Book Review: The Pavilion

Book Review: The Pavilion by Hilda Lawrence (also published as “The Pavilion of Death”)

When Regan Carr’s mother passes away from illness, the young woman is hard-pressed.  Her part-time job as a small town librarian for $25 a week (roughly equivalent to an $8/hr job in 2017) is not sufficient to cover the doctor’s bills and other expenses of her mother’s final days, let alone allow her to live in any sort of comfort.  So when a letter arrives from her distant (and wealthy) cousin Hurst Herald, asking her to live with him, Regan decides to give it a try.

The Pavilion

But when Regan arrives with her meager possessions, Hurst Herald is dead.  And he evidently hadn’t told the rest of the family she was coming, so the relatives view Regan with suspicion.  There are those who seem glad to see her; Miss Etta, a kleptomaniac pensioner who was an old friend of Hurst’s, and the Crain sisters, elderly maids who appreciate Regan’s kindness.  The relatives warm up a bit when she proves her arrival was expected, and Regan is given an out-of-the-way room for the moment.

This novel is in the Southern Gothic tradition, featuring a dysfunctional family with dark secrets living in a fine mansion that is beginning to decay.  It’s a slow burn in many, many ways–it’s halfway through before Regan realizes that the family’s history of tragic accidents doesn’t include any actual accidents.   Much depends on her suppressed memories of what happened in the pavilion out back of the house during her childhood visit.

Regan is a petite woman, who looks even more childlike than her age of twenty-two.  A running gag is her bunny slippers, a rare splurge purchase for the poverty-stricken lady.  In a more action-packed story, she would be the damsel in distress type, but the menace here is more subtle, hidden between the lines of seemingly innocuous conversations.

The slow burn serves the story well most of the way through.  There’s a particularly chilling scene where one character’s previously comical behavior is revealed to be the result of psychological abuse as a child.  This does, however, mean that the last chapter needs to wrap everything up in a bit of a rush, with the murderer’s identity confirmed by elimination in the final paragraphs.

The viewpoint is mostly Regan’s, but we do have moments seeing the thoughts of other characters.  For example, one of the maids daydreaming about working for a less strict employer so she wouldn’t have to set her alarm clock an hour ahead to keep her job, and worrying every day that they will notice the difficulty she has getting up the stairs.  (Towards the end she talks about her and her sister’s fear of ending their days in a charity ward.)

There’s a touch of period racism; the family has no black servants because (the housekeeper thinks) they’re superstitious and don’t react well to summons from empty rooms.  African-Americans appear in scene descriptions, but none are relevant to the plot.

This is an atmospheric book that will reward the patient reader.  My 1960s copy is in rough shape; you might be able to find the 1980s reprint in better condition.

Book Review: One Night in Sixes

Book Review: One Night in Sixes by Arianne “Tex” Thompson

Island Town used to be known as Sixes, when the Eadan Confederacy controlled this area.  But a decade or so back, the indigenous peoples pushed the Confederacy across the river.  Now Island Town is on the border, with only a handful of the old inhabitants providing continuity.  Like many border towns, the former Sixes is a mix of various peoples with different customs and languages, who cooperate or clash in many ways.

One Night in Sixes

Sil Halfwick knows nothing of conditions in Island Town–not even its new name.  The sickly displaced Northerner was hoping to sell some horses at the County Fair to show his business acumen and earn enough money to move back East.  That didn’t work out, so he gets the hare-brained idea to go across the border to Sixes, where horses are scarce.  He drags along mixed-race ranch hand Appaloosa Elim, who Sil is nominally in charge of, but considers himself Sil’s babysitter.

Elim has good reason to worry.  Across the border, “mules” such as himself are regarded with extreme suspicion due to the belief they carry disease. And if that wasn’t enough, certain people in Island Town have cause to be on the outlook for someone like Elim.

Sil is oblivious to all this.  He samples the local nightlife and becomes involved in high-stakes gambling.  He seems to win big, but a series of coincidences and petty cruelties result in a man being dead in the morning.  Now the two outsiders are in deep, deep trouble.  And it looks like neither Sil’s fast talking nor Elim’s steadfast endurance is going to get them out of it.

This Western-flavored fantasy is the first in the “Children of the Drought” series.  Despite many similarities, this is not Earth as we know it.  The various kinds of humans have supernatural talents, and some of the people in Sixes aren’t strictly speaking human.  The “white” people speak Ardish, which is not quite English, while the trade language is the not-exactly Spanish tongue Marin.  (There’s a glossary and list of characters in the back.  The latter is mildly spoilery.)

One of the big differences is that it’s much harder for mixed-race people to “pass”, as instead of melding features, they wind up with vitiligo-like mottled skin.  Elim has a very conspicuous eye-patch marking.

