Somber Memory by Van Siller

Somber Memory by Van Siller

6 stars (6/10 stars)

There’s something screwy going on, and I’m going to try and find out what before it’s too late.”

Too late for what?” Minnie asked.

Murder,” said Eric. “Too late to stop another murder.”

Winter is coming to Lost Ranch. In any other year, this would mean hordes of skiers eager to hit the Montana mountains, but now wartime travel restrictions are keeping the crowds away. That’s all right with the ranch’s owner Eric St. John, however. Winter at Lost Ranch can never be the same again, not since the mysterious death of longtime guest Barbara Stuart. Nothing seems right to Eric now that Barbara is gone.

As the season’s guests gather, Eric realizes something strange—everyone who was present when Barbara plunged from her balcony has returned to the ranch. Could this be merely a coincidence, or is history about to repeat itself?

Mystery novels commonly feature characters haunted by crimes from the past, but it is unusual for a protagonist to be as shadowed by loss as Eric in Somber Memory. The story is colored by Eric’s lingering sense of grief, which sometimes manifests itself in harsh or messy ways. As a result, Eric is not always the most likable character, but it does make him an interestingly fallible detective, one who must push through his own emotional reactions if he hopes to see clearly enough to solve the crime.

Seeing the dude-ranch setting through its owner is also unusual, as we are more accustomed to viewing vacation spots from the perspective of guests. Even as Eric considers many of his repeat visitors to be friends, he can never forget that he is also essentially their employee. He feels close to guests like Barbara and her husband John, who return year after year, but what does he actually know about their real lives and relationships outside of the ranch? And even as the situation becomes more threatening, his hands are tied by both the remote location and his job responsibilities.

Somber Memory by Van Siller

While Eric and his staff have become close to a few of the visitors—John Stuart, Donald and Jane Payne and their young children, war widow Augusta Whitcomb—not all of the guests are so appealing. Eric is struggling to keep Lost Ranch a working cattle ranch, as it was in his childhood, while at the same time catering to wealthy, often entitled, tourists.

Somehow the gay red bar seemed suddenly a symbol. It was something you’d never find at a real, honest-to-God, penny-pinching ranch, but only at a ranch which had bowed its wild head to a stream of Easterners on skis or on horses or on binges. It went with tailored sport clothes, women with husky voices who kept saying, “Oh God,” and “But definitely,” and men who told jokes about Washington.

This winter’s only first-time guest, Lenora Hall, certainly seems to fall into this category. To Eric’s annoyance, she has rented the cabin in which Barbara died, and he cannot help comparing the two women.

Of course, one reason he finds it so difficult to get over Barbara’s death is the feeling that he has no right to his grief. He cannot admit that he was at least a little bit in love with her; after all, Barbara was a married woman, and her relationship with Eric never actually progressed beyond guest and host. Perhaps for that reason he clings to her memory all the harder, at Lenora’s expense. Even though Lenora is the only current guest who was not at Lost Ranch when Barbara died, she is the one whose motives Eric considers most suspicious. His mixed feelings about the attractive but enigmatic Lenora come to a head in a distasteful sequence: “He might as well have been kissing a wall, he realized, but just beating her down on any issue pleased him enormously.”

He did not mind that he was using tactics on her that he would never have thought of using on another woman. She was not an ordinary woman. She was a ghoul prying into his past, an unwanted guest, a little bitch of the first water. He was merely meeting steel with steel. If he couldn’t drive her out any other way, he could goad and humiliate her into going.

The question that hangs over the book is whether Eric will be able to move past his own negative feelings in time to determine who is responsible for the sinister events taking place at the ranch. These amateur efforts at detection are realistically hit-or-miss. He is helped, for instance, by his deep knowledge of the landscape and local conditions. At other times, however, he worries he may be in over his head. Eric is unable to glean any real clues from Barbara’s stored belongings, for example. And repeated efforts to question the Payne children come to nothing, as the mischievous toddlers are more interested in their own games. Ultimately, Eric solves the case through a lot of outside research that is not shared with the reader until the end, something I am never a fan of.

The somewhat bumbling denouement is quite unusual, and probably an accurate depiction of what would really happen if an amateur detective tried to spring a solution on a group of their friends. For a summing-up scene to land, the suspects need to accept the detective as a figure of authority. This is definitely not the case here, as the “the others regarded Eric as though waiting for the first act of a play that they knew would be awful.” In fact, as he blunders through the beginning of his speech, Eric manages to give his audience quite the wrong impression.

“There has been an insane person here at Lost Ranch for some time,” Eric went on. He paused, aware that there was not one gasp, one murmur to show that he had surprised them. God, they were looking at him as if he were making a confession!

“I am not that person,” he said.

Far from passively accepting Eric’s theories, the suspects push back against them, arguing with his interpretations of the evidence. At times, he seems to be losing control of the entire event. This adds a fascinating element of unpredictability to the summing-up, a sense that, far from being a foregone conclusion, the solution may still be up for grabs.

Somber Memory is a striking mystery with an unconventional setting and denouement that help make up for an occasionally unpleasant main character. I’ve rarely seen a summing-up scene as lively as this one, with the audience refusing to accept the roles the detective has assigned them. While far from perfect—Eric’s treatment of Lenora is disgraceful, and the solution too complicated for its own good—Somber Memory is clever and fast-paced. I was a little afraid to try this after Van Siller’s lumbering debut, Echo of a Bomb, but Somber Memory is such an improvement that I am now eager to explore more of this author’s work.


Somber Memory is out of print with a few used copies available.


2 thoughts on “Somber Memory by Van Siller

  1. Van Siller is an uneven writer but all of her books have something nice to offer. I strongly recommend THE WIDOWER which in my opinion is her best work and one of the best psychological suspense novels of the 1950s.

    Liked by 2 people

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