05/18/2024

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Fifteen Minutes a Day, Celestine: The Crime Writing Career of Nedra Tyre

Fifteen Minutes a Day, Celestine: The Crime Writing Career of Nedra Tyre

After the publication of Nedra Tyre’s first book, a collection of dramatic monologues based upon her career as a social services caseworker entitled Red Wine First, the native Georgian author joined a writing group in Atlanta, one of whose members, Atlanta Constitution columnist Celestine Sibley, would, over the next forty-odd years, devote occasional columns to her colleague in the pages of the Constitution. After Nedra’s death in 1990 Celestine recalled that in their writing group, ironically named the Plot Club (“We had no plots and it was no club”), Nedra as a successfully published author “heard us read [our work] and encouraged and advised us.”  To her contemporaries Nedra strikingly possessed a demurely genteel and innocent appearance, being, according to Celestine, a blue-eyed, “tiny, pixie-like creature who wore her red hair in a ponytail and dressed like Alice in Wonderland in full-skirted childlike frocks and Mary Jane slippers.”  She looked about twelve, Celestine added, although at the time they first met she was thirty-four years old, and she spoke with a “soft, high voice, and she was shy!”

As any mystery fan will tell you, appearances can deceive.  As a social worker, Nedra knew all about the facts of life (and death).  “Social work can be emotionally exhausting,” she explained in a 1954 newspaper interview about her crime fiction.  “But as background for murder, it was just what I needed.”  Upon its publication in 1947, Red Wine First was condemned by nationally syndicated newspaper columnist James Farber as an unladylike and indeed “unpardonable tome” besmirched by “gutter language” (i.e., the actual language of Nedra’s clients).[1]  The book’s author could be direct in person as well.  She once implored another member of the Plot Club—genteel crime writer Genevieve Holden, whose first mystery novel followed Nedra’s own debut effort into print by a year in 1953—when she was giving a halting reading from her latest thriller: “Go on, Gen, get to the incest!” The other ladies in the room–including Celestine Sibley, who at her death in 1999 was described as “the last voice of the white-glove, tea-and-apple-blossom set that had not a sharp edge on it”–promptly dissolved into laughter.

This ladylike yet every so often unexpectedly earthy southern crime writer was born on October 6, 1912 to Henry Tyre and his wife Frances “Fannie” Hull in Offerman, Georgia, then (and still today) a tiny town of under five hundred souls located in rural Pierce County in the far southeastern corner of the state, not all that far distant from the Okefenokee Swamp and the Georgia-Florida border.  The 1910 United States Census records Henry and Frances Tyre as newlyweds living in Offerman, where Henry served as the little burg’s chief of police.  Henry died eight years later—possibly a victim of the Spanish Flu pandemic–and two years after his death the 1920 US Census records that Frances, employed as a primary schoolteacher, was living with her seven-year-old daughter, Nedra, in the city of Marietta, Georgia, today part of the sprawling metropolitan Atlanta area.  By 1930 mother and daughter had moved to Atlanta proper, where they resided together in rooms at a series of boarding houses and Frances found permanent employment as a stenographer with Anchor Hocking Glass Company.

After graduating from high school, Nedra took a job as a Dictaphone operator for Devoe and Raynolds Paint Company, during which time she also began attending classes at the Georgia Tech Evening School of Commerce (later Georgia State University), whence she graduated with a B. S. degree in 1936.  She received an M. A. in English from Emory University a couple of years later (in recognition of her thesis on “dear Mrs. Gaskell,” as she later preciously put it) and attended classes at the Richmond School of Social Work (now the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work), before finally taking employment as a caseworker with the Fulton County Department of Public Welfare in 1939, just a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War.

