#734: The Wailing Rock Murders (1932) by Clifford Orr

Dartmouth Wailing Rock Murders

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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.

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See also

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.

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The detective novels of Clifford Orr, published by Coachwhip

1. The Dartmouth Murders (1929)
2. The Wailing Rock Murders (1932)

10 thoughts on “#734: The Wailing Rock Murders (1932) by Clifford Orr

  1. After sitting puzzled for a few minutes, I actually had to resort to google to see if I did attempt to coin the “kitchen sink mystery”. It turns out it came up during my post on Zelda Popkin’s The Dead Man’s Gift, although it was Brad who introduced the term. It was in response to a comment I had made about books that try to keep a lot of balls in the air – The Dead Man’s Gift being an unsuccessful one – with my point being that a story like Murder on the Way hits you from ten sides at once and leaves you breathless.

    I laugh that The Wailing Rock Murders turns out not to be an impossible crime, as I just purchased it two months ago specifically because it had been featured on The List. I guess it joins a set of additional books from that list – Dead Man Control, Bloodhounds, Bodies in a Bookshop, Shade of Time – that I apparently shouldn’t be as excited about as I was. But still, your description of the setting and atmosphere sounds right up my alley, so I’m still eager to giving this one a try. Kind of nice that I got another story along with it.

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    • Hey, if something gets created on your blog then I say it’s your intellectual property. Brad’s just chasing the high of “dragging the Marsh”.

      I wasn’t originally a fan of these twofer editions, but Coachwhip have done a great job with coupling up novels by obscure authors so they get read (there’s an element of “Ah, hell, I’ve bought it, so I might as well…”). Atmospherically is where this one wins out, but Orr was no Roger Scarlett — those remain my favourite CW books to date. More on the way, though…!

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      • Yeah, I always struggle to remember to read the multi-novel editions because they don’t fit nicely in my literal stack of books. Or, they end up at the base and they stay there for stability reasons. But this is a nice reminder that I really need to get to those Roger Scarlett mysteries.

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  2. Law Offices of Peckinpah, Polanski, Hitchcock and Hope
    1313 Mockingbird Lane
    Castle Rock, MN 01430

    Dear Mr. Event and Mr. Capsule:

    On behalf of my partners, may I just say that your exploration of classic detective fiction is delightful! Mr. Polanski asked me to make a special mention of your 371-part exploration into the Ronald Knox decalogue. Most thorough, he says, and Mr. Polanski likes being thorough. I myself enjoy your discussion of impossible crimes, as in my extensive career I have come across so many people who found themselves in situations they could not get out of!

    Which brings me to the point of this letter: on behalf of our client, Mr. Bradley Florence Friedman, we remind you of his legal claim on the term “kitchen sink mystery” and wish to inform you that should you not cease and desist in using and/or discussing that term without paying the copyright fee ($1200 for mention in a blog, $650 for mention in the comments section of a blog, $35,601 for movie rights), then we will have no recourse but to exact our usual punishment: capto et in testes et epididymis exprimi usque ad dissiliunt.

    With best wishes for a Happy Holiday,

    A.A. Hope, Junior Partner

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I imagine someone remembered The Wailing Rock Murders as an impossible crime, possibly Adey himself, because the atmosphere makes it somewhat comparable to Carr or Talbot. What I don’t understand is Adey’s Locked Room Murders not listing it as a misidentified, non-impossible crime novel and even described the non-existing locked room, but the solution in the back only tells you who did it. Not how this person entered, or left, the locked room. This is probably why the mistake was never corrected and how it ended up on that Lacourbe curated list.

    By the way, we were, more or less, on the same page until you threw out that final line. It’s bad enough we don’t lay wreaths for these poor, unpublished and manuscripts without you piling on. I’m very disappointed.

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    • John Pugmire’s article on Lacourbe’s list at Mystery File states: “The process was very simple: each participant submitted his candidates and the complete list of titles submitted was distributed to all. Participants were asked to vote only on whether an individual work merited inclusion or not (no vetoes were allowed, for reasons which will become evident.) Any book with at least four votes was included.”

      Which is interesting, because that suggests that at least four people felt that The Wailing Rock Murders (and other titles that JJ alludes to) was in fact an impossible crime.

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      • That’s why I think faulty memory allowed it to get nominated. The Wailing Rock Murders was still an obscure, out-of-print title in 2007 and the participants probably read it years, or even decades, before they were asked to submit their titles. They probably remembered it as a good, atmospheric Carr/Talbot-like novel and Adey’s Locked Room Murders confirmed it as a locked room. So without any copies handy to check, it managed to get at least four votes.

        Maybe it’s time to compile a new list? One that picks the best novels and short stories from each decade? Everyone can submit up to ten, or so, titles from each decade with at most two titles from the same writer for each decade.

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