“Why is the door locked? Isn’t it complete?”
“Yes,” Earl said, “it is complete, but it will never be on view. It is a luxury with which I intend to indulge no one but my selfish self. It is a secret which shall remain completely mine…Even you shall never see it, Lily.”
All of Lily Constable’s friends are surprised by her whirlwind marriage to newspaper owner Earl Rumney. After all, she’s wealthy in her own right, and still mourning her beloved husband. Even the sweet-natured Lily is starting to wonder if she’s made a mistake. No one seems to want Lily at the isolated Rumney mansion, least of all her new husband. When he isn’t at the paper, Earl is working on his hobby: recreating rooms where famous crimes took place. He’s completed twelve rooms already. Should Lily be afraid of number thirteen?
Secret Beyond the Door (originally published as Museum Piece No. 13) is a typically witty and sophisticated suspense tale from Rufus King, driven by exceptionally well-drawn characters. What at first appears to be a standard Bluebeard plot turns out to be twistier than anticipated. The story is elevated by a number of unique touches, especially the creepiness of the murder rooms.
When Lily enters the Rumney estate, Blaze Creek, she is walking into a pit of vipers. Earl’s possessive older sister Diana is threatened by the new woman in her brother’s life. Leona Drumm is a brilliant journalist and political figure. She’s not beautiful or wealthy enough to marry Earl herself, but she’s willing to use all her cleverness to keep him in her life.
Leona listened, and a corrosive hatred etched its first fine lines in her heart against this pretty addlepate across the table from her. This opportune and moneyed windfall. Leona’s thoughts went back to Eleanor, Earl’s first wife. There had been moments, especially toward Eleanor’s end, when Leona had wondered. She looked again at Lily, and she wondered now.
Most unpredictable of all is Earl’s teenage son Aderic, still mourning the death of his mother. All of them assume that Earl has married Lily for her money. They also assume that once he has it, she won’t be sticking around for as long as his previous wife. Whether that comes true or not depends entirely upon Lily.
Earl’s friends think his murder rooms are a great joke, but his secretary Miss McQuillan makes sure Lily understands just how seriously he takes this hobby by showing her room number nine. It’s Earl’s current favorite, the bedroom of a young boy.
“What”—Lily couldn’t help it—”had the child done, Miss McQuillan?”
“Well, his crime career started at the age of thirteen, when he had a habit of tying up and torturing children in the suburbs of Boston. It reached its climax toward the close of the last century, when he mutilated and killed a boy of four and a girl of nine.”
Lily said almost desperately: “It’s late. I think no more today.”
Of course, all husbands have their little quirks. Some men golf, some fish, some like to spend quiet time alone in their murder rooms. “Oh, my dear, are you sure you’re being wise?” one friend worries when Lily contemplates telling Earl how disturbed she is by the rooms. “Bat a man on the head with a crowbar if you like and he’ll still adore you—but step softly with his hobby.”
The most frustrating element of the story is Lily herself, who remains astonishingly placid and good-tempered throughout. I assume the only way King could make the plot work was for Lily to be ludicrously trusting, so he just leaned into it as her primary character trait. It’s almost the worst of both worlds, as the author takes pains to point out just how stupid she’s being, yet makes her do all those stupid things anyway. Literally everyone else in the book is smart enough to realize the danger she may be in. Lily just drifts along, however, being “a great believer in the adage that if you left a situation alone it would eventually adjust itself. It was but a tepidly comforting belief, of no greater usefulness really than a lukewarm hot-water bottle, because she wasn’t a bit smart or practiced in maneuvering such adjustments herself.”
She does manage an occasional contact with two old friends, her milquetoast rejected suitor Hubert Coache and Dr. Russack, a psychiatrist. Both men are rather patronizing in their concern for Lily, considering they’re so basic themselves, yet one must admit she seems completely unequal to the situation.
While we are told that Earl is magnetic enough to have swept Lily and countless others off their feet, the glimpses we get of him hardly support this. That is always the difficulty in this sort of book; it’s hard to make the husband menacing enough to thrill readers without also making him such a creep that no woman in her right mind would stay in the same house with him. There are moments when Lily, meditating on her marriage, seems to be on the verge of making more profound statements on the nature of relationships. These moments pass all too quickly, however. More than once King begins to introduce more thoughtful dynamics without ever following through.
Secret Beyond the Door hits all the standard gothic beats, as well as some unexpected ones, and it does so extremely well. The real terror here is how many supposedly normal people suspect Lily’s danger, but don’t feel it’s any concern of theirs. Unfortunately, King undercuts his climax, robbing the reader of some rightfully earned chills. With a punchier ending and a less passive protagonist, Secret Behind the Door could have been a real classic. However, it’s still an effective woman-in-peril tale that stands out for its cynicism and mordant humor.
This is the sort of book one doesn’t want to say too much about, for fear of spoilers, so I just will add that, in spite of occasional over-writing, a fine narrative tension is maintained and the ending is unexpected. Museum Piece No. 13 is an excellent example of the postwar suspense novel that lives on today as the “psychological thriller” in the hands of such accomplished modern writers as Ruth Rendell and Minette Walters.
Secret Beyond the Door is available under that title as an ebook from Wildside Press and was filmed by director Fritz Lang in 1947.