Echo of a Bomb (1942) by Van Siller

Echo of a Bomb by Van Siller

3 Stars (3/10 stars)

“I think it’s funny that you came down here to save Maloney from being murdered and now you’d like to murder him yourself.”

Bryan has just met the love of his life. Unfortunately, Paula Storm is as troubled as her name. Two years ago, in England, she survived a bombing that killed her boyfriend and left their friend Bill Maloney horribly injured and out of his mind. She isn’t ready for a new relationship, but Bry thinks he’s starting to win her over. Then he reads in the newspaper that she’s eloped with Bill Maloney.

Echo of a Bomb by Van SillerIt isn’t long before Paula summons Bry to her family home in Virginia. Whatever the reasons behind her marriage, it’s clear that Paula is in terrible trouble—and she’s not the only one. Everyone at Oakstone is on edge. When murder strikes during a practice blackout, Bry is determined to find the killer. But how can he when even the woman he loves is determined to keep him in the dark?

Echo of a Bomb is a run-of-the-mill mystery with a strong romantic angle. What drew me to this title was the intriguing setup, with characters seeking refuge from their wartime traumas, only to have the shadows of war follow them home as the United States enters the conflict.  The murder mystery is fine, but all of the characters act so petty and unpleasant that it’s difficult to be interested in their plight.

Paula’s friends in New York consider her PTSD from the bombing to be something of a joke, including Bry. Even after falling in love with her, he doesn’t understand why she can’t just forget about the past. It turns out this insensitivity is just a warm-up for the real thing—once Bill Maloney reappears, that’s when the knives come out.

Maloney’s injuries are described with disgust. He is disfigured, with a pale, scarred face. His right arm is paralyzed so he takes all meals in his bedroom, assuming correctly that his relatives will have no tolerance for his clumsy eating. His brother-in-law Sidney dubs him “Frankenstein,” a nickname that everyone at Oakstone begins casually using. At one point, Maloney’s pant leg rides up, exposing a few inches of bare ankle. The horror with which Bry reacts to the sight of what sounds like a perfectly ordinary leg is so over the top that he sounds like the one with mental-health issues. Even Maloney’s sister Angela joins in abusing him, which Bry and Paula consider perfectly natural. It’s sometimes shocking to remember that Angela is his sister because she is so cold to him. Bry is occasionally surprised as well, “probably because the thing Maloney had turned into didn’t seem human enough to have a relative.”

Echo of a Bomb by Van SillerLike Paula, Maloney has been emotionally affected by his war experiences. In fact, he’s just been released from a psychiatric hospital, though no one really believes he’s in good shape. He is described as a monster, terrorizing Paula. The reader is meant to root for Maloney to be murdered, yet at worst he comes off as slightly peevish—understandable when his bride is arranging romantic dates with another man right in front of him. There is exactly one moment of empathy for Maloney in the book. A stranger drops by Oakstone and expresses surprise at the way everyone talks about the injured man. Bry is briefly reflective, admitting that Maloney used to be the greatest foreign correspondent he knew. “He does seem insane, but he’s all messed up. I imagine that most of the time he’s in great pain.”

Even when they’re not harassing a disabled bombing victim, this is not a relatable group. After the murder, they fight Deputy Cornish’s investigation all the way, lying to him and mocking him to his face for being a country hick. It’s a quirk of Virginia law that whenever a murder is committed, all suspects must go to the justice of the peace’s office and pay a sizable bond guaranteeing their appearance at the inquest. Paula’s family is wealthy enough that her mother, Mrs. Storm, can issue $10,000 checks to cover the whole party without batting an eye. The money is nothing to her. What she resents is the idea that some obscure deputy sheriff can tell her what to do.

“It’s frightful to even think of dragging everybody out at this hour. You’ve done it once,” Mrs. Storm said fiercely. “Why again? I’ll put up the bond money.”

“Madam,” said Cornish coldly, “this is the second time your household has dragged me out of bed. If the laws in the state of Virginia don’t suit you, you-all’d better quit murderin’ people.”

All of the characters are enormously condescending to law enforcement. They turn the inquest into a joke, lying and stonewalling in an effort to make Cornish and the district attorney look foolish. The reader, too, is supposed to be amused, but there’s nothing clever or endearing about rich people subverting justice because the local cops have the effrontery to actually investigate a murder. My sympathies are entirely with Cornish. The small-town deputy is smarter than he seems, which makes him a bigger enemy to Bry and Paula than the killer.

The war content ends up being a bit vague; the most appealing aspect of the story turns out to be Bry returning to New York to enlist the help of fellow journalists in solving the case, though that isn’t saying much.

Bry got an open taxi, but even so he roasted. Times Square, as the cab pulled up in front of the Astor, was sweltering. He was further depressed by the shoddy-looking chorus girls with too much make-up for the sunlight, carrying little cases as they brushed their way through the crowds. Anemic, hard-looking men with green hats lounged around. It was midnight for Cinderella, but Times Square turned to rags at noon, he thought.

Despite its flaws, Echo of a Bomb is strangely easy to read, even if it is far too long, perhaps because there are no chapter breaks. If I’d been able to stop and think about it at any point, I might not have finished the book. There is a twist at the end, which most readers will have guessed, oh, about twenty pages into this 280-page behemoth. Van Siller does have the ability to keep the story moving; I kept reading because it always seemed like something interesting was about to happen. Unfortunately, it rarely does.

Second Opinion

Kirkus, June 15, 1942

Smooth, sometimes sexy, surface to a fast tale…Nice sartorial effects—good speed—but fairly shaky mystery angles.

Availability

Echo of a Bomb is out of print, with quite a few used copies available.


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