In her 2019 Crimereads article on Nedra Tyre, “Nedra Tyre: A Sweet Southern Lady’s Guide to Murder,” Sarah Weinman characterizes Nedra as the quintessential southern lady crime writer, one who while wearing white gloves—and Nedra did wear white gloves–could delicately drive a stiletto, or perhaps a hatpin, into your back in the most genteel manner.  While Weinman certainly makes a good point, Nedra’s southern lady looks and demeanor were perhaps to some extent performative, belying and denying a life which appears to have consisted as much of hard knocks and tough cookies as it did of tea and apple blossoms.

As we have seen, Nedra’s father, a (very) small-town police chief, died when Nedra was only five or six years old, prompting her mother, who never remarried and seems to have been remarkably bereft of family relations, to move to the big city (Atlanta had a population of over 200,000 in 1920), where, in order to make ends meet, she became a stenographer with the country’s premier manufacturer of cheap, mass produced “Depression Glass.”  Nedra herself had to take a secretarial job at a paint factory, all the while dutifully attending night school classes.  In 1928 the genteel English author Virginia Woolf famously pronounced: “A woman must have money and a room of her own to write fiction.”  For her part, Nedra–who did not have Woolf’s luxury of a private income and often found the importunities of life constantly pressing down hard upon her wearied soul–poignantly advised her friend Celestine Sibley, who herself wanted to write a novel: “Fifteen minutes a day, Celestine, that’s all it takes—Fifteen minutes a day.”

It is obvious that Nedra held great empathy, born partially of her own personal travails, for the struggling souls on relief whom she daily encountered while working with relief cases in a poverty-stricken region still struggling with grim anguish to pull itself out of the depths of the Great Depression.  Nedra’s experience of eight years in three states in this field filled to the brim her impressive debut book, Red Wine First, a work which intoxicated reviewers across the country, some of whom compared the author, in terms of her depiction of the South’s downtrodden plain people, to Erskine Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner.  James Agree, who wrote the text to the seminal photo book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), might have been mentioned as well.

Montgomery Advertiser reviewer Ray Gould deemed Nedra’s Wine “an experience never to be forgotten.  It is shockingly frank…lewd, ribald, and sometimes it delves into subjects too delicate to discuss, but, above all, it is honest….brutal…startling…powerful stuff.”  For his part future Pulitzer Prize winning Atlanta Constitution columnist Ralph Emerson McGill, who first introduced Nedra and Celestine Sibley to each other, rhapsodized the author, a “small, red-headed, intense young lady from Atlanta,” as having an ear so fine-tuned for “language and conversation” that in her book “you seem to be listening to [human speech].”  Doubtless Nedra’s experience as a Dictaphone operator at the paint company came mightily into play here as well.

Nedra’s career as a writer seemed off to a smashing start, but it was five years before there appeared another book by her, the mystery novel Mouse in Eternity (1952). Fifteen minutes a day may get a novel done, but it will not get it done rapidly.  While it may have taken a while for Mouse to appear in print, however, the end result was roundly huzzahed by crime fiction critics.  Heading the list was noted New York Times reviewer Anthony Boucher, who lauded Nedra as a “highly talented writer who has joined the small group which is trying to relate the detective story to human reality.”  The Saturday Review’s “Sergeant Cuff” (aka noted bibliophile John T. Winterich) chimed in more succinctly: “Watch this gal.”

Two more crime novels came with surprising celerity from Nedra’s hand over the next couple of years, Death of an Intruder (1953) and Journey to Nowhere (1954), and these works were also applauded by critics.  Celestine Sibley’s own favorite among Nedra Tyre’s crime novels, Death of an Intruder “combines the cumulative helpless horror of a compulsive dream with surroundings that scrupulously avoid any trappings of the horrendous,” observed the novel’s notice in the Oakland Tribune, neatly capturing the dichotomous appeal—what might be termed cozy cruelty–of mid-century domestic suspense, of which Intruder is an outstanding example.  Under the title “Dispossessed,” Intruder was filmed in 1955 as an episode in NBC’s Matinee Theatre anthology series, which Nedra herself failed to watch when it aired.

