The Chuckling Fingers
by Mabel Seeley
Dimensions: 9.5" x 6.25", 312 pages
PROMOTED AS THE MYSTERY of the year in 1940 The Chuckling Fingers is set at a summer estate on Lake Superior north of Grand Marais. The heroine is Ann Gay, a stenographer in an insurance office, who rushes to the North Shore after learning that her beloved cousin Jacqueline, newly married to a lumbering heir, may be in danger:
“Other people may think they’d like to live their lives over, but not me—not if this last week is going to be in it. Out of what has just happened at the Fingers both Jacqueline and I got something worth keeping, but Heaven defend me from ever again having to stand helplessly by while it becomes more and more apparent to almost everyone but me that the person I love most in the world is murderously insane.”
In The Chuckling Fingers, Minnesota mystery writer Mabel Seeley (1903-1991) presents the story of the weird and strange events that beset the Heaton family, Minnesota lumber tycoons, at their remote, pine-grown estate on Lake Superior. But let the author introduce her story herself:
“Other people may think they’d like to live their lives over, but not meâ€”not if this last week is going to be in it. Out of what has just happened at the Fingers both Jacqueline and I got something worth keeping, but Heaven defend me from ever again having to stand helplessly by while it becomes more and more apparent to almost everyone but me that the person I love most in the world is murderously insane. . . .
“I never again want to know the panic of being up against evil coming out of a mind so much more skillful than mine that even the signs we did see–the acid in a bride’s toilet kit, the burned matchsticks under a bed, the word scrawled with a child’s blue chalk on a rock–all just bogged us deeper in terror and despair. . . .”
Mabel Seeley’s story of that terror and despair was
the mystery of the year in 1941.
Mabel Seeley (1903-1991) was an enormously popular Minnesota mystery writer from the late 1930s through the early 1950s. Her novels were published by Doubleday in New York and distributed by The Crime Club.
Mabel Hodnefield Seeley moved to St. Paul with her family in 1920, when her father, Jacob Hodnefield, took a job as newspaper curator at the Minnesota Historical Society. She attended Mechanic Arts High School and graduated summa cum laude from the University of Minnesota. After marrying Ken Seeley, Mabel moved to Chicago, where she wrote advertising copy while her husband worked on a master’s degree. The Seeleys returned to the Twin Cities for medical treatment when Ken contracted tuberculosis, but they later divorced. Mabel went on to become famous for her mystery novels, and by the late 1940s she and her young son Gregory were resettled in California.
In 1954, while in the East to promote her last book, The Whistling Shadow, Mabel Seeley met lawyer Henry Ross whom she married two years later. When asked many years later why his wife had stopped writing, Ross told a reporter: “She married me. Writing is hard work, and . . . she liked being married better. She was extremely intelligent, extremely generous, a devoted wife, mother, and grandmother.
Cover painting by Paul S. Kramer.
“A fine contemporary mystery—written five decades ago“
Kyle E. Eller/Budgeteer News
Recommendation: Though this book was written more than 50 years ago, it has a relatively contemporary feel, and its intricate plotting will tickle mystery lovers.
Mystery readers are sick people. They read to be fooled, to be confused. The more twisted the plot, the better; the more sinister the bad guy, the more satisfying the read. The more real the danger their beloved heroes are in, the more fun they have.
Smart, sure, but sick.
The Afton Historical Society Press, based in Afton, recently bestowed a gift on Minnesota mystery lovers with the re-release of two Mabel Seeley mysteries.
Seeley, a popular Minnesota-born writer of the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s, is an interesting figure in our literary tradition, and a big-league mystery writer. (Don’t let the small press fool you. First, Afton is not as small as it sounds, publishing high-quality, award-winning books. Second, the Seeley book I selected to review was originally published by Doubleday in New York and distributed by The Crime Club there.)
Selecting which mystery to review was easy—The Chuckling Fingers, “the mystery of the year in 1941” says Afton, is set near Grand Marais and details a battle between descendants of a wealthy lumber baron.
It sounds like fun, and it is. The first thing a reader notices in this book are all the old conventions, most of which still work. Like a script for a play, the book opens with a setting statement and the “Dramatis Personae,” a list of characters that is handy while the intricate plot line unwinds.
Seeley, who lived from 1903 to 1991, also starts the book as a “frame story,” a technique that is not used as much today as it was during Seeley’s career. Essentially, the reader is introduced to the character after the story has already taken place, and the novel reads like a giant flashback (Seeley does not “complete” the frame by coming out of the flashback at the end).
Seeley chose this technique quite deliberately, because she takes the opportunity to tell the reader exactly what will happen in the book.
This strategy may seem bizarre, almost guaranteed to destroy the suspense that is the hallmark of the mystery genre. The real result is quite different—the introduction is cryptic, just enough to whet the appetite, and the technique serves well toward the end of the book, when the reader is unsure how much action is yet to come. This is also great cover—if the plot ever flags, readers can check back and see what’s on the docket.
The frame strategy is perfectly executed, and mostly avoids the down side—to some modern readers, especially snobs, framing this way is a “device” that can seem phony.
Attention to craft is the rule in The Chuckling Fingers. Seeley weaves an intricate plot with plenty of action and nicely developed characters. She does a masterful job of casting suspicion on characters—just when the reader thinks she has a handle on whodunit, legitimate suspicions about somebody else crop up. Seeley must have had fun with the subterfuge, sending readers on chase after chase â€” exactly the kind of chase mystery readers crave.
The ending is satisfying, wholly fitting and yet surprising. (Surprising to me at least—you professional mystery readers may fare better.)
As a novel, Fingers is remarkably contemporary. The lead character, Ann Gay, is an intelligent, strong-willed woman. In the first-person point-of-view, the mystery unfolds and is solved through her eyes, and she plays a significant role in the action scenes, especially the end. Many displays of patriarchal society seep through the book (even in Gay’s character), and modern readers may cringe at a few of the male characters’ attitudes, but the staunchest feminist will find plenty to like about Ann Gay.
The minor North Shore characters are a mite stereotyped, but nothing terribly derogatory. Though the story centers on descendants of a lumber baron and the northern Minnesota wilderness is sometimes portrayed in a less-than-flattering light, the generation Seeley describes is a group of bona fide tree huggers compared to their clear-cutting forbearers.
Where Fingers does show its age, you may wonder if we weren’t better off in 1941. Though Fingers has several murders, it contains virtually no gore—I see that Amazon has even categorized the novel as “young adult.” This categorization is patently silly—Fingers was written for adults and remains a great adult read—but what are the implications when young adult readers could well find this murder mystery tame?
One cannot help but draw parallels to Seeley’s modern descendants, like Joan Drury, another Minnesota writer who set a murder mystery on the North Shore. Both writers wrote the strong first-person woman lead character who discovers the first body and solves a mystery not-quite-singlehandedly. Both deal with women’s issues, although Drury does it more directly. It is interesting to consider this preexisting tradition in our literary heritage.
More to the point, lovers of conventional mysteries will love this book. It is perfectly executed to deliver all the thrills, action and whodunit suspense their sick (er, I mean, quick) minds crave.