Cutting Edge Books has recently published new editions of The House and Composition for Four Hands. Each novella is featured as a paperback and also collected digitally in the omnibus Best Pulp Noir Fiction Volume Nine: Four Hardboiled Novels. I chose to concentrate my efforts on The House.
The book is presented in first-person by Isobel, a young woman living in a large, cavernous mansion left to her by her late father. Her dull days are spent under the constant scrutiny of her callous mother. Her only enjoyment in life is spying on her neighbors, a group of middle-aged cousins and friends that indulge in drinking affairs that typically involve rumors of Isobel's father, her mother, and her household.
Through's Isobel's recollections, readers learn that Isobel's father died under mysterious circumstances. He acquired a terminal illness and spent his dying days with blue-collar men at a nearby labor camp. But, his death was linked to a tragic, fiery car accident on a road between the two dwellings.
In the book's opening chapters, Isobel begins seeing a mysterious figure in the house. Her father's dog, which she inherited after his death, senses that the stranger may be a family member. Other signs begin to appear that perhaps Isobel's father isn't really dead. Is she mentally experiencing things she desires or is something supernatural occurring? Lawrence's spongy narrative twists and turns as Isobel, and her cavalier fiance, attempt to unravel the family mystery.
As a veteran of 60s and 70s Gothics, it was interesting to see Lawrence using that same formula 15-20 years before the genre's paperback boom. Arguably, the author was inspired by Mary Roberts Rinehart, who cleverly invented some of the genre's consistent tropes in her early 1900s fiction. Atmosphere is key to these stories, and I felt like Lawrence missed an opportunity here. Otherwise, the book's central mystery, defining characters, and the obvious Gothic overtones were a real pleasure to experience. If you enjoy these cozy mansion-mysteries, then The House is worth visiting.
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