“I used to think how curious it was that Father should spend his youth to free the slaves, and then employ his maturity to enslave his children.”
It’s supposed to be a heartwarming family Thanksgiving for the Hieronomos, the last one in their ancestral home. After the recent death of her father, Anne is especially excited to meet her relatives for the first time. Then iron-willed Aunt Amanda turns up dead in Anne’s bedroom. Anne soon realizes how little she knows about these strangers who share her blood.
The crime is rooted in the long-ago death of the family patriarch. Anne’s great-grandfather John Hieronomo, famous abolitionist and hero of the Underground Railroad, dominated the lives of his descendants. Anne’s father broke away from his suffocating influence. Amanda, Patience, Richard, and Hoy did not, solaced by the thought of their inheritance. Then the septuagenarian John became engaged to a girl young enough to be his granddaughter. He was killed in a mysterious accident on their wedding day and his fiancée Daisy fled to Europe with his entire fortune.
The surviving Hieronomos are still enraged, a quarter-century later. “We earned every penny,” Aunt Patience insists. “We earned it with our lives.” Their only legacy is the Maryland mansion they can’t afford to keep but were forbidden to sell for twenty-five years. The terms of the will have finally expired and they plan to split the profits of the sale. Still, the lost fortune weighs heavily on everyone’s minds. After all, it was never proven that Daisy made off with it.
The other legacy of John’s death is the rift between the Hieronomos and their next-door neighbors, the Ayres family. John’s relations believe his late business partner Stanley Ayres was complicit in the theft of their inheritance.
Now Stanley’s son Dan lives next door. The otherwise intelligent Anne falls in love with him at first sight, leading to a laughably bad “romantic” subplot. Anne doesn’t have an alibi for Aunt Amanda’s murder due to a secret rendezvous with Dan, which he failed to keep. She’s desperate to see him again, but when she does, “Dan was a stranger to me.” Well, yes, you’ve only met once before! He is literally a stranger to you! At one point, she smashes a hole in the fence with a rock in her frenzy to be near him, even though Dan’s already broken up with her. When he blocks her from trespassing on his property through the massive hole she just made in his fence, Anne is shocked. How could anyone have predicted such an outcome?
Aside from this ridiculous storyline, The Balcony is an excellent Had-I-But-Known tale, with some legit detection thrown in. Narrator Anne is a perceptive observer of her eccentric relations. The crumbling old mansion, “so vast, so chilling, and so magnificent,” makes a truly scary backdrop for the dark doings of past and present. Due to the southern location, I was expecting sultry summer heat. Instead, the house is buried in snow. Disney (no relation to Walt) excels at describing the wintry setting, with the swirling snow reflecting Anne’s heightened emotions as she enters the evil and beautiful world of the mansion, like a fairy-tale princess approaching the witch’s castle:
[The horses], quite unguided, turned in unison and started to mount a twisting, snowy path whose outlines were virtually invisible. The carriage lamps made spots of yellow light which intensified the gloom beyond their wavering circles. Cedar and cypress, bent low with their frosty burden, encased us like a vault and again I had the strange illusion that I was in an empty world.
What makes this book special is that The Balcony dares to grapple honestly with “the dark and bloody memories of slavery.” The Hieronomos are proud of John’s courage in helping runaway slaves escape. They have living proof of it right under their roof. Their African-American servant Amos is devoted to the family because John sheltered his mother during her flight to freedom.
That is, everyone else says that about Amos. He never says it himself because “a black man keeps his history to himself—he don’t bother white folks with it.” There’s a lot that white folks would rather not know about his mother’s experiences as a slave. Virtually ignored by everyone during the first half of the novel, Amos emerges as perhaps its most significant character as he seeks to right the wrongs of the past.
“What I did not realize,” he finally concludes, “was that the evil of the past would become the evil of the present.”
The Saturday Review, September 21, 1940:
Inimical ancients, young love—a bit too sudden like—hidden treasure, good detecting, capital characterizations, and unceasing suspense. Required Reading.
The Balcony is available in a dodgy-looking kindle edition.