone knows.
Perhaps the problem is that Seeley wrote only a handful of books (nine, not all of them mysteries) and stopped writing when she was still fairly young — she lived until 1991 but her last mystery book appeared in 1954. It might be a regional thing too, for she was resolutely set in her native Minnesota.
And then again it might be that, for all her other charms, Seeley never again wrote a book as fine as her first, though she copied the title again and again so that she had during her lifetime the sort of brand name loyalty Travis McGee novels had, or in our own day Sue Grafton. Seeley’s other books include The Chuckling Fingers, The Beckoning Door, The Crying Sisters, and The Whistling Shadow.
In The Listening House a young woman, fired from her job and down at her luck, rents a cheap room from a huge old creepy rooming house that is set on the very edge of a steep overlook, and tenants throw their garbage off the back side of the building.
Gwynne Dacres is not your ordinary ingenue heroine. She has been married, she’s capable of taking care of herself, for the most part, she has managed to surmount the Depression. The Great Depression is a tactile, living thing in this novel, a character as important as any of the crime victims or killers.
Gwynne’s new landlady, old Mrs. Garr, is a terrible old tarantula of a woman, out of a Balzac novel, sitting on her cellar steps half the day and night, waiting, waiting, waiting, but for what? In the meantime a man’s body is found (by Gwynne) dumped, like an old load of dry goods, into the trash area at the bottom of that long cliff-like drop.
Mrs. Garr’s terror is unfeigned, and we are not surprised, but horrified, and maybe even moved to pity, when the ghastly old lady is the second corpse whose body Gwynne discovers.
There is plenty of horror or terror or what have you in this book, but it is also a fairly clued mystery with roots in a socio-sexual crime that occurred some twenty years back, during the days when police corruption in “Gilling City” allowed vice to run rampant.
Seeley’s no-nonsense honesty about the harsh realities of what today we call “sex work” distinguishes her book from any other that I know of published in the late 1930s. It has a harsh, biting, Faulknerian edge to it.
(I was thinking one of the reasons Seeley has faded from view is that none of her books was ever made for the movies — Irving Wallace made The Chuckling Fingers into a 1958 episode of the TV anthology series Climax! — and I can see that The Listening House is far too sexually frank for Hollywood of the late 1930s.)
In addition to the sex-crime horror, which remains pretty disgusting even in today’s considerably degenerated world of “torture-porn” writing, Gwynne herself is torn, though in an amusing and sophisticated way, between the love of two very different men, a newspaper publisher, and the cop investigating the murders.
(She accidentally meets the first one while he’s wearing only his boxer shorts, doing chin-ups in his apartment, so she gets a long view of his bare torso and hairy forearms and legs — sort of the “meet cute while naked” introduction Ellery Queen used to give his cute male characters.)
Some have called Seeley’s plot marred by “coincidence,” but I don’t read it that way. Certainly many of the tenants had reason to kill their evil landlady — but it’s because they followed her there, to track her down, it’s not as if it were all some accident that so many of the characters had some ties to the 1921 disappearance and suicide of the unfortunate Rose Liberry.
I think Seeley is painting a picture pf a complex society in which crimes against women are endemic because they’re built into the system, they’re the mortar which holds the bricks together in an edifice larger than a listening house.
Too bad her other books aren’t as good, but she did make up for a disappointing run by a sharp and exciting finale: The Whistling Shadow, which is like the William Irish/George Hopley book that Woolrich never wrote.
Bibliographic data: [Taken from the Revised Crime Fiction IV, by Allen J. Hubin; various paperback editions are shown.]
SEELEY, MABEL (Hodnesfield). 1903-1991.
The Listening House (n.) Doubleday 1938.
The Crying Sisters (n.) Doubleday 1939.
The Whispering Cup (n.) Doubleday 1940.
The Chuckling Fingers (n.) Doubleday 1941.
Eleven Came Back (n.) Doubleday 1943.
The Beckoning Door (n.) Doubleday 1950.
The Whistling Shadow (n.) Doubleday 1954.