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Authors: Lenore Glen Offord

Skeleton Key

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SKELETON
KEY

Lenore Glen Offord

With an Introduction by Sarah Weinman

F
ELONY
& M
AYHEM
P
RESS
•
N
EW
Y
ORK

CONTENTS

Introduction

1.  The Mad Professor

2.  Everyone on Edge

3.  The Rising Tide of Alarm

4.  Blacked Out Forever

5.  Not All Aboveboard

6.  Hidden in the Bushes

7.  A Secret Revealed

8.  Trust Not Unlimited

9.  Spade Work at Sundown

10.  Murderers One to Seven

11.  The Lady Who Vanished

12.  Rimmed with Steel

13.  Where Mimi Was

14.  Speaking of Clocks

15.  The Gas Chamber

16.  Final Diagnosis

INTRODUCTION

Out of the Shadows: The Suspense Novels of Lenore Glenn Offord

T
HE SHEER BREADTH
and depth of crime fiction allows for expertise in a particular sliver of the genre. A reader obsessed with solving intricately plotted crimes may be unable to start a conversation with a lover of modern-day cozy mysteries focused on niche topics. The
noiristes
might engage in awkward conversation with the spy-thriller aficionados. Those keen on psychological suspense might look down their noses at fans of plot-driven action adventures.

Partly by accident, equally by design, the corner of knowledge I've carved out over the past few years centers around what I call domestic suspense: namely, novels by women published roughly between the dawn of the Second World War and the onset of Second-Wave feminism. They aren't quite hardboiled—at least, not if you compare them to books published by Hammett, Chandler, Cain, and the like—but they aren't exactly cozy, nor do they fit into the “had I but known” school of ladies-in-peril invented by Mary Roberts Rinehart.

Instead they are somewhere in between, featuring independent career women like the titular heroine of Vera Caspary's
Laura
; housewives on the edge protecting their families like Lucia Holley in Elisabeth Sanxay Holding's
The Blank Wall
; and new mothers desperate for relief from crying babies, demanding children, and condescending husbands like Louise in Celia Fremlin's
The Hours Before Dawn
. I've discovered a whole host of wonderful, needlessly neglected authors, many of whom now have a new generation of serious readers. But flashlights on earlier generations tend to miss a few spots, the dust of time concealing other forgotten names and literary gems ripe for discovery.

Lenore Glen Offord was new to me until quite recently. But once I delved into her not very large body of work – twelve novels between 1938 and 1959, eight of them mysteries – I discovered a writer of utterly delightful tales that mixed a strong sense of fair play, a wry wit, and a shrewd sense of domestic relationships that were, for their time, quite innovative, even subversive. How near-modern to trip across a mystery with a blended family in the making, where the murder-solving gets equal time with mother-daughter bonding. Here is crime fiction without airs, thunderous moralizing, or ponderous prose. The touch is light, even sprightly. It's perhaps not surprising to learn that Offord herself wore multiple hats, as a novelist, a literary critic, a passionate theatergoer, and a mother.

Lenore Frances Glen was born on October 24, 1905 in Spokane, Washington to Katherine and Robert Glen, the latter a longtime newspaper editor in the city. She lived on the West Coast for her entire life, making ample use of Pacific Northwest and California settings in her fiction. She moved to Oakland, California for college, received a B.A. (cum laude) from Mills College in 1927, and after marrying Harold Offord in 1929, migrated to Berkeley, CA, ostensibly for graduate work at the city's University of California outpost. They remained in and around Berkeley for nearly sixty years, with Offord giving birth to a daughter, Judith, in 1943.

For a time the Offords lived in the San Francisco neighborhood of Russian Hill, which provided the setting and title of her first novel,
Murder on Russian Hill
. That book introduced Coco Hastings, a voracious reader of mystery novels who, with her antiquarian husband Bill, gets embroiled in an actual murder in her own proverbial backyard. The pair returned for their second and final engagement in
Clues to Burn
(1942).

In between Offord ventured into more mainstream territory with
Cloth of Silver
(1939), about a girl reporter at a local newspaper contemplating love and marriage (she dedicated the book to her father: “To Pops, who told me so”);
Angels Unaware
(1940), a family drama where the arrival of unexpected guests exposes long-dormant fault lines; and the standalone thriller
The Nine Dark Hours
(1941), more in the classic domestic suspense mode of an ordinary young woman caught up in increasingly sinister events. (Offord's superior standalone thriller,
My True Love Lies
, set in the San Francisco art world, was published in 1947.) Yet mystery/suspense was always Offord's favorite genre, as she explained in a 1949 interview with the
Oakland Tribune
. “It is the first, and sometimes forgotten commandment for any novelist that he have a story to tell…I think [mystery novels] are sound discipline for the writer.”

With
Skeleton Key
, published in 1943 by Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Offord mixed a smart, curious heroine, her own insider's knowledge of California, and a deft hand with the foibles of domestic conflict—and fashioned the start of her most artistically successful works.
Skeleton Key
introduces Georgine Wyeth, a twenty-seven-year-old widow, with a small child, whose personality emerges, fully-formed, in a descriptive paragraph early on in the novel: “one glance…left you with no more than a vaguely pleasant impression. A second proved unexpectedly rewarding; those who troubled to take it saw her eyes and thought ‘lonely,' her mouth, and thought ‘sweet'; and then this increasingly sentimental gaze, having reached her chin, was brought up with a round turn. The set and tilt of the jaw spoke of stubbornness and humor, and more than hinted at a peppery though short-lived temper.”

