This books starts off with a premise reminiscent of the Hitchcock movie Rear Window (or rather, the short story on which it was based, ‘It Had to Be Murder’ by Cornell Woolwich / William Irish): looking through a window a person see a crime and become the target of the culprit. But beyond this simple situation, this book goes in quite a different direction, exploring the themes of paranoia, voyeurism and, most surprisingly, a sympathetic treatment of mental health issues, in port-war America.
I submit this review for Bev’s 2017 Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt; and Friday’s Forgotten Booksmeme run by Patti Abbott at her fab Pattinase blog.
“From even the weakest chain of circumstance Wilma could build a shackle of fear.”
The novel has a terrific opening chapter in which we are introduced to the strange behaviour of its troubled by fascinating protagonist, Wilma Rathjen, who seems incredibly worried about a birthday cake that she has removed from the shop where she works. But this oddness pays off beautifully when she comes home and goes through her complex and somewhat paranoid home rituals (she checks that absolutely everything is exactly how she left it before she can feed the cat and really feel at peace). She has an apartment on top of a garage and after her rituals are over, she looks through her window to reassure herself that the cake won’t be missed – because across the courtyard she can still see that the person who ordered it, still just as dead in their apartment across the street as they were in the morning.
“Jeri Lynn had too many friends and not enough mourners.”
From this strong hook, the story then expands to encompass Wilma’s brother, a wealthy businessman on the make who is also the landlord (he got his sister her room above the garage partly to keep her out of harm’s way after her nervous breakdown, to avoid damage to his reputation) and who was maybe having an affair with Jeri, the dead woman. Her body was found dead in the tub, seemingly the victim of an accident when her hairdryer fell in – but the police, in the shape of strange, unhappy, second generation detective John Osgood, are starting to have doubts about this. The book introduces us to a number of Jeri and Wilma’s neighbours, all of whom may perhaps know more about the death than they are telling – and then a soldier turns up, claiming to be her husband, though Jeri had been carrying on with several men in his absence. So was her death accidental, murder or something else? And is Wilma right, is there someone snooping around her apartment at night, or are these just her paranoid fantasies? And how is local doctor involved and what about the rather flamboyant manager of the club where Jeri danced?
“Starlet,” Frenchy murmured. “That’s Hollywood for photogenic female, unemployed.”
Nielsen was a superior writer of suspense, with a good grasp of how to keep a plot moving and a really strong empathy with her often highly unusual characters. In particular, I was really drawn to the unusual mutual sympathy that eventually builds between Osgood and the sad and damaged Wilma, who everyone just dismisses as a ‘loony’ (especially after a second murder that she seems to have committed) – the two ultimately finding a measure of understanding, against the odds. This makes the book feel surprisingly modern and really elevates it. Long out of print, this new edition comes as part of the mass market Black Gat line from Stark House Press, which even goes to the trouble of recreating the 4.25” x 7” paperback format of the past. Bringing the book back into paper print after 60 plus years, this is another great release from Stark House Press, to whom many thanks for supplying the review copy – it’s a keeper.
Woman on the Roof
By Helen Nielsen
ISBN: 978-1944520137 (paperback), 200 pages, $9.99
To find out more about the author and his books, you should visit: http://starkhousepress.com/nielsen.php
John F Norris did a typically superb job of analysing this one over at his unmissable Pretty Sinister Books blog.
I submit this reviews for Bev’s Golden Age Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt in the ‘brunette’ category:
Trust you, Sergio, to choose such an interesting book! I’ll admit I’ve not read this one, but it does sound nicely atmospheric, and I do very much like the premise. Interesting discussion, too, of the whole mental health question. This goes on my ‘look for it’ list. Thanks, as ever, for a fine review.
Thanks Margot – it is a really decent book so I hope you get a copy 😀
Small world! I’ve just recently read my first Nielsen, Detour to Death, and have been likewise very much impressed — she’s better than many of her contemporaries who remain much heralded. I have another of her novels somewhere on the shelves and, assuming it hasn’t actually collapsed into a pile of dust, it’s definitely on my list of books to be read.
That is also really good – looking forward to reading more of hers
This sounds terrific, Sergio, and I was completely unaware of the book and writer. I’ll have to check this out.
Cheers mate – I think I have seen some of her TV work on Hitchcock
Well I’ve ordered a copy of the book on the strength of what I’ve read here – always open to recommendations like this.
Great compliment that is, thanks mate – really hope you like it as much as I did 🙂
I’m sure I will – I’ll let you know my thoughts when I get it and read it.
Excellent – I actually wondered if it might not have been turned into an Alfred Hitchcock Presents / Hour episode as Nielsen wrote several, but apparently not. It would have fitted right in!
Just realized she provided the material for the early Hammer film Blackout, which I though was rather good.
If I can get a copy of the book I was thinking doing a review of both in fact!
That would be nice!
Book (Murder By Proxy) is hopefully on its way as I type …
Fast work! Good man.
We shall see … 🙂 Good excuse to start getting back in to Hammer Noir, it’s been too long 😉
Indeed, and I have something Hammer related (though not noir) in the pipeline too.
And about time, if I may say so!
You may. 🙂
Reminds me of a book I read recently by Elizabeth Sanxay Holding called “Net of Cobwebs.” The protagonist is male, but it’s also ((just) post-war America, and the paranoia and mental health issues sound very similar to this book. It’s a kind of unreliable narrator pushed to the max.
Thanks for that Paula – I really like Holding, Stark have been reprinting a lot of hers glad to say.
