Saturday, April 16, 2011

So the murderer must be somewhere in this house... unless he had very long arms!

You know, usually when I write these reviews, I try to start things on a clever note by starting with some sort of broad statement, and then whittling it down until I get to the book I wish to review itself. I find that I can’t really do this for today’s review. The author in question, Rufus King, is one I had never heard of until I stumbled over a little row of his books on the 10th floor of the library. I cannot comment on how good or bad an author King was, or what I like or dislike about him— at least not until I get to the main review. Well, enough stalling; today I will be looking at Rufus King’s Somewhere in This House.

This is truly a bizarre book. The events all take place in the same secluded house in the countryside over the course of one night. A maid, Alice Tribeau, has been shot, but luckily she isn’t dead. Lieutenant Valcour is near the scene, and so, along with the man he’s staying with, Dr. Harlan, he goes off to the house to investigate while Harlan treats the young lady.

There are three other inhabitants in the house. First, there’s Mr. Sturm, a man getting on in years, whose health isn’t in the greatest shape, but he shows himself to be a level-headed, shrewd, and calculating man. There’s also his son, Will, who is in the middle of an extremely unhappy marriage to Vera. Will is convinced that Vera’s presence is poisoning his father, while Vera believes that if only they’d stayed in the city, they would’ve turned out O.K. As the night wears on, the tensions between these characters rises, while a heavy snowstorm rages outside…

These characters are well-developed, and ultimately feel like real people, and not simply words on a page. Their relationships, quarrels, and behaviours generally seem very real and genuine. There are, however, very odd touches about the way these characters are presented to the reader. The maid, Alice Tribeau, is almost always referred to as Alice Tribeau. You would expect a family with a maid would simply call her Alice or Miss Tribeau, but instead, they always take the time to say both her name and surname—even in their heads. Meanwhile, Vera and Will are almost always simply Vera and Will, though at the same time, they probably get the most exceptions, with occasional references to “Mr. Sturm” or “Mrs. Sturm”. Meanwhile, the head of the household gets no name— at least none that I can remember. It’s either Father or “Mr. Sturm.” Some of these choices can get annoying at times, particularly in the case of Alice Tribeau.

The plot is not very good. There is an effective claustrophobic atmosphere, but it’s far from the best I’ve ever read, though still very good. It doesn’t change the fact that Lieutenant Valcour, the main detective, ultimately comes across as a fool—oh, no he shows competence overall, but he is fooled by things that wouldn’t have deceived a five-year-old. When he finally does solve the case, he cries out something along the lines of “What a fool I’ve been!” to which I can only shake my head in agreement. The plot never does get very good; neither the shooting of Alice Tribeau nor a second attack are very interesting, and the clueing is most certainly unfair. Most of the solution hinges on evidence that the reader cannot use, such as fingerprints or samples of handwriting. Not only that, the solution leaves a lot to be desired, as you are never convinced of the inevitability that X and only X could have been the culprit.

In addition, there are a few strands of plot which never seem to belong, including an attempted poisoning plot which is suddenly and confusingly thrust into the reader’s face, as though in an attempt to distract from the far-too-obvious solution to the case. King also misses a glorious chance for an impossible crime, which I thought would be the direction the book would take at first. Why? There was only one set of footprints in the snow, which stopped falling long enough to establish that nobody else entered the house after Alice Tribeau, and therefore, there was no outsider responsible. One of the characters is an invalid, I was simply waiting for a scene where we’d get the declaration “But nobody  could have shot her! I was in Dad’s presence, and Dad’s heart would give away at the sound of a gun! And Will is terrified of guns! That’s why we don’t have one in the house!” I was waiting, waiting for the miraculous appearance and disappearance of a gun to become the problem. It never was—turns out there was a gun in the house all along, in a really boring explanation.

So, the plot is pretty bad and frankly bizarre at times, but the central characters at least are strong, and there’s decent atmosphere. There’s also a really effective segment of extremely dark humour, where one of the characters gets drunk and we get to share his mad ravings. I wish I could share it with you, but it is the result of pages of character development and tension, finally released under the spell of the drink.

There is one other thing I have to praise King for: his writing. I mentioned earlier that a snowstorm plays a significant part in this story, and the writing is simply beautiful, as King masterfully captures the beauty and grandeur of Nature gone wild. His other descriptions, of atmosphere, of character, and of setting, are all simply marvellous.

Unfortunately, the book’s problems are too severe to ignore. Despite the strong stuff it has going its way, the problems bog it down, ultimately making it an entry into mediocrity with a few good ideas. I don’t particularly recommend it to mystery fans, but if the only other thing left on the library’s shelves is Twilight, this book will do very nicely.

6 comments:

  1. Your first experience with King is not much different from mine, and even the books seem to suffer from the same kind of problems. Still, I don't want to give up on him after sampling just one book – especially since one of his mysteries features a Wolfian detective.

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  2. King is a decent author- I don't plan on entirely giving up on him, but since the university's libraries have got only really beat-up copies of his other books, they're not really going to be big priorities for me.

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  3. Hey, have you checked if your library has any detective stories by that other elusive mystery royalty, Mr. C. Daly King, in their stock?

    It would be great to have, at least, some reviews up of books like Arrogant Alibi and Careless Corpse.

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  4. There are two psychology books by an author of that name... Sorry, my luck isn't limitless! ;)

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  5. What's wrong with reading beat up books? Sometimes if I absolutely have no other choice I have suffered through some of the ugliest reading copies on the planet. But I often feel like I need a thorough decontamination process like the one in The Andromeda Strain after handling the boards and turning pages of some of these "reading copies."

    Off topic now, but I had to let you know this.

    Received some books from a Canadian bookstore last night. It's a brick and mortar store with a website. And I'm thinking the store must be close to you. It's in Cambridge, ON. Why do I think this? Inside on the first page of The Reader Is Warned there is an embossed stamp that reads:

    Library of K.N.M. Keith Nolan Melville

    With all these bizarre conincidences building upon one another I'm beginning to think that my life is turning into a novel by Harry Stephen Keeler.

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  6. No way! That is definitely the store I go to all the time; Paperbacks Unlimited, am I correct? I could spend hours perusing the shelves there, and it's only an hour's bus ride from the University of Waterloo (where I currently await my final exam of the term).

    I have no "real" objection to reading a beat up book myself if need be. (One time, I read through a really beat-up copy of "They Came to Baghdad", and one of my friends simply opened the book and it fell apart.) But honestly, I prefer not to go constantly paranoid over whether I'm handling the book gently enough. "Somewhere in this House" was the one King in excellent condition, which is why I chose to read it, instead of "Murder by the Clock" or "Murder by Latitude".

    And heh, I have yet to subject myself to a monstrosity by Keeler, but if it's anywhere nearly as laughable as Ed Wood's movies, I'm sure it's awful.

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