All right, let's see a show of hands, please, from all those readers out there with enough strength of character (or something) to resist picking up a book with a title like "The Shrieking Pit"? Especially when, as it will turn out, those shrieks are attributed to a mysterious and possibly ghostly figure known as the White Lady of the Shrieking Pit?
I thought not. Me neither.
The Shrieking Pit, by Arthur John Rees, is a very tidy little mystery indeed. Originally published in 1919, it was the first of nearly two dozen mysteries written by an author about whom remarkably little is known or remembered today. The Shrieking Pit is the subject of this week's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to that review by clicking here.
The book takes place in the tiny English town of Flegne-next-sea - which, Rees tells us, is "pronounced 'Fly' by the natives, 'Fleen' by etymologists, and 'Flegney' by the rare intrusive Cockney." It begins with the odd behavior of a young man named Ronald Howard – behavior unusual enough to pique the curiosity of an American detective staying nearby, Grant Colwyn. This is during World War I, and the young man appears to Colwyn at least to be suffering from a form of shell-shock. Soon, however, there is a murder at another nearby hotel – and the young man, who apparently ran from the hotel that morning, quickly becomes the prime suspect.
Colwyn isn’t convinced by the evidence that Howard was the murderer, but he has no facts that might refute the police case. At any event, the young man is located, arrested, and put on trial. Even at the trial, he refuses to say anything in his own defense, and he is quickly convicted.
But Colwyn is called back into the case and learns some facts which make Ronald Howard’s guilt appear unlikely and even impossible. The rest of the book is a race for Colwyn to discover more evidence before Howard is executed – including the secret of why the convicted man refuses to say anything on his own behalf. Meanwhile – just to keep the pot boiling – there are unconfirmed reports that the infamous White Lady of the Pit has been heard shrieking regularly since the murder.
This is the second book by Rees that I have read, and I'm beginning to think it might be worth hunting down more of them. He has a deft touch and a witty writing style; I like his descriptions of characters and settings. And, of course, that "shrieking pit" is a brilliant touch.
The 2015 Bingo Challenge
Continuing my participation in the 2015 Vintage Mystery Bingo challenge. under way at the My Reader's Block blog, The Shrieking Pit is my entry for the square (fifth row, second column) calling for something "spooky" in the title or on the cover.