This is the House (1945) by Shelley Smith

Nancy Bodington was an English novelist who, under the penname of "Shelley Smith," wrote fifteen novels of crime, detection and suspense in "the malice domestic and "badass biddy" subgenres" – debuting with Background for Murder (1942) and ending with A Game of Consequences (1978). I likely would have remained ignorant of Smith's detective-fiction had it not been for Martin Edwards and John Norris regularly praising her work to the skies and back.

Edwards described Smith as "a writer of genuine ability and intelligence" and Norris has been "completely under the spell of this fine writer." They certainly aroused my curiosity with enticing reviews of Death Stalks a Lady (1945) and An Afternoon to Kill (1953), but, as to be expected with these two reviewers, the books they discuss tend to be hard to get by and Smith was no exception – until very recently, that is. Over the past two years, Endeavour Media reissued all of Smith's crime fiction as ebooks and can now be easily accessed by everyone.

So I decided to finally take a crack at one of her novels and picked one of her more traditionally-structured detective novels.

This is the House (1945) was described by Norris in his 2016 review as "a Carribean homage to the British claustrophobic village murder mystery" and the description of the plot struck me as Theodore Roscoe's Murder on the Way! (1935) as perceived by Christianna Brand. Well, I was not far off the mark!

The backdrop of the story is the most southerly island of the Windward Isles, Apostle Island, which has a dusty, ramshackle capital, Wigtown, that's overlooked by the titular house on the mountaintop – which is, strictly speaking, not a house. The place is nothing more than "a plain, square, two-storied villa" standing within the walls of an abandoned, 16th century Portuguese fortress. A fortress that had began to crumble into "a picturesque ruin," but Antoine Jacques, Premier Justice of Apostle Island, used the place as a foundation for his modern villa.

Jacques settled down in his fortified villa with his family, but tragedy struck when his wife, Julia, was struck by a crippling illness that left her almost completely paralyzed. Julia is a living, bedridden corpse who can barely move or speak and she wishes to die in order to end the suffering. A death wish that came true when a visitor came to the house.

Quentin Seal is a writer of "surprisingly intelligent" detective stories with a high reputation among "the more sober and scholarly fans" of the genre and has come to the island for a well-deserved holiday, but a friend has given him a letter of introduction to the Premier Justice of Apostle Island, Monsieur Jacques. Normally, Seal refused these banal entries in polite society, but the friend who gave him the letter promised his visit would be an interesting one and he was not wrong, because, when he climbed the seemingly endless steps leading up to the house, Seal makes an unsettling discovery – Julia lies dead in her room. On the surface, it appears Julia had been accidentally suffocated when the family cat had entered her room and had fallen asleep on her face.

However, the postmortem examination failed to find any cat hairs or fur in either the nose or mouth of the victim. So the doctor concludes Julia had simply died from a second stroke, which was to be expected, before the cat had entered her room and the jury entered a verdict of death by misadventure. An open-and-shut case, but, as Seal becomes involved with the Jacques family, he observes the ugly aftermath of Julia's death. An aftermath that turns out to be a prelude for a second, unmistakable murder.

Raoul Jacques is the only child of Antoine and Julia, an 18-year-old Lothario, who's furious when he learns that his mother has left all of her money to the church and holds Father Xavier personally responsible – accusing him of having taken advantage of his position to worm his way into her will. Raoul is egged on and encouraged by his depraved aunt, Miss Hattie Brown, who believes in "wickedness for its own sake." Father Xavier suffers a lot of slings and arrows at the hands of these two devils. The relationship between aunt and nephew, especially after the death of Julia, becomes a bit creepy at times.

Then there are the people who live in the house or are, in some way, connected to the people who live there. Such as Miss Brown's secretive secretary, Prudence Whitaker, who develops an unusual relationship with a vagrant beachcomber, Boris Borodin. Lastly, you have the bailiff of the estate, John Foley, along with his gossipy wife, Evelyn.