I was hoping I had a book by this author but I don’t. I will definitely have to try one of her books. Very nice review, Sergio,
Get this one Tracy, you won’t regret it!
The ‘paranoid female protagonist with odd habits’ brings to mind Margaret Millar’s Beast in View — and, frankly, a Beast in View/Rear WIndow crossover souns like the kind of fan fiction I can get onboard with. For this review, much thanks.
Thanks JJ – you would not mistake this for a Millar book in that sense as the plot is not tricky (in that way) at all. But I really admired the way Nielsen elicited sympathetic portraits for unlikely people – actually reminded a bit of Forster in that regard.
Thanks for the mention and the link, Sergio. Glad you enjoyed this book. I have yet to be disappointed by Helen Nielsen. I think I’ll just send you recommendations via email and have you review the books or maybe get one of your nieces to do it. I’m about ready to retire from blogging altogether and return to selling books which has been very minimal for the past five years. An announcement coming soon on my blog.
Damn it John, not you too! Thanks for being such a pal to us all 😀
I’ve very much enjoyed the Nielsen books I’ve read so far, so this one is jumping to the top of my wish list — many thanks for making me aware of it! I must have missed it on the Stark House newsletters…
Thanks Chris – she is a really nice surprise, to me at least 😀
I’ve read a couple Helen Nielsen mysteries, but not WOMAN ON THE ROOF. I have a copy so I’ll have to find the time to read it after your fine review.
Really hope you like it George.
Sounds like my kind of read, Sergio. I hope there’s an ebook version.
Thanks Matt – and yes, to quote from the Stark House website: This book is now available for your Kindle from Amazon.com and for your Nook at BN.com
Can’t find it on Kindle. But no matter, I’ll get the paperback at some point. I like when you review a book that I would like to read, Sergio. 🙂 This one sounds terrific.
Yeah, sorry about that, clearly it is supposed to be on kindle – here is the Amazon entry. I think you’d like this one A LOT 🙂
The Amazon entry shows hardcover, paperback and mass market paperback but no kindle.
Yeah, I’ve emailed the publishers about this and will share any updates.
Since no kindle edition is available of this book, I have obtained The Brink Of Murder by the same author. There is simply no space for another physical book in my house !
Hi Santosh – in fairness, the Black Gat edition is really very compact 🙂 But yes, I know what you mean, I keep hiding my overspill in the loft and then complain I can;t find anything up there!
This is a quick update from Stark House Press – they are working on e-book versions, but they are not available for this title yet.
Thanks for spotlighting Helen Nielsen and her book, Sergio. The passages you quoted, well, that’s the kind of writing I really enjoy reading. I’ll look out for her work at one of the used books exhibitions I frequent.
Thanks Prashant – I hope you find a copy. I really enjoyed it a lot.
Oh that sounds good, I love that setup, will have to try to get this.
The apartment on the roof actually reminded me of the Armistead Maupin books, Tales of the City – not crime as such (though some mysteries) – do you know them?
I love the Maupin books, especially the first two. Not read the most recent one though.
Sergio – The opening pages sound intriguing. Capturing the reader right from the top is a real skill. Thanks.
Thanks Elgin – I was really pleased with this – really keen on Nielsen now 🙂
Finished this and thought I’d get back to you. Right, this was a vert enjoyable little book, and quite unusual in that the hero, Osgood, is very nearly as damaged emotionally as Wilma, but is just better at keeping his foibles under wraps.
The mystery is so-so but good enough too and anyway it’s all carried along by the strong character work. Wilma is a wonderful creation, truly complex and both sympathetic and irritating, perhaps in the space of the same paragraph.
First off, really glad you liked this book. You are right about the crime plot – it is perfectly OK but not especially memorable as a whodunit. But the characters and scenes are way above average. So glad you liked it too – always a fear one might like a book but be alone in one’s enthusiasm – yay 😀
I know, you can never be sure if others will react the same way. But a well written book is a well written book and most people will recognize that.
Well, I always hope that to be true … 😀
I just finished it, too, and really enjoyed it.I love the setting since it is so familiar to me, but the characters were what really drove the story. I agree Osgood is as good and complicated as Wilma. And, yes, it did remind me a bit of “A Beast in View,” but with a different slant. I noticed in the list of her other books, that Nielson wrote a book called “Detour,” and I wondered if it was the basis for the movie of the same name. A similar vibe. The lead actress in that movie told a story about showing up to the set with freshly washed and coiffed hair, and the director immediately had it dirtied up to play that role.
On a purely personal note, the biographical note showed that Nielson was born exactly one day after my mother and only one state over. 🙂
Thanks for that Paula – and no, I can confirm that the Nielsen book Detour from 1953 (aka Detour to Death), which I previously reviewed here, has no connection with the Edgar Ulmer classic Noir (which I love – oh for a decent Blu ray release of that one …). Like Woman on the Roof, Nielsen’s book Detour is in fact more of a whodunit with some unusual and compelling characters.
Thanks, Sergio! With that title … Detour TO DEATH… it sounds so much like the movie.
It was a paperback reprint title though it seems to have been used for the most recent e-book edition. I suspect that at the time the Ulmer movie was so obscure that nobody thought using the same title would raise an eye brow. It was decades I think before the movie become recognised as a low rent noir masterpiece
Pingback: HARDBOILED, NOIR AND GOLD MEDALS by Rick Ollerman | Tipping My Fedora
Pingback: 2017 Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Wrap-up | Tipping My Fedora
Pingback: The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen (1954) – Dead Yesterday