ELEVEN CAME BACK (1943) by Mabel Seeley

Seeley_Never-Came-Back_pyramidThis wartime example of the ‘Had I But Known’ school was one of the handful of mysteries published by the Minnesotan writer Mabel Seeley (1903-1991), who principally set her work in the Mid West. This particular title however takes place a little further along, in the the Tetons of Wyoming, at a ranch named the Lady Luck. Martha and Dane Chapple own a small network of radio stations but their principal investor has decided to pull out – and to their horror, is planning to sell his interest to a borderline fascist.

I offer the following reviews as part of Bev’s 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge; and  Patti’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme, today hosted by Todd Mason at Sweet Freedom.

“Oh, I’ll be subtle. I know how to do it. But they’ll say, feel, do – as I dictate””

A powerful woman cutting a swathe through a male-dominated profession, Delphine Anda Huddlestone ran a scurrilous right-wing newspaper until she was divorced by its proprietor (when the scoundrel traded her in for a younger model). Now she has remarried, has moved near to Jackson Hole, and is planning to get into the radio business by taking over the small Arcadia network created by the Chapples. She plans to use this as a platform to infiltrate America with her right-wing ideals, taking advantage of the fact that Dane is about to head off to war, assuming that Martha won’t be able to stand up to her. But Martha is plenty feisty! She and her husband head off to Delphine’s new home to try and dissuade their partner from selling and arrive in the middle of a house party that includes their nemesis’ new and old husbands, assorted friends and her bitter secretary. The life and soul of the evening is hardboiled showgirl Lolly Sheean (“My motto: never fear pants”), and it is she who dies later that night while the party of 12 is out on a moonlit horse ride. Was it an accident, suicide or was she pushed off a rickety old bridge? And why was a small sacrificial fire lit outside the ranch? And why was all the hair cut off from Delphine’s new husband while he was drunk and asleep? Then another murder takes place and the the evidence points towards Dane, who has been found concussed near the body. Now it is up to Martha to prove his innocence and get away from the evil clutches of the real killer (and maybe uncover a Nazi spy too).

“I wonder now what would have happened if I had rested after that, a minute longer or a minute less. I wonder what difference it would have made in the outcome.”

Seely_Eleven-Came-Back_pyramidThis book unquestionably belongs to that ‘Had I But Known’ strain of romantic suspense fiction that tends to be so derided nowadays (and indeed, didn’t always  get a lot of critical respect even then). I didn’t mind that foreshadowing technique at all and enjoyed Martha’s strength in the face of adversity and thought Delphine made for an enjoyably nasty adversary with her nakedly fascist outlook (you can really tell that this was written during the war). It is also a point in Seeley’s favour that, as usual, the protagonists are working class and the setting uncommon. However, the book is also a little bit dull, the prose style on the clunky side, the subsidiary characters thin and it is certainly a shame that the lively Lolly is killed off quite so soon. I don’t really want to put potential readers off too much though as this is an entertaining enough read (if a bit over-extended). Curtis Evans has written authoritatively on Seeley and her output on his blog, The Passing Tramp.

This book was a gift from Bev Hankin, the fine hostess of the  2015 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Challenge, for which many thanks.

I submit this review in the ‘letter in my name’ category as my first name begins with the same letter as the author’s surname:

026-Vintage-Seely

***** (2 fedora tips out of 5)

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58 Responses to ELEVEN CAME BACK (1943) by Mabel Seeley

  1. Thanks, as ever, Sergio, for the thoughtful analysis. I have to say that I like the presence of strong , female characters who aren’t neatly fit into categories. I don’t normally go crazy for the ‘Had I but known’ device, but I’m glad it went OK here.

