Let the record state that The Wailing Rock Murders (1932) is the seventh title I’ve read from the Roland Lacourbe-curated Locked Room Library list to not actually contain an impossible crime. Others of this distinction have run the gamut from wonderful to utterly forgettable, so an absence of impossibility is not to be held against it, and Clifford Orr’s second and final novel undeniably contains plenty of locked rooms…but they’re the ‘locked from the outside’ variety, whose very nature should not be confused with the sort of thing we (are meant to) mean when throwing a term like ‘locked room mystery’ about.
As befits a second novel, the setup here is cleaner and quicker than in Orr’s debut, The Dartmouth Murders (1929). Septuagenarian detective Spaton ‘Spider’ Meech — with his long arms and legs, and his spine twisted from an accident aged five which gives a strange tilt to his head — is invited by his ward Garda Lawrence to the Maine coast holiday home of the improbably named Creamer Farnol. Here, in the midst of a house party hosted by Farnol and his wife Vera, with two young men vying for Garda’s affections, the sudden intrusion of murder will give Spider much to consider, not least of all the strange reticence of the Farnols to discuss the second house they own just along the coast. And with the coastal wind causing an ominous wailing in an underground cavern, rumours of murders past start to leak out…
For atmosphere, Orr comes up trumps with his isolated coastal setting, bracketed by the two houses and the road between them that must first veer inland to avoid the swamplands near adjacent to the beach.
Subtly and slowly, although it was nearly high noon, the blue was going from the sky and the sun was fading. There was no apparent fog, there were no discernable clouds. It was, as I think back, as if the heavens, with my arrival, caught a hint of impending tragedy…and were starting to dim their blazing blue to a more suitable shade.
The menage at the Farnols’ is a friendly one to place in such a dreary setting, and so the presence of a murderer in such a seemingly blameless group is neatly contrasted with the apparently innocuous front they all present. The police add an interesting wrinkle to the problem when they reveal that Maine “has no capital punishment, and it isn’t unknown…to find killings done in this state just to escape hanging or the chair”, but when the second murder the title promises occurs, there seems to be no sense or reason to it, and so some good old-fashioned detection is called for, including fingerprinting (the local policeman “told me he knew all about it” — interesting historical note there) and the chasing down of alibis and inferences that point to some unusual conclusions.
This, like with The Dartmouth Murders, is where the wheels come a little awry. Clues seem to be taken and examined one at a time — the glass, the blood, the fingerprinting — and while the examination of phone lines leads to a good piece of extended suspense writing (“…these are only house phones, there should be no outside wires”) the rest feels a little too rudimentary for its vintage. Additionally, Orr, in the methodology of Spider, seems to seek complications where there are none: the misattribution of an impossible crime might spring from how someone could have committed a murder when all the suspects are locked in their rooms…except that one suspect shows (and then tells) Spider how easy it was to get out of his room, and another one late on has absolutely no difficulty climbing out of the window.
However, Spider is good value, his jaded air of vengeance more interesting than the youthful energy of some hot-headed tyro, and the two houses imbued with a great sense of space and mood. There’s a real feeling of the horror of murder, and the fear of what it means to be locked up in a house where a violent death has occurred, which owes much more to the efficiency of Spider’s attitude than it does the wailing wind and past mysteries — indeed, so purposeless does the ‘wailing wind’ aspect feel, it’s difficult not to see it as a third draft addition to boost the word count. Still, things rip along at a good rate, events of the first few chapters baffle and get explained away in a reasonably satisfactory manner, and the final third looms large with potential.
And then the end of chapter 10 throws us into Full Crazy mode. And not in a good way.
I believe it was Ben at the superb The Green Capsule who sought recently to coin the term ‘Kitchen Sink Mystery’ for those wild flights of invention that hurl every single development at you breathlessly while also keeping a firm grip on how the narrative progresses. Well, The Wailing Rock Murders builds to KSM status for ten chapters, and then opens the cupboards under the sink and throws all the domestic drudgery you typically hide there at you instead. Perhaps with an eye on a tighter narrative — this is about three-quarters the length of Orr’s debut — the answers that come are unsatisfying, trite, hackneyed, dull, and tedious, and represent a capitulation of the narrative the nature of which I’ve not encountered in a long time.
In a very entertaining introduction, Curtis Evans makes the point that The Wailing Rock Murders looms into Old Dark House territory, which has at least a toe in the Venn diagram of Domestic Suspense, and it’s certainly interesting to see the two subgenres clash with the straight detection we’ve been spoon-fed up to this point. If nothing else, it speaks of the slight discomfiture with which American authors took to straight detection in the early 1930s — preferring, as they did, the sort of suspense writing that made a household name of Cornell Woolrich and which British writers in the genre never could quite master. From this perspective, Orr’s two novels make a fascinating study, showing just how much the novel of psychology and the novel of clues really don’t overlap despite their common ground, and highlighting the importance of a plot that relies on one much more than the other in order to be satisfying.
In just about every regard, then, The Wailing Rock Murders starts well and finishes gasping. It shows the equity to be found in experimental works in the genre, especially in these formative days, and as such your mileage will vary: those with an interest in the development of detective fiction will get more out of this than those who just want to be blown away by plot or insight. I, alas, have a foot in both camps and so find myself somewhat on the fence: very, very glad to have had the chance to read it, but not exactly devastated that a promised third novel never resulted from Orr’s typewriter.
TomCat @ Beneath the Satins of Time: The explanation is surprisingly simplistic and you’ve got to admire the fine tight-rope Orr tried to traverse, but there’s a problem or two: one of them is that the solution made nearly all of the plot-threads appear as irrelevant and only served as a distraction from the obvious. Secondly, the passing of time dulled the twist of the solution. It was not entirely new when the book was originally published, but Orr’s application of it was unusual and noteworthy. I suspected such sort of game was being played, but kept being lured away from it by the other plot-threads.
Curtis @ The Passing Tramp: Like a John Dickson Carr novel, The Wailing Rock Murders excels in atmosphere and brisk narrative pace, though it lacks, it must be admitted, the marvelous mechanical complexity of a Carr mystery. On the whole the novel strikes me as something of a Carr–S. S. Van Dine mashup (think The Greene Murder Case), though in fact Carr at this time (1932) had not achieved the outright mastery he soon would.
The detective novels of Clifford Orr, published by Coachwhip
1. The Dartmouth Murders (1929)
2. The Wailing Rock Murders (1932)