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.

Murder Among Friends (1946) by Elizabeth Ferrars

Murder Among Friends by Elizabeth Ferrars

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I wonder if you know what it’s like, Alice, to think you’re somebody’s best friend and then discover you don’t know the first thing about them. You tell them everything about yourself, everything—and you think they’re doing the same with you, and then you find they’ve left out every single important thing.”

Wartime can bring together the most unexpected people. That’s certainly the case for quiet, competent Alice Church and melodramatic Cecily Lightwood, who have nothing in common except their work at the same government ministry. Cecily is eager for Alice to meet her best friends, who include some of the most well-known literary figures in London.

One of Cecily’s friends won’t make it to the party alive. By the end of the night, another will be under arrest for his murder. Alice is sure there’s more to the story, however. She soon learns that sometimes your best friend can be your very worst enemy. Continue reading “Murder Among Friends (1946) by Elizabeth Ferrars”

The Blackbirder (1943) by Dorothy B. Hughes

The Blackbirder by Dorothy B Hughes

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Terror was a luxury. She couldn’t afford it now.”

Julie Guille first heard about the Blackbirder on the night Maxl died. As a French war refugee who is in the United States illegally, the last thing Julie wants is to catch the eye of an old acquaintance, especially a German. She agrees to dine with him only to avoid a scene. “She smiled at him. Her smile looked real. She had learned to form it that way.” That night Maxl tells her the amazing story of a pilot who smuggles refugees across the Mexican border, a man they call the Blackbirder.

When Maxl is stabbed to death in front of her apartment building, Julie knows she will be the prime suspect. Only one person can help her escape: the Blackbirder. To find him, she will have to make her way across a strange country, using the skills she learned in wartime France. With the FBI and the Gestapo on her trail, Julie will need every bit of her courage and intelligence if she hopes to survive. Continue reading “The Blackbirder (1943) by Dorothy B. Hughes”

The 17th Letter (1945) by Dorothy Cameron Disney

The 17th Letter by Dorothy Cameron Disney

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“One of the hazards of the hunted, Paul reflected, was the psychology of the hunted. It was hard to fight against the idea that every casual stranger was an enemy, that secret unknown watchers ringed one in.”

In the old rolltop desk, Mary Strong has sixteen letters. They are from her husband’s best friend Max, who also became Mary’s best friend when she married Paul. A war correspondent on assignment in the North Atlantic, Max promised to write to his friends every two weeks, and he’s kept his promise. The sixteenth letter should have been the last. Max is finally coming home.

When the plane from Reykjavik lands, however, Max is not aboard. Then Mary and Paul receive their seventeenth, and final, letter from their friend. Instead of a letter, the envelope marked “17” contains only blank pages and an old theater program. Mary and Paul are convinced that Max has sent them the clue to a serious crime. To prove it, they must navigate wartime secrecy and travel restrictions to plunge straight into a nest of saboteurs. With both Mounties and German spies on their trail, the Strongs are in for the adventure of their lives. Continue reading “The 17th Letter (1945) by Dorothy Cameron Disney”

The Brick Foxhole (1945) by Richard Brooks

The Brick Foxhole by Richard Brooks 1945 book cover

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“If I had to draw a picture of hell, do you know what it would be? An enormous mouth whispering into an enormous ear. And never stopping.”

As World War II rages, the greatest danger one American soldier faces is from his own tortured psyche. Jeff Mitchell is an animator of propaganda, stationed at a small-town military base outside Washington DC. He feels useless with no chance of going into combat. Trapped in a fetid atmosphere of sex, violence, and boredom, he becomes convinced that his wife, Mary, is being unfaithful. If only he could be more like his mentor, Pete Keeley, who has just returned from the Pacific. If only he could kill… Continue reading “The Brick Foxhole (1945) by Richard Brooks”

Somebody at the Door (1943) by Raymond Postgate

Somebody at the Door by Raymond Postgate 1943 book cover

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We mustn’t,” said the Superintendent, “forget there are other people who would bear looking into. The trouble, in fact, seems to be that there may be too many.”

There are 125 good reasons to kill Henry Grayling. 124 of them are the pound notes in his briefcase, tomorrow’s payroll for the chemical works. The other is his own repellent personality.

During a treacherous winter train commute, Grayling spends his last conscious hour surrounded by people he hates, only to collapse on his own doorstep. His death is a strange one, even for this unhealthy time of year. Still, no one is prepared to learn that Grayling was poisoned with mustard gas in the middle of a crowded train compartment. As Inspector Holly tracks down the other passengers, he learns that each has a story to tell. But will it be enough to capture a killer? Continue reading “Somebody at the Door (1943) by Raymond Postgate”