"Speaking is silver, silence is gold."- Proverb
Even occasional readers of detective stories are probably familiar with some of the shopworn tropes and timeworn clichés of the genre, but they can still yield surprising results in the hands of a talented writer – which immediately brings me to The Balcony (1940) by Dorothy Cameron Disney.
Ah, yes, a Disney who indulged in the fine, gentle art of murder and blood spattered corpses. The Strawstack Murders (1939) is a minor masterpiece and Death in the Back Seat (1937) isn't far behind, but The Balcony is altogether a far more soberer affair than its predecessors. There's more emphasis on story telling, characterization and social commentary, which doesn't mean that the "Had-I-But-Known" approach from the previous novels was completely abandoned. Disney's heroin at the helm of this standalone, Anne Hieronomo, still reflects at the opening of the story "it did not occur to me that the dead hand of my great-grandfather would affect my own life and the lives of many others" with some other eerie foreshadowing's.
Anne's great-grandfather, John S. Hieronomo, was a leading figure of the abolitionist movement in the South during the American Civil War and settled down in Maryland – where he build "Hieronomo House" – which he bound to his descendents in what would later be deemed as a very shortsighted will. John Hieronomo's inheritance wasn't enough for the upkeep and the place now lays in gloomy neglect, and run a shoestring budget, but the provision to keep Hieronomo House as a dwelling place for the family for the span of twenty-five years has run out. The family is going to sell the house and the place will be turned into a hotel, but, before saying goodbye, they are going to have one last family reunion. What could possibly go wrong?
Upon her arrival, Anne meets most of her extended and estranged family for the first time, mostly great-aunts and uncles, but soon begins to notice something is not quite right. Or to borrow a phrase from proper literature, "something is rotten in the state of Denmark." A good, long and solid fence separates the estates of the Hieronomo's from the Ayres, who have been entangled in a bitter feud for the past twenty-five years, but here's my one problem with The Balcony. Representing the Hieronomo's neighbors is the blonde, handsome Dan Ayres, who meets Anne in a "cutesy" scene in the snow, slip in reference or two to the work of the Bard and nobody will notice you're gunning for a Romeo and Juliet angle – which is why I hoped Dan would be the second body promised in the story's summary. Hey, sometimes I hate happy endings. This was one of them.
Anyhow, there are more than enough family members for Anne to worry about, wandering in-around the house, beginning when Anne is given the Blue Room by accident. The room that belonged to her great-grandfather, John. There's an all too casual incident with an unloaded gun and, before long, we see some of those HIBK qualities creeping into the story – when the house seems to be filled with would-be-murderers and impending doom. Anne even finds out that picking up, and paying, for a package can look suspicious when her great-aunt, Amanda Silver, suddenly disappears and is found shot in the room she previously spend the night. The family has her back, but Anne's worried what one of them might be concealing behind his or her back.
|Dorothy Cameron Disney|
Well, as I said before, Disney focused in The Balcony on storytelling, characterization and some historical social commentary on the black slave trade, which she entwined admirably with the plot. The long dead John Hieronomo and his friend, Amos, a black man, were the most interesting characters in the story and how their actions influenced events over the course of a quarter of a century. However, I can imagine the open, brash way Disney approached the subject might have popped a monocle or two in the early 1940s.
I'll never understand how Serious Critics can dismiss Golden Age detectives, because they were, supposedly, not interested in the socially relevant issues of their time (or some crap like that). As if Darwin Teilhet never wrote The Talking Sparrow Murders (1934), which is set in Germany against the background of a rising Third Reich and describes the early atrocities those silly, goose-stepping Nazi's became so known and reviled for after World War II. I'm sure that counted as broaching as socially relevant issue, because, you know, some countries were already kind of being invaded by the time The Balcony was published. Anyway, moving on...
What I especially enjoyed about the story was how subtle it appeared to be poking fun at the sprawling, remote country house-mystery with a reunion of people going on, but I'm not sure if that was intentionally or Disney just being a professional – sidestepping the trap of the cliché. For example, there's a reunion at a country house with snowfall, but it isn't a blizzard cutting off the party from the outside world. Before Amanda disappears, Anne hears a sharp sounding click in her bedroom, but when the door is broken down the room is completely deserted. However, there isn't a locked room mystery to be found. The policeman isn't half as dumb and impulsive as he appears. So are the butler, maid and the unknown person lurking in the background. Hell, even racism has a twist in this mystery! Literary nothing is what it seems at Hieronomo House.
The Balcony may not be the twisty, complex and knotted affair of the previous novels, but Disney managed to pen one in which storytelling and characterization actually transcended the plot. And that in a book from nearly 75 years ago! Who would've thought that!? By the way, the plot, by itself, isn't too bad, either, but the story and characters cocooning it made the detective-elements just so much better.