Sunday, October 23, 2022

The Listening House: Mabel Seeley

Published in 1938, The Listening House is a suspenseful and sometimes creepy mystery with a boarding house setting. The boarders (and the landlady) are all strange, sometimes sinister, types. The story is perfect for this time of year.

Gwynne Dacres is a 26-year-old divorcee who loses her job as a copywriter. It is hard to find a job, and she needs to find a place to live that she can afford. She discovers an advertisement for two rooms (one of them a kitchen) available for a reasonable price at a boarding house. When she checks the place out, she is put off by the dark, smelly, gloomy hallway that leads to the rooms. But the rooms are very nice, even including her own private lavatory. So she moves in quickly.

Very shortly after Gwynne moves in, she discovers the body of a man near the boarding house. The initial investigation focuses on the residents of the house, but there is no evidence that the death of the man was connected to any of them.

Interest in that event dies down, but Gwynne is bothered by sounds in the night. There is a break in and the police come back to investigate. And finally one of the people living in the house is found dead, after being missing for days. People want to move out, but the police won't let them.

The story is told by Gwynne Dacres. These are the opening paragraphs.

I am not sure, myself, that I should open the door of Mrs. Garr's house and let you in. I'm not at all sure that the truth about what happened there is tellable. People keep saying to me that the rumors going around are simply ghoulish, and ought to be laid to rest. But I've heard those rumors, some of them at least, and they're not a bit more nightmarish than the truth. Finally, of course, I gave in to pressure.

"Okay, I'll do it," I said.

Because, after all, I'm the one that not only knows almost everything that went on in Mrs. Garr's house in April, May, and June of this year, but also why a lot of it went on. And, unless Hodge Kistler wrote it, no one else could get the ending anywhere near right.

Since agreeing, I have made seventeen entirely separate and different beginnings.

I have begun with the cat's swift sneak and hunch under the bookcase of that dark hall. I have begun with my first sight of Hodge Kistler chinning himself on the bar. I have begun with those terrifying hands reaching for my throat. I have begun with the opening of a door that led to an unimaginable hell.

I picked this book to read in October for the R.eaders I.mbibing P.eril event because the description sounded like it would be sufficiently suspenseful and scary for this time of year, and still within the limits I will read. I am partial to a boarding house setting, and I loved such things as the list of characters at the beginning of the book and the detailed plans of the house, including the basement and the first and second floor.

Some parts of the story are fast moving. At other times the pace slows as the police review the possible suspects... over and over. But either way, I enjoyed it, because Gwynne was such an entertaining narrator.

Along the way, two men compete for Gwynne's attentions: the police detective (Lieutenant Strom) and another lodger, a newspaperman, Hodge Kistler. And she doesn't seem aware of it.

I won't say much more except that I loved the ending. 

Also see the reviews at The Passing Tramp, Beneath the Stains of Time, and crossexaminingcrime


Publisher:   Berkley Prime Crime, 2021. Orig. pub. 1938.
Length:      349 pages
Format:      Trade Paperback
Setting:      US
Genre:       Mystery
Source:      I purchased this book.


Cath said...

This sounds really good! Was it psychologically frightening? I'm a bit of a wimp when it comes to that kind of thing but I'm ok with just suspenseful.

Margot Kinberg said...

Oh, this does sound creepy, Tracy, and just right for the time of year. There's something about the boarding house setting, too, isn't there? All sorts of disparate people and such possibilities for plots. The building itself sounds deliciously eerie, too. Glad you enjoyed it.

pattinase (abbott) said...

I think I read this fifty years ago but I want to reread it now.

TracyK said...

Cath, I enjoyed the book a lot. We have already purchased a copy of the other one that has been recently reprinted (The Chuckling Fingers) and I hope I like it just as well.

It is not psychologically frightening; I don't enjoy that kind of story myself, usually. It does get a bit gruesome at times but really it was well within my limits.

TracyK said...

Margot, I love boarding house settings. And you are right, this particular building was really creepy, although Gwynne was pretty grounded and it didn't bother her that much.

TracyK said...

Patti, I was surprised that I had not heard of this author. Although I probably did sometime in the last few years (and forgot) because Curtis Evans at The Passing Tramp has been writing about her books since 2013.

Lark said...

I want to read this one! I like that boarding house setting, too. :)

TracyK said...

Lark, I also like hotel settings, but sometimes a hotel can be like a small city. Boarding houses keep the number of characters smaller and closer together.

CLM said...

I also like boarding house and hotel settings - clearly because they are a variation on the house party theme.

I wonder if I should recommend this to my friend who is a copywriter? She actually had to rent a room on someone's home when working several hours from home. However, she lost her job so maybe too much like real life? However, I will check the library for it.

TracyK said...

Constance, you are right, house parties do have a similar set up. One of the Lady Hardcastle books I read recently was set mostly during a house party and that does throw people together for a few days.

I thought the copywriter was an interesting job for a woman in 1938. The job isn't emphasized too much since most of the time she cannot get work, but Gwynne was very intelligent and resourceful and did research for the case in a newspaper's archives.