Saturday, April 25, 2020

Clifford Orr : The Wailing Rock Murders, 1932

Clifford Orr: who was he? I glean informations from the succinct biography published at the bottom of the volume published by Polillo: “Clifford Orr (1899-1951), born in Portland, Maine, manifested an early vocation for writing and, while attending Dartmouth University, he signed several musicals as librettist staged by the students of the theater course. After leaving university (without a degree even though he had completed the expected 4 years), he occasionally continued writing song lyrics, one of which was brought to success by Doris Day. For a few years he worked as a journalist at the Boston Evening Transcript and he later went on to manage the Wall Street bookstore of the Doubleday publishing house, Doran. In 1929 he made his debut with the crime film The Dartmouth Murders, which gained wide popularity thanks to the unusual setting, the campus of a famous college where three students are killed. This rather conventional mystery was followed by The Wailing Rock Murders, a much more original novel that in many ways refers to the work of the contemporary John Dickson Carr. Despite announcing a third book, Orr quit his literary career and for the next twenty years served as editorialist for The New Yorker magazine. Homosexual and alcoholic, he had an unhappy private life and died in Hanover, New Hampshire, just before he turned 52.”
I begin saying that it is certainly an excellent novel, which owes part of its fame to the atmosphere that pervades it, in harmony with the contemporary novels of John Dickson Carr: there is a cliff that due to a geo-morphological joke, emits in particular moments a noise that seems a cry. When this cry was heard in the past, a death occurred: the direct consequence is that they attributed a nefarious omen. The last time this seems to have happened was eleven years earlier when a sailor died. The fact is that the cliff again emits the excruciating cry just before a new death is discovered. Whose?  Garda Lawrence, pupil and protégé of Spaton Meech, called Spider for his monstrous deformity: a disproportionate head, which hangs curving his back in a hump, and arms long enough to reach the knees. Garda Lawrence had been invited by the spouses Farnol, Creamer and Vera and their daughter Patricia: she was a friend of her daughter who had allowed her to bring two friends, Philip Masterson and Victor Millard. Then there were other guests in the house, friends of the Farnol: Richard and Helen St. John. Garda had also invited his stepfather Spaton Meech, a famous detective, who had helped the police in intricate cases.
Everything seemed to be going well, until the tragic event occurred: Spaton goes for a ride on the beach (the house towers over the cliff) and he sees that the light in the Garda room, in the dome located in the highest part of the house, it is off, while in the other twin house (the Farnol house is separated by about a kilometer of cliff, by another twin house in all respects, also owned by the Farnol family, uninhabited for many years) there is a light on. Then the light turns on in Garda's room and then he begins to run wanting to talk to the girl before she is turned off again: he climbs the stairs, arrives at the door, knocks repeatedly, sees the darkness through the keyhole for which he thinks that a key is inserted on the other side: call without answer. Call other guests and they decide to knock down the door: the window is open and the strong ocean wind makes papers swirl among them. Turning on the light, a gruesome scene is presented to him: someone has slaughtered the girl. A good deal of time has already occurred as evidenced by the already clotted blood: yet someone has returned to the scene of the crime. No key is inserted on the other side of the door nor is it on the ground.
Spaton is in charge of the investigations, as an external detective who has collaborated several times with the police: this is already an oddity, which will have repercussions on the course of the investigations, because when the investigator is directly involved in investigations into personal or family matters, so that the investigation is as impartial as possible, it is carried out by another person. Here, however, it is he who takes on the investigation directly, assisted by the sheriff. First of all, in order to have a summary of the situation, he questions those present, among which must necessarily be the murderer, who surely operated either before or after Vera Farnol brought her the dinner tray, since she had given up dining with the others: the tray is still found outside the door.
To prevent anyone from leaving, Spider locks those present in their bedrooms, and thus notices another room which according to the landlord should contain household goods and junk and which instead hides another beautiful furnished room. However, it is still closed in that situation.
