It was murder all right.
Carol Spencer had gone to her family's summer house in Bar Harbor, Maine, to open the place up at her mother's insistence. She wasn't prepared for what she found: missing servants, inoperable telephones - and a body in one of the rooms. The victim was a young woman - but someone whom Carol had never seen before. Apparently, neither had anybody else. And Carol quickly found herself the prime suspect in a murder case. It all happens in The Yellow Room, by Mary Roberts Rinehart, and it is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast. You can listen to the full review by clicking here.
The Yellow Room was first published in 1945, as World War II was nearing its end, and it paints a fairly grim picture of everyday life for Americans struggling with the privations of war, including the rationing of food and other essentials, including gasoline. Most yioung men were away, fighting the war in distant lands, and many of them would never return home. At the beginning of The Yellow Room, that is the position in which Carol Spencer finds herself: her fiance has been reported killed in fighting in the South Pacific. Her mother, a chronic complainer, hounds Carol into going to Maine to open up the family house so that her brother, a wounded war hero, can go there to recuperate.
When Carol gets to Maine, she finds her housekeeper missing, a male gardener also disappeared, and only a couple of local women to act as servants. There are no telephones - they have all been commandeered by the military authorities. And when one of those servants finds the body of an unknown woman in one of the rooms of the house, Carol finds herself - and her family - top the list of suspects, despite everyone's protestations that they have no idea of the identity of the victim.
That's the beginning of what proves to be a pretty large and complex plot; there are enough characters to make it occasionally difficult to keep everyone straight. It's also not really a fair-play mystery; the characters frequently discover clues and fail to share them with the audience, beyond a cryptic indication that something's afoot. The book also has distinctly noir-ish elements which really add to the first-rate storytelling. Consider this passage, describing the mood of one of the central characters:
"He went back to his desk and his drink, thinking over the widening circle of every crime, the emotions involved, the people who were hurt, the lives that were blasted. War was different. You killed or were killed, but you left behind you only clean grief, without shame."
Mary Roberts Rinehart was one of the most popular American writers in the first half of the twentieth century. If she is still read, it is largely for a few of her early mysteries, such as The Circular Staircase or The Man in Lower Ten. Most of her later works are out of print. I'm glad to see that Open Road Media is now bringing back some of those later books as e-books, including The Yellow Room, a copy of which was provided to me for this review. It's a surprisingly good look at a murder intruding on a community and nation at war.