Nieves Mathews was a Scottish-Spanish author who wrote the 606-page volume Francis Bacon: The History of a Character Assassination (1996) and worked at the Food & Agriculture Organization, of the United Nations, for twenty years, but during her early years, she wrote detective novel – a now extremely obscure and hard-to-get novel. A novel that also happened to be included in Robert Adey's bibliographic work, Locked Room Murders (1991).
So, without anymore salient details to divulge about either the author or the book itself, let's dig right in!
She Died Without Light (1956) begins with clippings of newspaper articles, gossip columns and fragments of letters reporting, or speculating, about the strange death of "the invalid owner" of the Pension des Eaux Calmes, Madame Sophie Rousseau. A tattered, rundown boarding house in Geneva, Switzerland, whose only charm was the personality of its owner. Madame Rousseau was the grand-daughter of a world famous explorer, a one-time member of the Conservatoire and "universally beloved" by "her boarders, her staff" and "by half Geneva." So the press and public where all over the case when the news broke that she had died under circumstances that proved hard to explain.
On a late September morning, the milkman heard "a most extraordinary sound" coming from the boarding house. A wailing, piteous cry that came from Madame Rousseau's car, Coralie, who's caught in a broken window-pane and was struggling to get out.
Through the glass, the milkman saw the body of Madame Rousseau, "contorted into an incredible position," with her hand stretched out towards a tumbler of water, but everyone else in the house was sound asleep – presumably under "the influence of a drug." Some witnesses have commented on the unusual fact that "the old villa had all its lights on throughout Tuesday evening." However, the authorities appoint a juge d'instruction when a postmortem revealed the presence of a large quantity of arsenic in the body, but not "a single bottle or vessel" is found in the victim's bedroom containing the slightest trace of the poison. A room that had its door and windows securely bolted on the inside!
After this opening, the story back-tracks a few days to the arrival of a British boarder, Dr. Hal Phillips, who has come "the cleanest, tidiest country in Europe" for a much-needed rest. But what he found was everything but that.
Dr. Hal Phillips becoming a guest at the rundown boardinghouse and interacting with the strange people who dwell there has all the surrealistic quality of Ellery Queen's Ellery-in-Wonderland tales (e.g. There Was an Old Woman, 1943) and the works of Craig Rice, but with an oddly Galic flavor to the plot and characters. I was somewhat reminded of Gaston Boca, Pierre Véry and Noël Vindry.
Pension des Eaux Calmes was "not quite what he had expected" and, before he even crossed its threshold, Dr. Phillips spots two eyes peeping at him over the edge of the veranda roof, which were "yellow and full hatred." The eyes belong not to Madame Rousseau's cat, but to her only son, Jean Jacques. Another man, clad in black with a green tie, is crouching, like "a wild animals," on the lowest branch of a walnut tree and jumped on a stench bench – after which he run away without saying a word. A mother of two young children, who are allowed to run amok and vandalize the place, completely ignores his existence and another, bony-looking woman shut a door in his face without giving him a second look. Welcome to Pension des Eaux Calmes!
Everyone at the boarding house, except for Madame Rousseau, received Dr. Phillips with the same look of "fear and dislike" or even abject, animal-like terror. Obviously, something was not quite what it seemed and, more than once, Dr. Phillips asks the people why they continue to hang on there. And becomes determined to find out what's at the bottom of all of it.
A problem that will take up the entire mid-section of the book and concludes with the murder reported in the first chapter, but, before reaching that point, Dr. Phillips has to contend with ghostly noises, theft, tea cups, carelessly strewn bottles of medicine or tins of rat poison and a hungry electricity meter – which keeps gobbling up coins. Not to mention two attempted murders. This approach can be compared to Cyril Hare's contentious masterpiece, Tragedy at Law (1942), with the murder being committed at the end of the book and the story showing everything that happened leading up to it. However, as previously stated, She Died Without Light has a distinctly French flavor. Characters, set-pieces and story-telling take precedence over the puzzle and plot-mechanics that are central to the Anglo-Saxon detective story.
This is not to say the plot is bad or even weakly handled. On the contrary! While the plot is a little loose in its joints, the whole structure fits together logically, but it's the mad logic of a dream. So not everyone is going to appreciate the solution, because the identity of the murderer was lifted from a well-known detective novel and the locked room-trick, which is closely tied to the murderer and personality of the victim, is a little underwhelming. Personally, I thought the solution to the murder was well-done and believe Mathews succeeded in what Ulf Durling attempted to do in Gammal ost (Hard Cheese, 1971), but I can also see why some readers might be let down by it. After all, you have to read to the end to get back to the point where you started, but with a better understanding what was going on at the boardinghouse. And some readers expect a bigger payoff than they'll get.
So, yeah, this is a difficult book to recommend, but I rather enjoyed reading this unconventional detective story that began as a tragicomedy with some surrealistic touches and slowly morphed into a bad dream ending in murder. There are, as to be expected from a first-timer, some imperfections, but the fact that this was Mathews' sole contributions to the genre is one of my two only complaints. My other gripe is that the cat in the broken window-pane has no relevance, whatsoever, on the locked room-trick. Somehow, the idea of a murder in a locked room with the only gap plugged with an angry, hissing cat is a very appealing idea.
She Died Without Light is not going to be everyone's favorite locked room mystery, but I think its rarity and well-done, if oddball, plot makes it deserving of a long overdue reprint. So maybe Dean Street Press or Locked Room International want to adopt this one?