Since there are also the sheriff and the deputy sheriff who preside over the house, Spider gives his room to the Sheriff while he obtains after various insistences the landlord give him the key to the front door of the twin house. Which should be uninhabited and where instead he has seen a light. He goes there and finds Philip Masterson, one of his protégé's friends, who unexpectedly confesses he killed Garda. And he also gives him the murder weapon, a very sharp knife in a silver case. Spider overcomes his anger and his desire to kill him, but his walking stick breaks the glass of the dome window and falls downstairs. Spider closes the young man in the room and goes to warn the sheriff, and also to retrieve the stick. When instead… someone with the same wood knocks him out. He wakes up, assisted by the sheriff and learns someone while he was passed out, surely his assailant, killed Masterson. The fact is, however, that everyone had an alibi at the time of death, as they were in their rooms and Masterson ran away from one of them for a small terrace, which the others rooms don’t  have. Surely Spaton Meech thinks someone managed to get out of his room with an artifice. He also learns there has been a shooting at the Farnol house, between the deputy sheriff and someone who was wandering near the house: this person was injured, as evidenced by the bloodstains. So, since the only one who may have been injured, he is who attacked him and then killed Masterson, they start looking for him. He finds blood on Mrs. St. John's shoulder, and assuming that only her husband would have touched her there, speculates the killer is Richard St. John. In this case, a typical case of the Locked Room would appear, as he would have managed to get out of his room on the first floor of the Farnol and then re-enter it, leaving the key inserted from the outside. But then, discovering the man who left her in Sutton, he is convinced of his guilt.
At this point, attention is shifted elsewhere. If Masterson lied to protect someone, who could be?
However Spider doesn't find his pocket flashlight, and Sutton swears wasn't him. At this point, Masterson's crime would become an impossible crime because none of those present in the Farnol house could have killed him as they were locked in their respective rooms, and having sworn Sutton to Spider he didn’t take his torch, nor his walking stick.
That there is more meat in the kelp is testified by the bell deal. A bell rings in the Farnol house while Spider is at home, and since nobody can have used an appliance in the house as they are supervised, it is evident that someone else must have done it. After a certain investigation, they turn out that in the other twin housem, in a room an authentic horror of a woman is kept segregated, a being so ugly and deformed that only with Spider could she pair up: she is Vera Farnol's mother, Vera Darlow. Which accuses the son-in-law of a crime perpetrated eleven years earlier: the sailor killed eleven years before was the son of Vera Darlow, heir to fortune, whom Creamer Farnol had taken possession of.
Subsequently it is discovered instead that to kill the man, it was not Creamer but his wife. But that at the same time she was not responsible for the act performed as "unable to understand and want" normally, as the victim of a split personality: two different reals, one mild, the other ferocious and murderous, interpreter of hatred that the sister brooded towards her brother but was holding back
On this second possible lead (could a person with doubled personality have killed Garda if a part of his subconscious had hated her? Especially since she had gone up from Garda leaving the tray. And if this had been only an excuse for go to her and kill her?), Spider is also brought by the confession of Patricia Farnol, involved in the murder of Garda from the discovery of her bloody fingerprints on the inside handle of the door: she would have turned on the light in the room. Murderer or visitor? The confession directs the investigation towards the second hypothesis, but at the same time the girl supports the hypothesis that her mother may have been guilty of the murder of Garda too.
In a crescendo of tension, an unexpected suicide will take place and a shocking truth will appear in the spectacular ending that concludes the novel, in which the clue of the pocket torch of Spider will illuminate an unsuspected assassin, while with a pirouette worthy of a great virtuosist, he will return to affirm a truth said at the beginning of the novel, on the basis of the comparison between two examples of writing attributed to the same hand.
This is a true masterpiece known by few.
It is a spectacular novel for various things.