The story is told in tight third-person, with switches in viewpoint character revealing new information and making motivations clearer.  We see that much of the tragedy in the story comes from people’s biases blinding them to the good intentions or full humanity of others.

In addition to Sil and Elim, we hear the thoughts of:

Twoblood, the other mixed-race person in town.  She’s Second Man (effectively sheriff) and feels the need to be seen to enforce the law rigorously  to offset the suspicion against her because of her ancestry.

Fours, the livery owner who is not what he seems and has conflicting loyalties.  As a result, Fours has to work against his personal agenda from time to time.

Dia, the only Afriti (black person) in town.  She’s a grave  bride of the Penitent religion (roughly Catholic nun) and wants to give mercy where she can, but the wickedness in Island Town often thwarts her.

And Vuchak, a member of the a’Krah tribe (followers of Crow) who works in the local den of sin.  He’s poor-tempered, even with his partner Weisei (who’s a trifle addlepated.)  Vuchak takes his tribe’s honor very seriously, and doesn’t like compromises.

There’s quite a bit of world-building and examination of culture clash.  The book ends as several characters leave Sixes/Island Town for a long journey that will presumably be the focus of the next book, but there are indications that those who died in this book will still have an effect.

There’s some rough language, and discussion  of slavery.  (Sil claims Elim is a slave at one point, but Elim’s situation is more complicated than that.)  The fantastic racism may strike some readers as too close to real racism for comfort.

I found this book well-written and look forward to the next volume.

Book Review: The Wall

Book Review: The Wall by Mary Roberts Rinehart

Marcia Lloyd is an upper-crust socialite who is not as wealthy as she used to be.  Not by any means broke, but when she comes to her summer home, Sunset, in New England, she can only afford to employ a handful of servants for a house that needs a dozen or so.  Still, Marcia is looking forward to a break from Depression-Era New York City–until she discovers that her brother Arthur’s ex-wife Juliette Ransom is in town.  The conniving Juliette insists on staying at Sunset, being rather vague about her reasons for being on the island.

The Wall

Juliette is known for her expensive tastes and fondness for playing with men’s affections, so it’s perhaps not too surprising when she goes out riding one day and never comes back.   Some time later, her corpse turns up, and it’s pretty obviously it was murder.  But who did it?  Was it Marcia, our narrator?  Arthur, who can no longer afford the ruinous alimony payments?  The mysterious painter Allen Pell, who knows Juliette from somewhere but won’t say more?  Any of the dozen or so men of “the summer people” Juliette partied with in the past. or perhaps a local?  Or a complete stranger?

Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958) was a prolific author perhaps best remembered for her mysteries; she was at one point known as “the American Agatha Christie.”  This book is an example of the “Had I But Known” school of mystery writing, where a character (usually female) has incomplete information, or fails to grasp the significance of the information she has, and makes blunders that cause the  mystery to be harder for the investigators to solve.

Marcia often mentions bits from further along in the story–“I did not know then who Juliette had seen in the town” and fails to get clues to the sheriff in a timely manner because she doesn’t realize they are clues.  In the early part of the novel, she also doesn’t reveal what she knows about the activities of her brother Arthur as she’s trying to protect him, muddying the waters.  But Marcia is scarcely the only one at fault, Arthur and several other male characters also make mistakes that tangle up the investigation to avoid scandal or pursue their own agendas.  Plus the murderer is of course not telling the police anything.

The book is very much a period piece; not just because of the vanishing way of life Marcia and the “summer people” represent, but the little cultural references.  For example, “Bank Night at the movies” is mentioned offhand.  In 1938, Ms. Rinehart’s readers would have instantly understood; nowadays most readers will need to consult Wikipedia.

One amusing bit is that the house is wired with bells to summon servants, and these keep going off at random intervals when no one’s there, despite the electrician claiming all the wires are functioning correctly.  Marcia tells us right up front that the bells have nothing to do with the mystery, and they are still unexplained at the end, even after the title of the book is finally explained.  (This part may or may not be based on something that happened at Mary Roberts Rinehart’s real-life Maine summer house.)

There’s also a romantic subplot, as Marcia develops a thing for Allen Pell, and vice-versa, despite the very real possibility that he’s a multiple murderer.

Content issues:  There’s a fair amount of classism, some period sexism, a couple of ethnic slurs and discussion of suicide.  Marcia and most of the other characters smoke heavily and drink alcohol (overuse of alcohol leading to tragedy is a plot point.)

While not Ms. Rinehart’s best known work, this is a fun read if you are willing to put up with the characters acting rather stupidly and some twists that seem to come out of nowhere.   Recommended for fans of old-fashioned mystery novels.

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