Mystery writer and reviewer Frances Crane deemed Journey to Nowhere, which closely followed Intruder, “as chilling [a novel] as any I have ever read,” and approvingly concluded, after mentioning Mouse and Intruder: “Nedra Tyre has done another A-1 job.”  Anthony Boucher concurred with Frances Crane, assuring his readers: “[Y]ou’ll remember the terrors, and the economy and insight with which they’re depicted.”   Director Fritz Lang personally optioned Journey for a film adaptation, which was to be scripted by frequent Hitchcock collaborator Charles Bennett and star, Lang hoped, rising young actress Anne Baxter; but sadly the project fizzled, resulting in Nedra missing what turned out to be her only shot at a lucrative big screen adaptation of one of her novels.

Only three mysteries followed Nedra’s initial trio, appearing very sporadically indeed over the next sixteen years: Hall of Death (1960), Everyone Suspect (1964) and Twice So Fair (1971).  On the other hand, beginning in 1955 with the prize-winning “Murder at the Poe Shrine,” Nedra would publish twenty-six short stories in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, her last tales there appearing in 1987, just a few years before her passing at the age of seventy-seven in 1990.  Between 1962 and 1978, Nedra also placed another ten pieces of short fiction, including the once much-anthologized “Killed by Kindness,” in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, as well as another half-dozen stories in additional periodicals, making a total of at least forty-two works over three decades.  Short fiction, after all, was easier to write when one could spare but fifteen minutes a day.

Nedra’s beloved mother Frances–who had been gravely injured, breaking both of her ankles, when, returning home from work one day in 1946, she had inadvertently stepped off a street car into a pothole–had died in Atlanta on March 10, 1951 at the age of sixty-four, leaving her unmarried daughter, approaching forty years of age, at a loose end in life.  Nedra, who had devoted the last five years of her mother’s earthly existence to her constant care, had Frances laid to rest in Atlanta’s Westview Cemetery under a modest headstone with her mother’s initials and the words “Quiet Consummation,” drawn from Shakespeare’s play Cymbeline: “Quiet consummation have; and renowned by thy grave!”

Frances Tyre’s death helps explains Nedra’s profusion of fiction writing at this time.  The next year the author left Atlanta boarding houses behind her and bought a house in Richmond, Virginia, where she taught English and sociology at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University).  She remained domiciled in Virginia for the rest of her life, gradually losing contact with her Atlanta friends like Celestine Sibley, to whom we owe so much of what we know about Nedra–though she returned to Georgia in 1957 to teach a class on detective fiction at Georgia Tech.  By 1961 Nedra had taken a position with the Christian Children’s Fund (today ChildFund), headquartered in Richmond, in which capacity she helped find foster parents for children orphaned by the myriad martial conflicts of the tragically war-torn middle century.

In 1961 Nedra, whom Celestine Sibley more than once characterized as a desperately publicity-shy individual, consented to sit for an interview with Richmond Times-Dispatch columnist and author Louise Withers Ellyson, which the newspaper carried under the byline “Richmond Author Plots Crime in Her Spare Time.”  Nedra’s interviewer described the author as a bustling, “tiny blonde” who “each evening and Sunday…tries to get to her typewriter to work on her latest mystery novel.”  Nedra declined to discuss her current writing project (she had just published the well-received Hall of Death the year before), but she spoke in some detail of her views on the art of mystery writing, which she took quite seriously, being herself an ardent reader of mystery fiction.  In contrast with Agatha Christie, she noted, “I don’t plot in the grand manner…I start with a clash of personality and build from there.  Sometimes I find it easier to begin in the middle, to write what is uppermost in my mind at the time. The act of violence and the setting are clear before I start, the rest develops as I go along….It is not hard to create people capable of crime; I see so much hostility [in my social work] that it is not too difficult to imagine anyone committing murder.”  She allowed that often “I don’t even attempt to hide who did it, but it is not from lack of application.  I rewrite, polish and revise everything.  But I have so little time!”  (Fifteen minutes a day, Celestine….)