  2. Bev Hankins says:

    I’m glad you liked it as much as you did, Sergio–although I was hoping to see more than two hats at the end of the review. 😉

    • I did enjoy it Bev, especially as it was a gift from you! Having said that, well, the ‘Had I But Known’ element was fine but I just found it a bit dull in the middle really, which was a shame because I liked some of the characters a lot and the unusual setting was a real bonus. But ti did seem to get a bit bogged down in a very mechanical investigation and I find my tolerance for that gets lower and lower with each passing month 🙂

      • Bev Hankins says:

        I do understand that, Sergio. I find myself having less and less patience for various plotting devices and writing styles that never would have bothered me when I was younger. I’m either getting more discriminating in my taste (Ha!) or I’m getting crotchety in my old age. 🙂

        • Yup, I’m there too – but hey, I definitely want to try as many new authors as I can and am in the process of giving Gladys Mitchell another go and so far it’s going well (to my slight surprise based on dim and distant memories of incredulity and disappointment in my teens).

  3. tracybham says:

    This sounds like something I would like to try, especially because of when she was writing. Even though “had I but known” stories don’t sound appealing, it is usually different from author to author as to how well they work for me.

    • Thanks Tracy. The HIBK element actually works fine (and I think as a device is perfectly sound anyway) – its a small book (about 220 pages) but I marked it down as it still felt a bit long but full of things I really enjoyed all the same.

  4. Santosh Iyer says:

    There has been a series of low ratings from you (last 3 reviews). I hope your next review has a high rating. 🙂

  5. John says:

    My only venture into the work of Mabel Seeley was not fun. I attempted to read THE CRYING SISTERS but the story was so contrived that I ended up throwing in the towel at about the halfway mark. It all involves an absurd pact between strangers reminiscent of the kind of thing Cornell Woolrich did very well and made thrilling and believable. A librarian is asked to impersonate a man’s wife and take care of his son. They have never met, he sidles up to her in a roadside cafe and pitches his strange job to her and she accepts with no real questioning of his motives. Its just implausible that way its presented. And of course dead bodies turn up at the cabin in the woods where the father takes his child and fake wife. There’s some nicely done detective work by a sheriff in the beginning, but the the whole story became increasingly ridiculous and contrived. I never finished it and have never gone back to it. Curt has said some good things about her other books, but I’ve just not been tempted to try any of them. I have this book you reviewed here and also THE CHUCKLING FINGERS.

    I’m curious to see what you think of DEATH AT THE OPERA by good ol’ Gladys Mitchell. That’s actually one of her better ones. Is that your first Mitchell?

  6. curtis evans says:

    This one was perhaps her least favorably reviewed book at the time, but also is the most common in her output. (over-produced and under-sold?)

    • Thanks Curtis – there do seem to be a lot of copies of it, don;t there? I really like the look of my 60s reprint even if it is a but misleading as its not really a gothic!

      • Todd Mason says:

        Though clearly a predecessor to the supermarket gothics, to some extent, if less so than some others discussed above.

        • Just double-checked – this Pyramid edition is from 1968. I’m not sure I’ve really read any of the neo-Gothics from this era (the likes of Ron Goulart. Marion Zimmer Bradley, Michael Avallone, Dean Koontz all used to write them, right?)

          • Todd Mason says:

            Thomas Disch and John Sladek, Joan Aiken (arguably), quite a few others…

          • I know I’ve asked you this before, but has anyone published a study of these as part of the post-war paperback phenomenon? All utterly intriguing to me (there are some books I would rather read about than actually read, if that doesn’t sound too lazy or philistine …)

  7. Colin says:

    It’s a pity you found the writing style a bit clunky as the whole premise sounds more than a little interesting. I’m very tempted to try this in spite of the weaknesses to refer to – I have a hunch it might prove entertaining enough.

    • Would be very happy to lend you my copy and see what you make of it chum. I was a bit underwhelmed but did enjoy it

      • Colin says:

        May take you up on that offer at some point but I’m on a bit of a Perry Mason kick at the moment and that should keep me occupied in the near future anyway.

        • Ah, which masons are you reading? I’ve been rediscovering the one from the 1930s of late and enjoying them much more than i thought I would!

          • Colin says:

            I’m in the middle of The Case of the Stuttering Bishop right now, and enjoying it. Next up will be either The Case of the Curious Bride or The Case of the One-Eyed Witness.

