A review of House with Crooked Walls by Bruce Graeme
In writing these book reviews I try to find something good to say about even those books which try my patience to the extreme, but House with Crooked Walls, the second of Bruce Graeme’s Theodore Terhune series, originally published in 1942 and reissued by Moonstone Press, presents an almost insurmountable challenge. It is one of those books that you persevere with in the vain hope that it might improve. The best I can say about it is that it bends and twists the genre of crime fiction to the ultimate degree so that it is barely recognisable.
In a sense it is a history of a house, unimaginatively called the House-on-the-Hill, which, whilst commanding stupendous panoramic views of the Kent countryside, the locals will not touch with a barge pole, believing it to be cursed. It has lain vacant, unsold for some years and the local community is all of a twitter when a Panamanian, Dr Vincente Salvaterra, buys it. Salvaterra commissions bibliophile, local bookseller and amateur sleuth, Theodore Terhune, to unearth the history of the house and discover why the locals are so apprehensive about the building. Terhune accepts the commission.
Despite being a bookish fellow with an acute sense of history, Terhune misses an obvious feature that you would expect to find in a house of this vintage. It takes Inspector Sampson, who appears late into the book, to open his eyes to the fact that you might find secret passages and priest holes. If this lack of perspicacity is unbelievable enough, it takes Julia MacMunn, the classic air head of a girl who barely knew one end of a book from the other the start, to carry out a detailed bit of research at the British Museum and uncover a rare book, printed in Boston, which reveals some of the secrets of the house.
With these two bits of information, Terhune and Sampson, acting in an unofficial capacity, make considerable progress in uncovering the gory details of the house’s history, why it was perceived as being cursed, and why at least three individuals, more are discovered later, have disappeared into the bowels of the house, never to be seen again.
One of the disappearances is very recent, Salvaterra’s son, Andres, who later turns out to be his stepson – the difference is crucial – and Sampson expounds a theory about why Salvaterra was so keen to have Terhune investigate the house’s past and to give credulity to the story of the house’s cursed and troubled past. Salvaterra even went to the trouble of having Terhune’s narrative published privately and released to the national press when the story of Andres’ disappearance broke. Was Terhune a naïve patsy in a larger, more malevolent scheme. What Salvaterra’s prime interest in the house is only touched upon and the reader has had no opportunity, other than hoping something might happen, to work out his motives. When they are revealed, they are mundane enough.
The ending is a tad melodramatic for my taste, a fitting end to a book that is truly disappointing. Graeme does his best to wring out as much from the gothic atmosphere he has created but this reader was left with the distinct impression that an interesting experiment had fallen flat on its face, one that might have worked better in a short story or novella format. I will not give up on Terhune as the next one has to be better!