First of all, Spider's first-person narrative in what can be considered a kind of diary, a report of something that has been experienced and that has left aftermath, in a sort of "dreamlike delusion". In which, the fantastic element, albeit in the background, becomes responsible for a sick mind. Fantastic element that obviously combines Orr to Carr
It is not the only element of interest, however, and indeed there are many, because this novel has not only used pre-existing material but has also influenced, I would say, some subsequent novels: it represents a sort of link between some famous novelists and others.
Let's look at them in depth.
First of all, there are two twin houses, which had been given according to Creamer Farnol by a father to two children. Which work do you think about? Ellery Queen's The Lamp of God, 1935.. of course.  Could Orr's novel from 1932 have influenced Ellery Queen? In my opinion, yup. Since this American novel had a wide echo: there too two twin houses, spaced about a kilometer away, and donated by a father to two children.
Then there is a house where a series of crimes happen: at that time, the work that certainly influenced Orr was S.S.Van Dine's The Greene Murder Case, a work that has always been one of the pillars of the novel mystery. Various elements are repeated from Van Dine's work: the detective who uses a police element as his right hand-man (the sheriff here, the Vice District Attorney there); the unstable killer of mind; the presence of a German essay on psychology applied to criminology: there the Handbuch fur Untersuchungsrichter by Hans Gross, here Das Verbrechen und Die Geistesunterstromung by Doctor Bernd; the killer who commits suicide.
Two of the three killers have a split into two distinct personalities, which is one of the characteristics e.g. from Helen McCloy's novel, Through a Glass Darkly (1950). And the same hallucinatory atmosphere may have influenced Joel Townsley Rogers' The Red Right Hand from 1945 or even John Franklin Bardin's The Deadly Percheron from 1946.
The final revelation undoubtedly originates in one of Agatha Christie's masterpieces; and will also be filmed by Joel Townsley Rogers himself. Although here, the culprit does not know he is, because he is victim of a doubling of personality.
It may even have influenced Albergo delle tre rose (1935) by Augusto De Angelis? The hypothesis does not seem to me to be so outlandish: a pension there, a house here, but on a floor which many rooms overlook. And among the many, even one that should contain household goods and junk, a sort of closet. If De Angelis knew Virgil Markham's The Devil Drives and Charles Daly King's Obelists Fly High, why not assume the knowledge of other American masterpieces of that period?
There are some notes out of tune here and there, however, alongside a profusion of clues and false leads: there is a main plot (the death of Garda and the confession of Masterson followed by his death), and then there they are two distinct subplots: Vera Farnol's sleepwalking, which can be explained as a state of unconsciousness in which the subject lives a parallel experience compared to that which he experiences at any other time of the day; and the physical monstrosity of the mother, Vera Darlow, which can be explained as a somatization of madness. And next to a certain solution, another conceivable but false and one finally not taken into consideration but exact. The discordant note, which has also been emphasized by my acquaintance Noah Stewart, reveals a certain Orr immaturity in the realization of maps in the novels: it’s the absence of any bathroom, even common, on a floor on which overlook the guest rooms. If you think about it, the observation is extremely pressing.

Roland Lacourbe likes this novel and testifies it to having included it in its appendix of 99 Locked Rooms and Impossible Crimes, the result of the 2007 Meeting, despite in itself the impossible crime and a claimed Locked Room that is not, are not the maximum; nevertheless his friends, the "technical" experts, Soupart, Bourgeoise and Fooz, didn’t like the same novel since they gave it the minimum evaluation in 1001 Chambres Ecloses. The double opinion reflects the ambivalence of the novel: if you see it as a delusional, hallucinatory work, full of true and false tracks, with a unique charm, the first is right; if you see it instead as a work representative of the sub-genre of Locked Room and Other Impossible Crimes, paraphrasing Bob Adey, the novel comes out significantly reduced.
I liked the novel very much. And it is testified by the speed with which I read it, also a sign of an emotional level and very high tension.
The last time I read a book with such speed, it was forty years ago, when I read Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose.

Pietro De Palma