          • The first two are definitely from the earlier period and Curious Bride I liked as I recall, can’t remember Bishop (may in fact onyl have seen the Warner bros movie of it – darn). Witness is from about 1950 I think, right? I may only have seen the TV adaptation and not read that one (its easy to find online …)

          • Colin says:

            I have a pile of Mason books that I bought 2nd hand so they’re from all eras. I remember reading some a few years ago, not being all that taken, and then giving up. At the moment I’m quite enjoying Bishop so I’m going to dig in a bit more.

          • The books from the 30s are definitely the ones I seem to have enjoyed the most, let’s put it that way!

          • Colin says:

            Bishop certainly seems tougher and more hard-boiled – Mason has just beaten the ever-loving crap out of a guy in the chapter I just finished, which is a little different to the way I remember the character!

          • I know – isn’t it great? Very different from any of the film or TV incarnations and yet in terms of 1930s crime fiction makes perfect sense – and of course spends very little (if any) time in the courtroom.

          • Colin says:

            Yes, if anything, it’s that difference to what I perceived as the usual formula which I’ve been finding particularly enjoyable.
            I just recently got my first pair of reading glasses and despite my initial resentment of what I felt was this concession to approaching decrepitude, it’s making reading much less of a chore and a lot more fun again!

          • Yes, I pretty much had the same thing in fact – I realised I was reading less and less and eventually realised it was the need to get reading glasses – maddening but that’s what happens when you get past 40 to us mere mortals 🙂

          • Colin says:

            That’s about the size of it, yes. I’m becoming fond of the things now to be honest, and kind of wondering why I didn’t get them sooner – I’ve definitely got a new appetite for reading.

          • One has to embrace the whole re-learning thing, right? After all, just think about the alternative … 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Aye, that’s it indeed. Adapt and progress, or else… 🙂

          • Just takes a little longer than the first time – OK, in some cases, a lot longer 🙂

          • Colin says:

            Time’s a relative concept anyway, so it’s all good.

          • I really hope so 🙂

          • Todd Mason says:

            Be careful of reading certain Masons. So Mote It Be.

            Meanwhile, even with the Type 2 Diabetes and all, the reading glasses didn’t come into play till I started to get cataracts about five years back, and they progressed rapidly enough that I had to have plastic lenses inserted in the eyes…so, now, the near vision isn’t what it was before the cataracts started forming, but reading glasses do help. Having them thrust upon you does tend to take the aging sting off, even if I was in my mid-’40s.

          • Thanks Todd, Amen to that sage Perry Mason advice – I read too many from the 50s and 60s as a teen and I got bored pretty quickly. Glad to hear the surgery improved things Todd – and yeah, having life thrusty upon one sure reduced ones options, couldn’t agree. But hey, I’m 47 in a couple of weeks – that’s still young, right.. right?

          • Todd Mason says:

            Sure, Gramps…sprightly pensioner, aren’t you?

          • Knackered old fart, reporting for duty, sir!

  8. neer says:

    This does sound interesting, Sergio, because I am interested in reading about ‘right-wing’ propaganda and ‘border-line fascism’ at that time.

  9. Todd Mason says:

    Though sadly it sounds as if it might fall more into the Worthy zone than the actually Good one…

  10. Matt Paust says:

    Must say I’m unfamiliar with Mabel Seeley, Sergio, but being a Midwest product myself it would seem high time I checked her out. Thanks for the introduction.

  11. Sergio, I find the story, in addition to the setting, “uncommon,” and I quite like the plot and characters too. As to the author, completely new to me.

  12. Yvette says:

    I’ve never read any Mabel Seeley, Sergio. Don’t know that I’m tempted to after your lukewarm review, but since you like an awful lot of books (McBain, for example) which I never did, I’m tempted to go ahead and take the Mabel Seeley plunge just to see what’s what. 🙂 I’m still on the fringes of my Michael Innes binge and nearing the end, I think, of most of his better books. I’m looking for another writer to binge on. 🙂

    • Just when you thought there were only so many books by Georgette Heyer … But hey, there’s always Ann Tyler, Robert B Parker, Rex Stout, Margery Allingham … 🙂 Apparently this is not the Seeley to start with …

  13. Interesting – I have so much enjoyed the vaguely similar Ethel Lina White recently, that I might be open to this writer. Perhaps a different book though.

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