“Strangeness is a recommendation to me, you know.”
“I was depending on that.”
After his recent stint in the army intelligence service, literary detective Henry Gamadge is sure he’ll never be surprised by anything again. That’s before he is hired by Harriet Clayborn Leeder to supervise the opening of a sealed room in her family home. The Clayborns expect the room to contain their long-awaited inheritance: a jar of buttons.
By opening the hidden room, the Clayborn family unleash a Pandora’s box of obsession, theft, and even murder. Some family secrets are best left undisturbed.
Somewhere in the House is far more successful than my previous foray into Elizabeth Daly’s work, the cozy but almost mystery-free The Book of the Lion. The most appealing element of the Henry Gamadge novels is their setting, an old-money New York full of brownstone mansions with book-lined studies and crackling fires. That atmosphere remains intact here, but Gamadge’s war experiences lend an extra bite; compared to what’s happening overseas, the Clayborns and their buttons at first seem very small to him. Almost immediately, however, it becomes clear how serious the situation really is, reminding Gamadge that human wickedness flourishes both on and off the battlefield.
For twenty-two years, the Clayborn family have lived together in the mansion, bound by the restrictions of their matriarch’s will. There are six potential heirs: Harriet, her ex-husband Rowe Leeder, uncles Gavan and Seward, maiden aunt Cynthia, and young cousin Garth. Another cousin, the high-spirited Elena, is out of the line of succession, but fascinated by the family drama.
Under the terms of Mrs. Clayborn’s will, the family members must live in the house until Garth’s twenty-fifth birthday, keeping everything exactly as it was on the day she died. Her lawyer believes the will was vindictive, a desire to remain mistress of the house even after her death.
“Women can be subtle, and they can be unfair.”
“As part of the human race,” agreed Gamadge with a smile, “they unfortunately can.”
The terms of the will especially apply to the music room in which Mrs. Clayborn kept a life-sized wax effigy of her daughter Nonie after the young woman’s tragic early death. (“Nothing,” says Lieutenant Nordhall in disgust, when a search of Nonie’s desk reveals only invitations and dance cards. “A life,” corrects Gamadge.)
None of the heirs can bear the sight of the doll, so they sealed up the room under the pretense of preserving it. They didn’t realize until much later that Nonie’s valuable collection of antique buttons must have been sealed in as well—unless, of course, the buttons were spirited off by the same person responsible for the disappearance of other valuable heirlooms over the years.
Needless to say, the opening of the music room does not go as planned. Gamadge must sort through a houseful of suspects with unusual histories, especially Rowe Leeder. Under pressure from her parents, Harriet divorced Rowe twenty-two years ago when he got mixed up in the murder of his showgirl mistress. Grandmother Clayborn died just days later. No one knows whether she would have disinherited Rowe if she had lived, but as it is, he remains in the will and in Harriet’s life.
“We’ll never solve this case,” Lieutenant Nordhall complains. “People like these don’t give one another away.” He’s right, and Gamadge knows it from the moment he enters the Clayborn home.
They might hardly have noticed him as an individual; but Gamadge was sure that in the very moment of his introduction they had taken in his appearance, his clothes, his behavior, and penetrated beyond to his probable station in life. Gamadge thought he was accepted.
The family is quick to close ranks against any outsider, however well-bred. It will take some solid detective work for Gamadge to unearth the less than noble deeds of this blue-blooded clan.
This is where The Book of the Lion suffered. Happily, Somewhere in the House does deliver a good mystery, providing all the facts needed to solve the case, albeit with plenty of misdirection. The big reveal of the sealed room doesn’t happen for quite some time, but Gamadge, and the reader, have a sense of what’s going to happen, and Gamadge uses the time leading up to it to do some advance sleuthing. It adds an interesting tension to his scenes with the Clayborns, as he knows something is off but isn’t sure yet what he’s looking for. There are only a few scenes of Gamadge’s home life with his wife Clara and baby son, but his assistant David Malcolm does trail a suspect, rather ineptly.
“I don’t know why there’s so much fuss made about following people. It’s as easy as falling off a log.”
“You ought to know; you fell off.”
Somewhere in the House proves that “the place for family skeletons is out in the open, where they can rattle themselves to pieces.” Gamadge attributes his success as a detective to the ability to look at facts from a fresh perspective, rather than the way a “normal mind” would interpret them. This is exactly what allows him to see what is really going on in the Clayborn house, allowing the innocent to step out from beneath the shadows of family secrets.
Kirkus, February 27, 1946
A pleasing performance, in modest, modulated manner.
Saturday Review, March 2, 1946
Well-bred, well-constructed, expertly solved story of killings past and present.
Somewhere in the House is available in paperback and ebook formats from Felony and Mayhem.