One of these characters is fatally knifed in a usually unoccupied bathing-hut and is found, partially undressed, on a shabby, chintz-covered bunk-bed, which is very suggestive and the answer to this aspect of the plot was definitely very daring for the time – resulting in a sequence of events that would probably have shocked some readers at the time. This murder and its use of sex is what made Norris label the book as "one of the earliest transgressive detective novels." However, I remember a mystery novel from the 1930s that was as risque as this one and believe it was John Dickson Carr's The Four False Weapons (1937), but it might have just as easily been yet another novel from the thirties.

Seal is asked by the family to use his talent as a professional plotter to assist the local police in their investigation and the police on the island is represented in the figure of Brigadier Napoleon Orage, a black policeman, who must be a nod towards Arthur W. Upfield's half-aboriginal policeman, Detective-Inspector Napoleon "Bony" Bonaparte. I refuse to believe that the given name of the Brigadier is a mere coincidence. Anyway...

Seal plays his role as amateur detective to perfection and, towards the end, gathers all of the suspects in a room where, one by one, he begins to eliminate them before revealing the true identity of the murderer. I think this gradual process of elimination by showing why most of the suspects couldn't have committed the murders is a very satisfying way of lifting the veil. Particularly when the author has conceived a cunning plot with a cleverly positioned clues and misdirection, which was definitely the case here. All of the clues were present and the plot was very clever. The death of Julia Jacques turned out to be a canny, medical-based murder on par with the central murder from Brand's Green for Danger (1944) and part of the murderer's scheme reflected a certain the plot-element from Roscoe's Murder on the Way! So my (instinctive) comparison with Brand and Roscoe was right on the money.

This is the House is a first-class detective novel with a bodacious plot and written in the best tradition of the (alternative) Crime Queens, which comes especially recommended to mystery readers who're enamored with the work of Christianna Brand. You can bet this title is going to appear on my best-of list of 2018 and I'll try to return to Smith before this year draws to a close.


  1. Thank you for the review. I bought a copy after reading Norris's review but did nothing with it. I need to read it.

    1. My pleasure! Hope you'll like it as much as I did.

  2. Yahoo! So glad you liked this one. Of her true detective novels (she wrote mostly crime and psychological suspense after this book), this is the best I've read. I still can't get over the stabbing murder. In my review I tried to work around it and here I'm still not giving away what actually happens. But when I read it I was truly aghast. She broke a lot of rules in her books and that one is probably her most daring move.

    1. Wasn't the stabbing murder more of a convention than a rule breaker?

    2. Well, I just received an email from our old friend, Philip Harbottle, who's also the literary agent of Shelley Smith's estate and he informed me Endeavour has not republished all of her crime-fiction:

      They do not accept short story crime collections, so I sold my own new collection of her short stories to F.A. Thorpe, who published it in large print last September. This is a world first and the ONLY edition of THE MISSING SCHOOLGIRL, which collects her earliest obscure (before her novels) short crime stories hidden in rare time-lost Gerald G. Swan publications, together with her later sophisticated ghost stories hidden in original anthologies. The title novella was published under another title as part of a mainstream trilogy (RACHEL WEEPING: ATRIPTYCH), her final book, and is likely unknown to fans of her crime stories. It actually is a beautifully written police procedural (the search for an innocent young girl who has absconded with an escaped maniac killer) in her unique style, which has resonances with her screenplay contribution to the film TIGER BAY.

      I thought you would like to know, because you're quite a fan of Smith's work.

    3. Thanks for the news about the stories. The ghost stories in particular will be fascinating to read.

      And as for the stabbing murder I read that as a murder of one person while two people were engaged in the act. The woman had no idea he was dead until they...uncoupled. Go read that section again. Hardly a convention. I've never read THE FOUR FALSE WEAPONS. Did a similar murder under such specific circumstances take place in that book?

    4. I'm afraid I expressed myself poorly. What I meant to say is that the stabbing murder broke with convention, as in being highly unconventional, rather than breaking any of the unwritten rules of the genre.

      No idea if it was in The Four False Weapons, but remember there was a mystery novel from the 1930s with a murder happening shortly after, as you say so eloquently put it, uncoupling.

  3. Sounds like a great book and a great author. Thanks for bringing both to my attention. Love the idea of badass biddies being a mystery subgenre!

    1. Based solely on this read, I think you'll probably like Shelley Smith. She's one of those writers who genuinely deserves to be rediscovered.