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.
“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: