- By Carolyn Wells
- First published: USA: J.B. Lippincott, 1918
“To find a tale which is at once a good ghost story and a good mystery story is to feel that a very fat and juicy plum has been discovered in the midst of the somewhat doughy mass of contemporary fiction.” – New York Times
Nine New Yorkers rent a haunted house in the Vermont backwoods for a month to see if they can raise any spooks. A previous owner was murdered by his wife; his body disappeared from a locked room, and she went mad. Now, her spectre – a shawled woman with a death’s head – manifests by guests’ beds to offer them prussic acid and count down their remaining days. Two guests are told they will die at four o’clock … and they expire at the fatal hour, in the middle of afternoon tea. The murders are apparently insoluble: there was no trace of poison or violence; the food and drink couldn’t have been poisoned; yet both victims died within half a minute. And one of those bodies disappears from a locked room…
That mixture of horror and mystery, ha’nts and sleuthing would have thrilled the young John Dickson Carr. The situation reappears in his Man Who Could Not Shudder, twenty-odd years later (and in a few stories by Helen McCloy and Gladys Mitchell, among others).
This is one of Wells’s better detective stories. The build-up is excellent: candlesticks are swapped in the middle of the night, and the ghostly apparitions are suitably hair-raising. I won’t say who the victims are; it’s a startling choice, and bolder than I would have given Wells credit for. (She warned against it in her Technique of the Mystery Story.)
The murderer is a surprise. Looking back, careful reading of the murder scene tells you who and how; so does another incident (gur Bhvwn obneq points clearly to one of two people). On the other hand, we can’t really guess the motive (a telegram from Chicago reveals the villain’s past), and we should have been told about the oiled doors. There is, of course, a secret passage for the ‘ghost’ to use, but not to commit the murders. The method is not desperately ingenious; anyone expecting a brilliant Carr solution will be disappointed. Making a certain person more culpable would also have improved the story.
See also J.F. Norris’s review.
Boston Transcript (9th October 1918, 400w): This is certainly an unusual detective story. The solution is distinctly a surprise.
Nation (19th October 1918, 190w): It is folly for the reader to look for anything like characterisation or consecutive human action in this variety. It is also risky for the story-teller to pretend even for a moment that his puppets are alive.
New York Times (27th October 1918, 350w): To find a tale which is at once a good ghost story and a good mystery story is to feel that a very fat and juicy plum has been discovered in the midst of the somewhat doughy mass of contemporary fiction.
A Catalogue of Crime (Barzun & Taylor, 1989): The scene is a haunted house somewhere in the Green Mountains of Vermont, visited by a ghost-hunting party. Spectres and Ouija boards predict deaths that duly occur. General dismay until Pennington Wise and his girl assistant Zizi come and discover the plot beneath the spiritism. Some clues and some detection but no real characterisation and little probability. A serious flaw, if mentioned, would give away the solution.