While Nedra’s novels won praise from critics, the remuneration which she received for all her labor could not have been great.  Over two decades she managed to publish only six crime novels, which were far from bestsellers; and only two of them, evidently, ever appeared in paperback editions in the US: Mouse in Eternity, under the dreadfully basic title Death Is a Lover, in a Mercury Mystery digest edition; and Hall of Death, under the title Reformatory Girls, in a titillating Ace edition obviously aimed at attracting the market for salacious juvenile delinquency fiction.  Moreover, Nedra’s short stories were published in mystery magazines which paid only $150 per story.  Patricia Highsmith, who also published in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, viewed this forum disdainfully as strictly a last resort.  Fortunately Nedra enjoyed her salaried work, which also gave the author her greatest contact with other people, a social intimacy which she mostly lacked in her private life.

Chronically short of money, Nedra is said nevertheless to have given generously to those in need and rigorously scrimped and saved in order to take trips to England (for all of five days) and Mexico, which she justified to herself as research for her writing.  She also was known to take additional odd jobs, like clerking at bookstores and envelope stuffing for political campaigns (the latter of which features in her novel Twice So Fair).  When Celestine Sibley questioned Nedra about not having a telephone at her home, believing that the intensely private author had deliberately and eccentrically eschewed the instrument, Nedra bluntly informed her that, to the contrary, “It’s not what I like–it’s what I can afford.  And I can’t afford a telephone.”  Whatever the reason, however, the result was the same: Nedra remained “incommunicado until she was ready to reach out to her friends.”  Only at that point would there come, in Nedra’s own meticulous cursive script, a “pretty, funny, enchanting little handwritten missive,” like a rainbow out of the clouds.

Eventually Nedra’s charming notes stopped coming, and Celestine lost touch with her old friend.  Finally in 1990 the unhappy news arrived in Atlanta that Nedra, who was then seventy-seven years old, had passed away on the eleventh of July at a Richmond nursing home.  The previous year she had, like her mother, suffered a “bone-breaking fall,” and after that mishap she was no longer able to live on her own, as she had for the nearly four decades since her mother’s demise.  Nedra’s official cause of death was given as cardiopulmonary arrest, but a Virginia friend sadly informed Celestine: “She was tired and ready to die.”  At Nedra’s request no funeral service was held, but her ashes were returned to Atlanta and scattered over her mother’s grave.  “My funeral service was when my mother died,” she told her friend, who related this melancholy observation to Celestine.  “I want no other.”

*

In her 1961 newspaper interview in the Richmond Times-Dispatch, Nedra Tyre told Louise Ellyson: “I do not draw [my characters] from life but altogether from imagination.”   Nedra would not have been the first author to have deceived an inquisitive interviewer (and, possibly, herself).  In my eyes an examination of her crime novels Death of an Intruder (1953) and Twice So Fair (1971) removes any doubt that the author derived her primary inspiration for these two novels from her own frequently beleaguered life.

Like Kind Lady, the classic 1935 suspense film starring Basil Rathbone in full villainous form that was based upon Horace Walpole’s short story “The Silver Mask” (both of which works are referenced in Nedra’s novel), Death of an Intruder is a sort of genteel home invasion story, but here there is a feminine despoiler at work.  The novel, subtitled A Tale of Horror in Three Parts, is a major (albeit largely forgotten) example of the “psycho-biddy” subgenre of suspense fiction, where, in its most classic form, two isolated middle-aged or elderly women find themselves claustrophobically locked in a battle of wills, seemingly unto the death, for control over a house and/or estate.  Other notable examples of this subgenre which followed Death of an Intruder into print are Shelley Smith’s The Party at No. 5 (1954), Henry Farrell’s What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1960), Ursula Curtiss’ The Forbidden Garden (1962) and Elizabeth Fenwick’s Goodbye, Aunt Elva (1968).

