An old woman is brutally murdered in her bed. In their wildest imaginings, the families who lived in the five homes on Crescent Place would never have dreamed of such a horror happening in their quiet, secluded neighborhood. And that proves to be only the first of several killings that happen in The Album, a 1933 classic by Mary Roberts Rinehart, surely one of the most popular American mystery authors writing during the first half of the twentieth century. The Album is the subject of today's audio review on the Classic Mysteries podcast, and you can listen to the entire review by clicking here.
The Halls. The Lancasters. The Daltons. The Wellingtons. The Talbots. The families who lived together in their rather remote houses on Crescent Place had succeeded very well in keeping the rest of the world out of their little enclave. Socially, they were relics of an earlier age - particularly the women; in their world, the younger women were expected to remain unmarried and reclusive and dedicate themselves to serving the older family members. It was a society which still clung to existence in the early 1930s in some parts of America - but a society quite clearly about to undergo rather badly needed essential change.
For that social order was challenged when old Mrs. Lancaster was murdered in her bed. And there were more murders to come before the unsettling conclusion to this mystery.
Mary Roberts Rinehart was known as one of the leading proponents of the "Had I But Known" type of mystery, where the reader is always being forewarned that had the narrator only realized [some salient point], then so-and-so might still be alive today, or had she but known the dangers hidden behind that door, she would never have tried to open that door by herself in the middle of the night.
Somehow, in Rinehart's hands, it's never quite as silly as it seems, and she generates a pretty good atmosphere of terror around those events, even with the forecasting of HIBK. There is also a good deal of healthy rebellion against that overbearing social order. It is easy to sympathize with the women – particularly the younger women – of the crescent, who feel they must keep certain secrets, abandon many normal and routine pleasures, and live up to a particular level of expectation which is surprisingly accepting of what we would now consider remarkably eccentric behavior. As Louisa Hall, our narrator, notes rather wistfully: “Out in the world, women were taking their places and living their own lives, but our small rules of living and conduct ignored all that.” And she refers to this way of life as "the slavery of the unimportant."
"The Album" provides a solid mystery, placed against that setting provided by a changing social order. The story is rather long and, occasionally, rather confusing even when the events are eventually unraveled. Overall, however, I think you would enjoy it. It is not in print at the moment, although there seem to be plenty of hard copies available through Amazon's book-dealer associates, and Open Road Media and The Mysterious Press now have released it in e-book format.