Sunday, February 1, 2009

The Doll’s Trunk Murder, by Helen Reilly

Although she penned more than 40 novels and once served as the president of the Mystery Writers of America, Helen Reilly is not familiar to most readers these days. Yet, as Mike Grost recalled in Mystery*File, she is deservedly acclaimed as one of the first crime-fictionists to stress accurate police procedures in her novels.

The majority of her books featured Inspector Christopher McKee, a New York City detective operating out of the old Police Headquarters on Centre Street (built in 1910, but currently given over to condominiums). Although McKee first appeared in The Diamond Feather (1930), it was for his star turn in McKee of Centre Street (1933)--considered to have been Reilly’s “breakthrough novel”--that he is best recalled. Of that work, Grost writes:
McKee of Centre Street sticks to its police procedure paradigm throughout its entire length. The book is extremely pure in its approach. Nearly everything in the book consists of the police examining a crime scene, finding some physical clue, and then using it to reconstruct the actions of the suspects and the victim. The police also use the eye-witness testimony of innocent bystanders, and the facilities of a huge police operation. They also do much trailing of the suspects, and even go so far [as] to spy on them on occasion. The suspects all stonewall and lie to the police at every opportunity, so the suspects’ testimony plays only a small role in this book, as compared to, say, a typical [S.S.] Van Dine school novel.

Although the suspects’ movements and actions are endlessly traced, they are on stage for only a small fraction of the time they would be in a conventional Golden Age novel, and they do not really come alive as characters. Throughout the novel there is vivid descriptive writing, especially of the buildings in which the suspects move, and of New York City lighting and atmosphere, as if to create a portrait of the city.

This purity of approach has both strengths and weaknesses. It can be monotonous, and lack variety. But it does allow Reilly to explore her innovative techniques at length.
Reilly went on to compose 26 additional McKee novels--the last being The Day She Died--before she herself died in January 1962, at age 71. In addition to those, however, she left behind a handful of standalone works, including The Doll’s Trunk Murder (1932), which I’m highlighting on this page today. Relating the plot of that novel in his New York Times review of November 20, 1932 (published in the wake of the national election that first sent Franklin D. Roosevelt to the White House), critic Isaac Anderson explained:
Three Mile House, an isolated homestead on a Pennsylvania mountainside, is the scene of most of the strange events with which this story deals. The story opens with the death of Mary Alice Greer, the elderly owner of this house. Within a few days of her death the house is rented, completely furnished, to Miss Fenwick, who makes it plan that she likes solitude and hopes to find it there. She has scarcely taken possession when the house is thronged with visitors seeking shelter from a terrific snowstorm. Among the last to arrive are Sheriff Craven and Mr. Brierly, who appear on the scene just in time to discover the body of a woman who has been murdered. In spite of the storm people continue to dash into and out of the house in a fashion that is most disconcerting to the Sheriff and his volunteer assistant. To make things worse, almost every person in the house appears to have something to hide. The story is so packed with mystery that the author has all she can do to straighten things out in the last chapter. The reader’s interest is not permitted to flag for a single instant, for there is something doing on every page, and suspicious characters are as plentiful as election promises were a few weeks ago.
The “bondage” illustration fronting the 1949 Popular Library paperback edition of The Doll’s Trunk Murder--shown at the top of this post--was done by Rudolph Belarski. During the 1930s, Belarski became famous for the buxom, bug-eyed blondes in distress and shovel-jawed detectives he portrayed on dozens of Popular Library crime novels. For this particular Helen Reilly suspenser, he gives us a noticeably disheveled brunette, threatened by a knife-wielding miscreant, her calls for help chocked off by surgical tape but her yellow dress barely able to contain her fear-heaving breasts. (No doubt, this imagery improved Belarski’s stock among post-World War II male mystery readers, though it’s likely that the cleavage and prominent nipples incited some protestations from their wives.) It’s an eye-catcher, to be sure.

A final note: Helen Reilly (née Helen Kiernan, born to a former president of New York’s Hunter College) was the mother of two other mystery novelists, Mary McMullen (Death by Request, Welcome to the Grave) and Ursula Curtiss (Catch a Killer). She was also the sister of James Kiernan (Jr.), a onetime press secretary to New York Mayor Fiorello H. LaGuardia and author (Come Die with Me, 1951). Sometimes, it seems, writing talent runs in families.

FOLLOW-UP: A modified version of Belarski’s artwork for The Doll’s Trunk Murder appeared on a 1943 edition of Detective Novels Magazine. You can see that here.

READ MORE:Dying for a Refund,” by J. Kingston Pierce
(The Rap Sheet).


Unknown said...

That's my Great Grandmother!

Anonymous said...

Just found this novel (sans the irrelevant illustrated cover of questionable taste) in a beach cottage on Nantucket. What a great story! Checking to see whether or not it was ever made into a film - it is quintessentially cinematic! Sarah, I hope you know a producer, this would make a great PBS mystery! Delighted to learn about the author -she sounds wonderful.

Susan D said...

Ha! Anonymous... I just found the cover, sans the book itself, in the trading tent at the local dump in Minden, Ontario. Coincidence?

Well, it's going to make a great birthday card for a fellow Sister in Crime.