"When he discovered the wondrous stage of the attic, that predilection for crime... came rushing back..."- Edogawa Rampo ("The Stalker in the Attic," 1926; collected in The Edogawa Rampo Reader, 2008)
Constance and Gwenyth Little were two Australian-born sisters from East Orange, New Jersey, who were called "the reigning queens of the screwball mystery comedy" and they earned this reputation as the co-authors of twenty-one wacky, "screwball cozies" - all of them standalone novels published between 1938 and 1953.
Unfortunately, the genre has seldom been kind to the memory and legacy of prolific authors of standalones (e.g. Max Murray). So the work of the Little sisters quickly fell into neglect when publishers began to move away from the traditional detective story during the fifties. As a consequence, they were doomed to wallow in literary oblivion, but, one day, two saviors appeared on the horizon.
Tom and Enid Schantz of the now, lamentably, defunct Rue Morgue Press were arguably the biggest fans of the Littles and they practically adopted them as the flagship authors for their publishing house.
During the late 1990s, the Rue Morgie Press began to reissue the then long-forgotten work of the sisters and they became a mainstay of their catalog over the course of the succeeding decade – which saw reprints of all of their work. As a matter of fact, some of the earlier reprints (e.g. Great Black Kanba, 1944) had gone out-of-print again by the time they closed down for business.
I've been aware of the Littles for some time now, but never got around to sample their work and my excuses vary from decade to decade: back in the 2000s, I was still fully immersed in my fundamental period and I would not deign to touch wacky crime novels. I had not yet been exposed to the wonderfully funny, alcohol-fueled and punch-drunk madness of the screwball mysteries by Craig Rice. So, I hope that, somehow, excuses my ignorance at the time. And this decade, we have been flooded by a deluge of reprints and translations, which has put most of the reprints from the 2000s on the back-burner.
However, the festive season that's almost upon us provided me with a convenient excuse to plunge headfirst into one of their first detective stories.
The Black-Headed Pins (1938) was the second novel by the Littles, but the first one to have "black" in the title and takes place in "a dilapidated, creepy old barn" situated in "the wilds of Sussex County," New Jersey, which belongs to a Scrooge-like lady, Mrs. Mabel Ballinger – who puts "every penny through a mangle before parting with it." She cheaply employed the narrator of the story, Leigh Smith, as a live-in companion. Or, as she refers to herself, a general slave.
Luckily, Mrs. Ballinger decided to invite several relatives over for Christmas and Leigh is relieved to know she won't be alone with her employer, during the holidays, in the large, sprawling and gloomy barn. But a shadow is cast over this prospect when an old family ghost stirs from his slumber.
Over a hundred years ago, the nonagenarian Edward Ballinger lived there with a handful of servants and he broke his leg when alone in the attic room. He was not found until one of the servants heard him trying to drag himself across the floor towards the stairs. The old was brought to his bedroom and a doctor was summoned, but the only thing he could do was sign a death certificate. However, this is not where the story ends: when the undertaker arrived the following morning they found the body on the floor over on the other side of the room, but the doctor swore he was dead the first time he examined the body. And thus a family legend was born.
The story goes that "if ever there is a dragging noise across the attic floor" someone with Ballinger blood will meet with "a fatal accident," but if the body is not watched until it's buried, "it will walk." That's right, zombies!
I've to point out here that the dragging noise from the attic qualifies as a borderline impossible crime, because the solution would have lend itself perfectly for a locked room situation. And the dragging noise really should have emanated from a locked attic. It would have been a nice touch to the overall story, but what's really unforgivable is how the authors missed out on a scene that would have practically written itself. Several of the characters, including the local policeman, staged a stakeout in the attic to catch whatever made the unnerving sound, but there should've been a scene in which they bolted from the attic, down the stairs, as the dragging noise from an invisible source was crawling into their direction – which would fit the method for the trick perfectly. Oh, well.
Thankfully, the Little sisters used the second part of the family legend, about the walking corpses, to full effect.
John Ballinger is Mrs. Ballinger's favorite nephew, which is a practical affection, because he has a "fondness for tools and repair jobs." It was his form of recreation and there was more than enough odd jobs to do for him in the large, half neglected home of his aunt, but that's when the family legend lives up to its reputation. John was repairing the leaky roof when he fell to his death and physical evidence shows someone had tempered with the scaffold he was standing on. So it's a case of murder.
After the death of John, the sisters did a commendable job in balancing the story between a dark, doom-laden narrative and lighthearted, good natured detective work.
The ghostly back-story and the walking corpses result give some excellent set-pieces to the plot, but the doom and gloom also springs from the personal circumstances of the characters. One example is John's widow, Rhynda, who was pregnant at the time of his death and one of the unexpected guests to the house, Richard Jones, has shown a certain interest in her – as well as in our narrator. But there's also a good deal of enthusiastic sleuthing on the part of Leigh and some of the relatives and friends in the house. I also loved Mrs. Ballinger's horror over the expanding costs of her Christmas party and all of the extra mouths she has to feed.
It keeps the reader engaged, interested and (more importantly) entertained, which made it forgivable that the story continued pass the point when the story should've ended. The Black-Headed Pins should have been a novella with thirty or forty pages shaved off it, but, as said before, the Littles knew how to entertain and captivate their audience. So this is really not that big of a deal. Hell, I was sufficiently entertained that, while having a decent conclusion, the plot lacked the proper fairplay to help you reach the same conclusion as the character. After all, you have to take into account that storytelling and humor take center-stage in the work of these sisters.
What I do object against are the titular black-headed pins, which were meaningless red herrings and an unnecessary distraction. They meant nothing in the end and I suspect they were only added to the plot to give the story a name with black in the book-title.
But, all in all, The Black-Headed Pins turned out to be one of the more memorable Christmas-time mysteries and comes very much recommended, especially if you enjoy reading such holiday-themed detective stories around this time of the year. Plot-wise, it might not be as solid or fair as some of the others of its kind, but it's better written and far more original than most Yuletide mysteries – which tend to be cast from the same mold as Agatha Christie's Murder for Christmas (1938).