It is a dangerous thing to underestimate Georgine Wyeth, especially if the person doing the underestimating is Georgine herself. She is wont to do that, convincing herself (here and in subsequent books) that she is paralyzed by her fears: of the unknown, of heights, of strange situations. In fact, her
modus operandi
is very practical: it's the height of World War II, she has to support her seven-year-old daughter because there is no husband around anymore to do it for her, and she'll take any job that suits. The search for that suitable job proves frustrating and protracted, but perseverance finally wins out as Georgine finds a position as a typist for a fearsome European scientist and moves into a
cul-de-sac
on Berkeley's Grettry Road.

Mystery arises not long after her arrival, as the small Grettry Road community is shaken by the death of an air-raid warden during a blackout, courtesy of a runaway car. (Blackout regulations on the West Coast were considerably more stringent and comprehensive than in other parts of the country: on a dark night the entire neighborhood might be all but pitch-black.) His death, first declared an accident, soon appears to have been something a lot more sinister.

Grettry Road is, understandably, riveted by the murder, but Georgine is somewhat distracted: it takes some convincing for her to realize it, but little Grettry Road is offering a glimpse of her future, of a face that “stood out like those of a bold carving: eyes deep-set between sandy brows and high cheekbones, flat planes of cheeks, firm jaw. The face looked as if it would be hard to the touch…he looked from one person to another, with such a total lack of expression that she'd thought he must be inwardly amused.”

Georgine's glimpse, like the reader's, is the first of Todd McKinnon, professional pulp writer (“hack work, but I can live on it”) with a weakness for playing the harmonica late at night (quietly, if you ask him nicely) and a nose for unsolved mysteries that add
gravitas
to his fictioneering. His declarations of love are understated, but when he utters a line like “You're a nice woman, Georgine. You're one of the nicest women I ever met. Don't take anything second-rate; you can have the best, you know,” she understands Todd's full, passionate meaning. In Offord's hands, Todd resembles the kind of romance hero more prevalent in Preston Sturges comedies like
Palm Beach Story
or
Christmas in July
, capable yet a little befuddled, inquisitive but silent when the situation calls for it, and often enmeshed in the thick of strange adventures, especially those of his own making.

The two make a good sleuthing team, what with Todd's methodical, laconic investigative acumen and Georgine's intuitive understanding of people. Nevertheless
Skeleton Key
is primarily Georgine's story of rolling with the punches, contending with her many fears, trying to provide a home for her daughter, Barby, and knowing “she could do only one thing: save herself.” Despite her belief in her own phobias, Georgine looks problems square in the face and deals with them, however unpleasant. She is a worthy antecedent to the crime-solving heroines of the 1970s, like Marcia Muller's Sharon McCone or Maxine O'Callaghan's Delilah West, and the very opposite of the fluttering Rinehart prototype.

Where
Skeleton Key
is clearly viewed through Georgine's eyes,
The Glass Mask
, published in 1944, is more of a group effort. Barby, now eight, “lights up like a pinball machine” over Todd's twenty-one-year old nephew, Dyke, during a trip to his part of California. Barby's crush makes it impossible for her mother and Todd to refuse Dyke's suggestion that the three of them—a soon-to-be blended family—visit a particular house on their way home. They stay overnight, and then another night, until it's clear that
someone
(perhaps a relative of their increasingly peculiar hostess?) plans to keep them there indefinitely.

The Glass Mask
is as much cloistered country-house tale, the walls constricting with a Poe-like metaphorical flourish, as it is about Georgine facing her fears, most notably of marriage to Todd. There's little reason they shouldn't tie the knot, especially when Barby loves her “Toddy” so. And yet Georgine can't quite shake off the niggling worry that she won't be able to handle the dangers that can find a writer of pulp tales, especially when that writer is devoted to basing his fiction on fact.

Her concerns are not for herself. As she tells Todd, “If you have anything to do with crime, even just writing about it, you're bound to get mixed up in horrors every so often. I could accept that for myself, if I tried. I could take it for you; it's your life, you have a right to risk it.” The trouble for Georgine is she “never thought of its touching Barby. How can I let her in for that sort of thing? She hasn't the choice. I have to make it for her.” Despite these eminently practical doubts about whether to go ahead with the marriage—doubts cast aside amid the whirlwind of solving yet another crime—the matter-of-fact way in which she brushes off queries about traveling with a man not (quite) her husband is most refreshing. There's little in the way of histrionics; Georgine merely listens, and goes about her day.

Once the mystery sorts itself out, the answer to Georgine and Todd's domestic conflict does the same. Married several years by the time of the events in
The Smiling Tiger
(1949), they find new mysterious adventures in the midst of a neighboring religious cult that does more harm than good. Beyond-Truth, as the cult is called, opposes marriages that will produce children: the end of the world is coming, after all, and what's the point in procreating? Todd doesn't want to write about this unpleasant group, but as he's in a writing rut, the lure of the paycheck trumps all—as does a more overt threat to Georgine.
The Smiling Tiger
is a fun read but the bite of the earlier two books isn't quite as pronounced. It would be another decade before Georgine, Todd, and Barby made their next, and last, appearance.

Offord's output slowed when she was named the full-time mystery critic for the
San Francisco Chronicle
in 1950, her column given the cracking title “The Gory Road.” During the Second World War she shared the column with her friend Anthony Boucher, the famed critic, novelist, essayist and anthologist, but she continued by herself when he decamped for the “Criminals at Large” column at the
New York Times
. Offord's work at the
Chronicle
won her the Edgar Award for Best Criticism in 1952, and she remained the paper's critic until 1982, making her one of the longest-serving reviewers of mystery fiction in the country.

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