Ruth Sawtell Wallis was an American physical anthropologist who co-discovered the Azilian skeleton remains in Montardit, in the French Pyrenees, but her academic career was cut short, in 1935, during the Depression years – believing "envy over the dual income" of her household was the cause of her termination. Wallis found employment in the U.S. federal government and, more importantly, she wrote a handful of anthropological-themed mysteries during the 1940s.Wallis took her first, tentative steps in the genre with Too Many Bones (1943) and, as Curt Evans pointed out in his introduction to the new Stark House edition, it made "a decided splash in detective fiction's bloody pond."
Too Many Bones won Dodd, Mead's annual $1000 Red Badge Mystery Prize and received praise from Anthony Boucher for its "literate writing and some authentic shivers," which many of today's mystery critics and readers seem to agree with. Generally considering it to be one of the best debuts in the genre. It was Kate, of Cross Examining Crime, whose review convinced me to toss Wallis on the big pile.
I was very tempted to start with Wallis' archaeological mystery novel, Blood from a Stone (1945), but decided to dabble in a little chronology and go with Too Many Bones, which is more of a character-oriented crime-and suspense novel than a proper detective story – yet very well done with a carefully build and executed ending. The anthropological setting and background added considerably to the bare bones of the plot-structure, which elevated what would otherwise have been a pretty run-of-the-mill crime novel. So even an inveterate plot purist, like myself, can see why people nearly 80 years later still heap praise on it. Why it's considered by some as one the best firsts in the genre. Too Many Bones has the kind of plot and ending that requires a skilled and practiced hand to pull off, but Wallis did it on her first attempt.
The protagonist of Too Many Bones is a 21-year-old anthropology student, Kay Ellis, who accepted a position as Dr. John Gordon's assistant to help him catalog and study the "six hundred skeletons in the Holtzerman Collection."
A practically unique collection in the anthropological world and "the most important material for the study of inbreeding ever gathered together," which came from an abandoned graveyard in "a remote pocket of the Carpathians" that was excavated in 1900 by Professor Holtzerman. Three hundred years ago, four families of "grimly religious dissenters" retreated to that remote, hostile place where they intermarried for generations until they died out. The collection was smuggled out of Germany and eventually bought for a huge sum by the William Henry Proutman Museum of Hinchdale. A small, obscure village in the Middle West near the Great Lakes.
being able to work on the fifty-thousand-dollar Holtzerman Collection
as her first job is a
lucky break, but upon her arrival, Kay discovers that a big shadow looms over the museum. Zaydee Proutman is the 50-year-old widow of the late founder and "she pretty nearly owns the whole Museum," controlling all funds throughout her lifetime, but she's not a particularly pleasant person and loves wielding power in a small place that had scorned her – lording over everyone. Kay realizes "she has us all, hasn't she." Alpheus Harvey, the museum director. Alice Barton, the museum librarian, who added some more Americana to the story welcoming Kay to the Amanda Adams Barton Chapter of D.A.R. Jensen is the big, blunt-faced engineer and is the only one who's neither impressed or intimidated by Zaydee. And likes to annoy her. Esquire Williams is the black caretaker of the museum and Zaydee has "a special reason" for wanting to dismiss him, but Williams is well-liked in the town and church. Finally, there's Kay supervisor, previously mentioned Dr. Gordon, who Zaydee hired at "at a Hollywood salary" to the study the collection. She also sees in him a second husband.
Kay has landed an important job under less than ideal and progressively worsening circumstances. First she gets humiliated by Zaydee ("I suppose your education was narrow") and then Harvey slashes her small salary, because it was considered "somewhat out of proportion" to her needs in Hinchdale. I imagine such a gag would result in a seven-figure lawsuit in today's America. All the while, the laboratory with its boxes of bones and skulls become the scene of blossoming romance between Kay and Dr. Gordon, which is why Zaydee is prepared to give her a check for five month's wages to leave town.
John Norris, of Pretty Sinister Books, referred in his 2013 review to these bare bones of the plot and story as soap operaish elements, which improve considerably as murder comes into play and the anthropological setting can be used to full effect.
One of Zaydee's discarded lovers, Randy Bill, gets himself killed in fiery car wreck near Lovers' Point and Zaydee has gone missing, but there's every reason to believe Randy murdered her and threw the body over the cliff into the Great Lake – which "never gives up its dead." So a close-and-shut case, as far as the authorities are concerned, but being the heroine in a crime-and suspense novel, Kay can't let sleeping dogs lie and begins make a few unnerving discoveries. What she discoveries throws a whole new light on the museum, the people who work there and her situation.
Not much else can be said about the story, plot-wise, because it takes half the book to get to this point, but second half showcased just how much of a deft hand Wallis was with characterization, storytelling and setting the scene. Such as the local D.A.R. chapter doing a spot of disaster tourism at Lovers' Point or Kay unearthing a terrible secret in the museum when everyone else was away, which is further strengthened by the excellent and sharp characterization. Most notably, the two black characters, Esquire and Isabelle, who have their own backstory and sub-plot and are treated no differently than any of the other characters. They're just part of the story and everything that happened at the museum. So readers of modern crime fiction don't have any excuse to not refine their palette with this piece of vintage crime fiction.
In the second half, the subtle, carefully build tension became palpable and became aware everything stands or falls depending on how the resolution, not solution, is handled. Wallis pulls out a surprising, not particularly well-clued murderer, but she did prepare and foreshadow its resolution, which allowed the story to end on a somewhat open and ambitious note – perfectly punctuation a confident and well written debut. Too Many Bones is not exactly a puzzle adept's dream novel, but it's a quietly gripping, character-driven suspense novel with a perfectly utilized backdrop that elevated everything from the characters and the plot to the storytelling. An example of what this type of crime fiction should strife to be. So, yes, expect a review of Blood from a Stone before too long.
Note for the curious: I read the Stark House Press edition, but liked the Dell mapback front-and back covers more. So I used them instead.