Black Gat Books/Stark House Press, 2016
originally published 1954
A couple of months ago the lovely people at Stark House Press sent me an advanced reading copy of a novel
in their Black Gat line of books, Two Names for Death, by EP Fenwick, which comes out mid-April so I'll defer talking about it for the time being (although I will say that it's really, really good and that vintage mystery/crime readers definitely have something to look forward to). After I'd finished that one, I started looking at the catalogue of other Black Gat Books, especially those written by women and bought this one, The Woman on the Roof by Helen Nielsen, and two other titles as well.
According to Fantastic Fiction, Helen Nielsen (1918-2002) authored nineteen novels; she also wrote for television, including the old series Alfred Hitchcock Presents, The Alfred Hitchcock Hour, Perry Mason, and Tales of the Unexpected.
The titular "woman on the roof" is Wilma Rathjen, whose brother Curtis has set her up in a garage apartment that looks down onto the six-unit apartment complex below. We discover right away that Wilma has spent time in a sanitarium; she also has a job at a local bakery. It is actually a muddle with a certain birthday cake ordered by one of the apartment dwellers that not only has her in a bit of a tizzy as the novel opens, but also leads to the discovery of the same woman in a bathtub in one of the apartments that Wilma can see into from her vantage point. Because her previous trouble that had landed her in the sanitarium had to do with "tall tales" told to the police, and had upset her reputation-fearful, wealthy-businessman brother and made him threaten to send her back if it happened again, she keeps quiet about it, believing that someone else will eventually find the dead Jeri Lynn. When the body is discovered, the police at first view her death as an accident, until circumstances and a little more digging reveal that her death is actually a case of murder. Unfortunately for Wilma, she finds herself smack in the middle of it all, and the killer sets out to take advantage of her troubled past while believing that she knows more than she actually does.
If you are thinking that perhaps you've read this plot before, you probably haven't. The author set up this novel so that it moves between two points of view beginning with that of Wilma before moving to that of the lead detective on the case, John Osgood. It is cleverly done; we know from the start that Wilma has some issues and that people consider her to be unbalanced. I have to give serious credit to Nielsen here -- at one point she references a road-company production of The Snake Pit, but she never takes her readers down that road. What she focuses on instead are Wilma's underlying worries and insecurities about what her brother will think and her fear of being sent back to the sanitarium now that her life is on somewhat of an even keel. For his part, Osgood (who has his own demons to contend with) has the good sense to realize that
"Even a crazy woman should have a chance to speak for herself. How else could anyone tell the sane from the insane?"He just knows that somewhere in what others perceive as her chaotic ramblings, she has something important and worthwhile to say and that perhaps she isn't "crazy" at all -- maybe she just has a different way of seeing and expressing things. It is this slow realization, along with the fact that he must somehow try to impress on others to see things his way and the slowly-growing trust between Wilma and Osgood that allows for The Woman on the Roof to become more than just your average crime novel.
The list of suspects in this novel is a lengthy one, motives abound, and I never guessed the who. But my reading focus is always on the people in crime novels, so for me it is a win-win, and a vintage mystery I can highly recommend. The fact that Helen Nielsen was heretofore unknown to me but is now on my reading radar is also a plus, and my many and sincere thanks to Stark House for putting her there.
I'll be back in a couple of weeks with the previously-mentioned Two Names for Death that like this one spotlights another woman crime writer I've never heard of, and after that another, and then the two I recently bought ... my Stark House reading future looks more than promising.