“Murder is something more than someone dead and someone a killer. I couldn’t get Jacqueline away now. Murder is a trap.”
Ann and Jacqueline are cousins who have always been more like sisters. Jacqueline’s marriage to wealthy lumberman Bill Heaton seems to promise her real happiness at last after the death of her first husband. So Ann is surprised to be summoned to the Heatons’ home on Lake Superior only weeks later, and even more shocked to find her cousin on the verge of a breakdown.
She learns that a number of strange events have been disturbing the Heatons, with the dark atmosphere centering around a rock formation known as the Chuckling Fingers. The stage seems set to repeat a decades-old family tragedy, unless Ann can save her cousin…and herself.
The Chuckling Fingers is Had-I-But-Known on steroids. Not a single event, however minor, escapes Ann’s baleful hindsight. Over and over, she makes vows like, “Any time in my life is going to be too soon for me to want to feel again that I’m a member of a looming last-man’s club, with death walking hooded in the night, relentless and remorseless and successful.” It’s unfortunate this element is so overdone, because buried somewhere in there is a sharp and sinister novel of menace in the family.
The book’s greatest asset is Ann, an intelligent and down-to-earth heroine who carries out her own investigation. She trusts no one except her cousin Jacqueline. In fact, it’s her male sidekick Jean who tries to be very logical, but instead operates on pure emotion. While he attaches himself to Ann as a detective partner because he’s so sure she’s innocent, she’s far from certain about him, often keeping him in the dark about her efforts. She even dares to question the motives of Jacqueline’s husband Bill, who is revered by the community.
“Everyone agrees about Bill,” I said. “What is it about him? He’s charming. He knows what he wants and gets it. But he can be—“
Jean looked down at the backs of his hands on the table. “Bill’s a giant in the earth.”
Queerly I felt embarrassed, as if I’d looked at something I shouldn’t see; the love one man can have for another is something no woman should look at.
The tangle of relationships here is almost impossible to keep straight. At one point, Sheriff Aakonen (who is certainly the first Finnish detective I’ve encountered outside of Ariadne Oliver) rattles off a list of fourteen suspects, and I honestly didn’t recognize half of the names. Even Ann has a hard time keeping track of everyone she’s supposed to be sleuthing. There are also twelve dangerous pranks that have been played on the Heatons, about eleven of them taking place before the story opens. So we have to hear about all of those as well, plus three or four trips to the crime scene by night. One would think this was three or four too many for most people, yet on each occasion, Ann finds the Fingers crawling with suspects.
Amid all the handwringing, moments of genuine emotion shine through. The victims are truly mourned, and when Ann searches one victim’s bedroom, she finds herself unexpectedly moved by the detritus of an unfinished life. The suspects are all restless under house arrest, yet when they do venture into town for the inquest, Ann learns firsthand what Jacqueline will have to endure if she is not cleared of suspicion.
Bleak light fell in that room, through tall, unwashed windows. As we came in the rows of hushed people turned, so that antagonism struck us from a thousand eyes at once. There she is, the fascinated eyes repeated. Our passage was like running a gauntlet of whips, so that just being able to sink into our seats in the second row, with the other witnesses around us and the eyes behind us, was like coming to a haven. Distrust surrounding us there was at least familiar.
There is a certain amount of ironic humor, and probably just as much unintentional comedy. When Ann learns of the deadly pranks, “that was when dismay slid all the way down my interior like a liquid silver fish,” an image that will haunt me for the rest of my days. Jacqueline’s first husband is neatly disposed of with a single sentence: “Pat was killed that summer at the job he took—it was in a flour mill, and there was a dust explosion.” A dust explosion!
The Chuckling Fingers contains many lively moments, and Ann is an active and determined protagonist, especially for a subgenre that tends to produce ninnies. While most of the individual scenes are effective, the narrative as a whole is too flabby to sustain this tension. As a result, The Chuckling Fingers is a fairly entertaining book that could have been much better with just a little bit less of everything.
I wouldn’t say that Fingers is a classic of the genre, but it is an enjoyable 1940s American mystery. As a pure detective novel, it disappoints, however.
Overall, this is a most satisfying mystery with interesting characters, fine-tuned timing, good mechanics–with just one quibble that I share with Curt over at The Passing Tramp (more on this in moment), and an intelligent heroine who keeps her wits about her throughout the horrible events. There is plenty of suspicion to go around, several members of the family who might have motives, but it appears that most of them have alibis. The difficulty which both Curt and I have with the book is that the culprit isn’t really discovered through a careful sifting of clues and logical puzzle-solving.
The Chuckling Fingers is out of print, with used copies widely available.