Even a crazy woman should have a chance to speak for herself. How else could anyone tell the sane from the insane?
Ever since Wilma Rathjen came to work at the bakery, she’s been in trouble for one thing or another. She tries hard, but it always seem to go wrong. Now her neighbor Jeri Lynn has failed to pick up an expensive birthday cake she ordered. For once, it isn’t Wilma’s mistake. She knows that Jeri has been dead in her bathtub for two days.
Wilma has a history of mental instability and is known for making false police reports. Even after Jeri’s body is finally discovered, she keeps quiet (with great effort) to avoid embarrassing her socially prominent brother, who owns the apartment court she lives in. He built her an apartment on the roof of the building, isolated from human society below. From her perch, lonely but safe, Wilma watches and passes judgment on her neighbors, especially beautiful dancer Jeri.
At first Sergeant John Peter Osgood isn’t sure there’s been a murder. But a dead blonde in a bathtub is always interesting, and experience tells him that “when that many people ran for the hills, somebody had to be guilty of something.”All of Jeri’s neighbors are acting oddly, from the singer whose advances she spurned to the boss’s husband, who didn’t spurn hers. Jeri’s real identity is a mystery. Despite being unemployed for six months, she sported a brand-new mink. And no one knows who she ordered that fancy birthday cake for.
The world of the apartment court is vividly rendered. It’s one of those mythical complexes where all the neighbors hang out by the pool trading slangy quips (“Starlet—that’s Hollywood for photogenic female, unemployed”). The tenants are mostly show-biz hopefuls, some of whom have been hoping for a very long time. Jeri fit right in with this crowd. Wilma decidedly does not.
As the residents of the apartment court turn on one another, Wilma’s increasingly unhinged behavior makes her a target. Wilma comes to believe she’s in danger—but is it real, or just another delusion? And if it is real, how can she get anyone to believe her?
It’s a trope of suspense novels for sane protagonists to be falsely believed insane. Wilma Rathjen is genuinely debilitated by mental illness, yet she must still negotiate a life-threatening situation on her own. “A neurotic woman with a talent for making trouble,” Wilma believes she has important evidence about Jeri’s death. However, she also believed her former neighbor was a Communist spy, and that landed her in the psych ward. She’d rather die than be wrong like that again.
Nielsen is unflinching in portraying not only Wilma’s misery, but also her obnoxiousness. Haughty, judgmental, and socially awkward, she lashes out like a wounded animal if anyone tries to be kind to her. But Wilma’s life is full of terrors beyond their comprehension. Obsessed by filth and sin, she cleans her home compulsively, driven to despair by dirt that only she can see. At times, the apartment that serves as her only sanctuary becomes instead a torture chamber:
There was no use trying to clean any more. The dirt accumulated faster than it could be removed. She’d been over the rugs half a dozen times, dusted until her arms ached, and scrubbed until her fingers were raw. Now she sat in the darkness so she couldn’t see the dirt come back. It was a frightening thing, and she didn’t want to be alone […] the police always wanted a name for fear. There should be someplace people could call who were just afraid of being afraid.
Yet, if the reader feels irritation toward Wilma, one cannot help but feel sympathy as well. Wilma’s life is profoundly sad, controlled by her anxieties and obsessions. If she is ridiculous at times, she is also brave for going out each day into a world full of horrors.
Sergeant Osgood is the only character who doesn’t dismiss Wilma, because he can see parts of himself in her. A shy, middle-aged bachelor who lives with his mother, Osgood is always being schooled on the facts of life by his flashy young partner. But in his quiet way, he understands a great deal. Osgood listens to Wilma and takes her seriously; he views her as a human being, not just a crazy woman. He also delivers a well-deserved smackdown to her awful brother.
Insane is a pretty strong word, Mr. Rathjen. If you had my job, you’d stop thinking of your sister as a freak. This city is crawling with frightened people just like her. Maybe they’ve lost a loved one and can’t get used to being alone; maybe they’ve just committed the terrible sin of getting old and unemployable. One way or the other, they’re left with a lot of time on their hands and too many scare-artists screaming in their ear. A lot of shoddy merchandise is being peddled by fear these days, and it’s lonely people like your sister who pay the tax.
Still, even if she survives this ordeal, it’s hard to feel optimistic about Wilma’s future. Jeri’s death has left a vacant apartment on the ground floor. Maybe Wilma will be able to come down off the roof. I hope so.
The Woman on the Roof is a rare example of a writer using a mentally ill character as a protagonist and not really caring if that lead role comes off as sympathetic. Still, Nielsen does an admirable job of presenting an obviously deeply troubled and neurotic woman well aware of her fears and paranoia and not turning her into the typical nut job you find in crime fiction of this era. Initially it’s hard to like Wilma for all the seemingly ludicrous things she does but we do come to feel how trapped she feels. Sympathy does not come easy from Nielsen’s pen but eases out over the course of the story.
Nielsen was a superior writer of suspense, with a good grasp of how to keep a plot moving and a really strong empathy with her often highly unusual characters. In particular, I was really drawn to the unusual mutual sympathy that eventually builds between Osgood and the sad and damaged Wilma, who everyone just dismisses as a ‘loony’ (especially after a second murder that she seems to have committed) – the two ultimately finding a measure of understanding, against the odds. This makes the book feel surprisingly modern and really elevates it.
The Woman on the Roof is available in paperback and ebook formats from Black Gat Books/Stark House Press.
3 thoughts on “The Woman on the Roof (1954) by Helen Nielsen”
Another intriguing review. Based on what you’ve said it seems that the theme of mental health is treated in a much more nuanced and interesting way. Another one to keep my eye out for.
The treatment of mental illness is strikingly modern–it’s hard to believe this book was written in 1954. Unlike other books of the era, there’s no scene where they find out the cause of her problems and she’s magically cured. It’s the others who need to be cured of thinking her inhuman just because she’s different.
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