A flash from the past: Mabel Seeley

April 26, 2010

In the pantheon of venerated mystery writers, Mabel Seeley does not loom large nowadays, although her books are enjoying something of a resurgence in popularity, thanks to the efforts of the Afton Historical Society Press, based in the bustling metropolis of Afton, Minnesota, population 2839.

Seeley was a Minnesota-born writer, who published seven (or ten, depending upon which source you care to credit) critically acclaimed (and strong-selling) mysteries over a period spanning from the late 1930s until the early 1950s. Her fourth book, 1941’s The Chuckling Fingers, reportedly won the Mystery of the Year award, although a moderately intensive search to verify that claim has not proven fruitful. She went on to become an early member of the Mystery Writers of America, and served on its first board of directors. Then, in 1954, she met the man who would become her second husband, lawyer Henry Ross, and retired abruptly from her literary career. Years later, Ross was asked why Seeley had stopped writing. His reply: “She married me. Writing is hard work…and she liked being married better.”

Her mysteries were typically set in the towns and rural areas of Minnesota, or occasionally in towns in “the Midwest”, which could easily be Minnesota as well, of course. There is a bit of the gothic to her work, but it is overlaid with a heartland sensibility that tempers it enough that even hardboiled mystery fans will enjoy her writing. That said, she became associated with the dreaded “Had I But Known…” school of fiction, as her main character often starts out by reflecting on a series of events that transpired not according to plan. And, although you don’t often hear the words “atmospheric” and “Minnesota” in the same sentence, Seeley breathes a moody and distinctive energy into the North Star State (which, by the way, was the Gopher State in a previous incarnation). Consider this snippet from the first chapter of The Crying Sisters:

“Agreeing to go. There’s no getting away from the fact that I went to that resort of my own free choice. Even when I chose I knew something was hidden under the surface of what was offered me. I went of my own volition into those days when I heard death crying in the night, when I saw it indicated by a plantain leaf and discovered in a plaything, when I saw it rising in a muddy bundle from the lake. The time was to come when I felt myself living in the very house of death and eating at its table. And in the end . . .”

Mabel Seeley titles in print include The Beckoning Door, The Crying Sisters, The Chuckling Fingers and The Whistling Shadow, although several others are readily available at used bookstores and online. This may be difficult to envision, but Seeley neatly splits the difference between, say, Agatha Christie and C.J. Box; her novels have a period flavor, without a doubt, but a much more modern vibe than their chronological age might suggest.

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