With the notorious1962 film version of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, directed and produced by Robert Aldrich and starring deglammed fiftysomething Golden Age Hollywood icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, the whole psycho-biddy horror film subgenre was launched as well.  Aldrich would go on to produce a film version of The Forbidden Garden, starring Geraldine Page and Ruth Gordon, under the title What Ever Happened to Aunt Alice? (1969), and he had planned as well a film version of Goodbye Aunt Elva, under the working title What Ever Happened to Dear Elva?, although this project never achieved fruition.  The subgenre largely petered out in the 1970s.

Critics have condemned the term “psycho-biddy” for carrying misogynistic and ageist connotations and, at the least, it seems a frivolous term as applied to Nedra Tyre’s brilliant little novel, which in any event preceded the formal recognition of the subgenre.  While Tyre herself with her tale’s subtitle termed it a horror story, what she obviously had in mind was classic supernatural literature and Gothic fiction.  Gothics have been called, tongue in cheek, stories about women who get houses, but this adage indeed sums up the plot of Death of an Intruder.  Miss Martha Elizabeth Allison, “a spinster in her middle years,” finds, after the lingering death of the long-ailing aunt whom for decades she had diligently nursed, the home of her dreams, purchases it and contentedly settles in with her old dog Dora, only to have her blessed haven somehow invaded by an improbable intruder: another middle-aged, single working woman named, symbolically, Miss Withers, an odiously banal and blandly overbearing individual who simply will not voluntarily depart the premises.  And try as Miss Allison gently might, she seemingly cannot oust Miss Withers from her demesne.  Over the course of a hag-ridden year with her unwanted housemate, Miss Allison concludes that murder is the only solution to her increasingly desperate dilemma.

Presumably Nedra Tyre wrote Death of an Intruder in 1952, when, having entered her fortieth year, she settled into her own house in Richmond after the death of her invalid mother back at their tiny longtime lodgings in Atlanta.  Nedra lavished loving attention on her new house, her first real home, meticulously decorating the walls with carefully selected art prints and canvases, which, she told Louise Ellyson, helped to inspire her writing.  (Miss Allyson’s love of modern art, particularly Henri Matisse’s Blue Window, plays a central role in Intruder.)  It seems impossible to me not to see this novel as anything but an expression of the solitary author’s own personal nightmare fantasy: What if some horrid person “invaded” my wonderful little house?  In terms of the way a house becomes an object of mortal battle, as it were, I am reminded of P. D. James’ splendidly nasty little short story “A Very Desirable Residence” (1976), although there the protagonist is male.  Nedra’s crime novel, reminiscent of Georges Simenon’s série noire tales, is itself quite short and she maintains complete control of its tight, compelling plot, from its memorable opening scene of two ladies at table to its ironic conclusion, which of course must not be disclosed.

Nedra prudently smudges details here and there, but in its general outlines Miss Allison’s life story darkly mirrors her own.  Miss Allison, we learn, “had lived a protected girlhood, an only child encircled by the protection of her parents,” but then her mother, “a gentle, gracious and serene person, had died, after a long illness, when Miss Allison was fourteen”; and her father had followed his wife to the grave “after two bedridden years.”  Miss Allison had “left her home town and had gone to live with her only relative, an aunt of her mother’s.  In the comparatively large and bustling city of Kingborough where her aunt lived Miss Allison had taken a business course and at twenty-one she had started her long employment with Mr. Smithson.”  Compared to the current awful situation with Miss Withers, her previous life had not been such a poor thing, she reflects:

Her aunt would say: think ahead to that time when I am dead, think what you want your life to be; but Miss Allison had been too busy with the day and the moment; life had been sad but it had been good; she had savored it, though she had lived on its perimeter; though most would have shuddered to have borne the burden of her monotonous job and the chronic invalidism in her family, she had not found it glorious but on the whole she had found it pleasant.

