The House of a Thousand CandlesMay 5, 2010
Circumstances conspired to make me compare The House of a Thousand Candles to The Circular Staircase. First, I started reading them at the same time–the Rinehart on my Kindle, the Nicholson on my phone. Then, when I googled Meredith Nicholson, I came up with an article on Michael Grost’s Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection that explicitly compared the two. So most of the time that I was reading the Nicholson book, I was thinking about Rinehart. And I was expecting Nicholson to compare pretty badly.
The thing I’ve always said about Mary Roberts Rinehart–at least to myself–is that her best quality is her sense of humor. And apparently Rinehart agreed, saying that the problem with her competitors was a lack of humor. Mike Grost offers The House of a Thousand Candles as an example of those humorless competitors, but I think he’s being a little unfair. I can think of much worse offenders. Anna Katherine Green, for one. But because of Grost’s piece, I was expecting House of a Thousand Candles to be pretty bad, so I ended up being pleasantly surprised–and that’s not a bad thing to be.
Our hero is John Glenarm, and in a lot of ways he’s typical of mstery/adventure novels from this era–sort of in the Grenfell Lorry mode, you know? Upper middle class, trained to a profession, brave and honorable and equally at home in a gunfight or a lady’s parlor. Unlike Lorry, though, Jack Glenarm does not appear to think that the world revolves around him. This is, to say the least, a quality I value in narrators. Jack is mostly pretty likeable, actually. And I love his relationship with his dead grandfather–how determined Jack is to carry out his wishes, and how Nicholson shows us how much alike they are without making Jack conscious of it. Too often first-person narration only tells you things that the narrator is aware of, but Nicholson has been cleverer than that.
Jack’s profession is engineering, and this story would not be taking place at all if he had chosen architecture instead. His grandfather, John Marshall Glenarm, is a little bit obsessed with architecture–and by a little, I mean a lot–and wanted Jack to study it too, but Jack decided to travel around the world with his disreputable friend Larry Donovan and burn through the fortune his father left him instead. That takes him about three years.
Then he gets a notification from Arthur Pickering, his grandfather’s lawyer/protege, who Jack has detested since they were at school together: John Marshall Glenarm is dead, and while Jack has inherited his property, there are some conditions attached. The main one is that Jack must go to Annandale, his grandfather’s half-finished estate in Indiana, and stay there for a year. Otherwise the property goes to Marian Devereaux, the niece of the Protestant nun who runs a girls’ school on an adjacent piece of land. One of the other conditions is that Jack can’t marry her. And one more thing: John Marshall Glenarm’s estate is considerable poorer than expected, and Jack suspects Pickering of some kind of wrongdoing. So does Larry, who appears unexpectedly in New York, on the run from the law after, I don’t know, killing somebody in Ireland, I think.
Annandale is pretty weird. Half the rooms aren’t habitable, but there’s a gigantic library full of books on architecture, and it’s lit entirely by candles. Also a dungeon, which John Marshall Glenarm’s servant, Bates, uses to store potatoes.
Bates is also weird. He’s quiet and expressionless, and an excellent servant, but he’s a bit too perfect, and several things lead Jack to believe that Bates is part of a conspiracy against him.
Actually, Jack thinks everyone is in conspiracy against him. It’s his biggest failing.
Then there’s Marian Devereaux. As Jack has been specifically forbidden to marry her, of course they’re going to have to fall in love. It’s not love at first sight, though, because the first few times they meet, Jack thinks she’s about fifteen. It’s only later, when he learns how old she is, that he begins to fall in love. And in spite of the fact that, for reasons I can’t entirely explain, I became mostly convinced that Jack Glenarm was gay, I also thought his relationship with Marian was unusually realistic for a book of this sort. She’s not just an object of worship–she’s as much of a person as anyone else in the book. And for every moment where Jack almost worships Marian, there’s another when he doesn’t even like her.
There is, in fact, a conspiracy against Jack, and it culminates in a siege (in which Annandale is defended by Jack, Larry, Bates, and the chaplain from the girls’ school) and a battle (in which the library is injured, but not burned down as I had feared it might be since reading about all the candles). And then a really cool thing happens, which I don’t want to spoil. It is a thing which I frequently wish would happen in mystery novels, but it rarely does. And I thought it might happen in this one, but I wasn’t sure if there were hints, or if it was just wishful thinking.
So, I really liked House of a Thousand Candles. And actually, it compares well to The Circular Staircase. There are a lot of obvious similarities, plotwise–I mean, these are both mystery novels about people who move into houses that seem to be haunted, but actually it’s just that half of the characters are running through the hallways in the middle of the night. And Nicholson’s characters aren’t always as engaging as Rinehart’s, and the mystery isn’t as mysterious, but House of A Thousand Candles is, on the whole, a better-constructed book.