Monday, May 23, 2011
The After House by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Ralph Leslie, a recent graduate from medical school, is recovering from typhoid and is bored as can be. Penniless, all he can think about is getting out of the hospital and sailing on the yacht that he has been watching outside his hospital room window. With a few favors from a good friend, Leslie signs up as a member of the crew. Little does he know that on it's maiden voyage as a pleasure cruise, blood will be shed by the innocent and fear will reign supreme until they are able to return to port.
This is a short mystery that recounts the events on board the Ella, a luxury yacht that was created by refurbishing a sailing vessel. The day it sets sail is a gorgeous sunny day and there is not a hint about what's to come. When the ship comes back to port, 31 day later, Leslie is the acting captain of the ship, and they are towing a canvas covered lifeboat holding the corpses of three people murdered with an axe.
Because this book is so short, I really can't go into any more detail about the plot without giving too much away. What I will say is that there is not a wasted word or scene in the 180 pages. The author brilliantly built up a sense of fear and paranoia on the ship, without laying it on too thick. The atmosphere on board the ship acts like another character, one that touches upon the lives of everyone on board. I think that is where the setting works beautifully. It's such a small area to work with, people are trapped without a real way to get off. That fear starts to work on them as suspicion falls on several different people, before the killer is finally identified. The setting, more than anything else, controls the progression of the story. It dictates the action, forces the hand of the killer in selecting his targets, and forces the characters and the reader to think about what's going on in a new light. You can't read this book as you would a murder mystery set on land. The circumstances are different, so you have to approach it differently. The logical thing to do in a house does not apply to a ship out to sea.
The love story, and you know there has to be one, is a hoot to read. There is so much back and forth between Leslie and Elsa Lee, the sister-in-law of the ships owner, Marshall Turner. One minute you think they are going to be going for the jugular, the next you are annoyed that they aren't picking up on their mutual signals as easily as you are. It was a fun dynamic to read and I loved the fact the author didn't seal the relationship until the last two pages, well after the events on the ship actually took place. It was told with a great sense of humor and wit, and I appreciate the way the author handled their relationship.
Now this was only my second book by Mary Roberts Rinehart, though I've already finished a third, but I'm really starting to appreciate her writing style. Her sense of humor and obvious pleasure in what she's doing comes through on every page. It's a joy to read any author that truly enjoys what it is they do. I will be reading a lot more of her in the future.
Challenges: M&S, VM