Anyone who has read the first part of this introduction can see the similarities between Nedra and her fictional creation.  Like Nedra, Miss Allison is a fervent believer in the strict code of the lady: “She was so gentle, so proper, so completely a lady in its true sense,” Nedra observes of Miss Allison, who wears gloves too.  After Miss Allison’s code falters in the face of Miss Withers’ monstrously determined dullness, she develops, like Nedra, an abiding passion for ingenious tales of murder, both fictional and true.  In these murder tales she begins to glimpse a solution to the problem of Miss Withers.  “It was surprising and sad that one so gentle and ladylike as she,” Miss Allyson reflects, “had been forced to the point where she could ask herself with deadly intent and complete composure: How can I get rid of Miss Withers and at the same time save my own neck?”   How, indeed?  See for yourself what fate befalls the intruder.

Like the anguished Miss Allyson, Rosalind Wells, the protagonist of Nedra’s 1971 crime novel Twice So Fair, remains a remarkably isolated character throughout the tale which unfolds to us through her eyes.  When her university professor husband and one of his pretty coed students are discovered dead from asphyxiation in the student’s studio apartment, Rosalind is not only tortured by grief, but plagued with tortuous questions.  Were the dead man and woman having an affair?  Were they victims of accidental death, suicide or murder?  And what is the strange story behind the mysterious young man who keeps appearing at her door?

Although she interacts with other characters in the novel, particularly the enigmatic young man named Carl, there is a striking interiority to Twice so Fair, as Rosalind wanders dejectedly around her house, now tragically emptied of her loved one, and tries to think through the weird mysteries enveloping her.  I cannot help but feel that with this novel the author was casting back two decades, recovering and re-experiencing her feelings of desolation and loss after the death of her mother Frances in 1951.  This passage about what are termed, with unintended irony, “sympathy calls,” ritualistically paid after an unfortunate family bereavement, has the elegant precision of unhappy personal experience:

No callers appeared during the dinner hour, and then they surged again.  Now as earlier some stood at the front door as if to enter a house of bereavement might engulf them in death itself, invite death into their own lives; others stood in the hall iterating and reiterating Matthew’s talents as a professor and as a critic; still others settled rather overlong in the living room and assented when she offered them cake and other refreshments.  Dr. Thompson, of the Philosophy Department, happily consumed three wedges of pecan pie, and Rosalind thrust the rest of the pie upon him to take to his bachelor apartment.  He had left cuddling the pie against his plump stomach as if he had been a young guest at a children’s party and had won the prize for pinning the donkey’s tail.

“Done in Miss Tyre’s expert style,” perceptively commented crime writer and critic Lenore Glen Offord of Twice So Fair, “this is as understated and moving as a dim nightmare.”  Both Twice so Fair and Death of an Intruder have that that quality of a dreadful dream from which one cannot awaken and free oneself.  Discovering just how Rosalind and Miss Allison escape from their respective solitary waking nightmares makes compelling reading indeed.

 

Social Work May Kill You: Nedra Tyre’s Mouse in Eternity and Hall of Death

“[A]s background for murder, [social work] was just what I needed.”  So divulged native Georgian crime writer Nedra Tyre to a newspaper interviewer in 1954, upon the publication of her third full-length mystery–her third such in three years.  Among Nedra’s half-dozen essays in the genre, both her much praised debut crime novel, Mouse in Eternity (1952), and her exceptionally grim fourth effort, Hall of Death (1960), draw, most effectively, on her professional background as a social worker in the American South.  Partially orphaned as a young child by the untimely death in 1918 of her young father, Henry Tyre, chief of police of the small town of Offernan, Georgia, Tyre moved with her mother Frances, a schoolteacher by training, to the state capitol, Atlanta, where both mother and daughter resided at a succession of unsatisfactory boarding houses and found life-sustaining employment in the secretarial field.  Often attending evening classes, Nedra in the Thirties received BS and BA degrees from Atlanta universities and attended the Richmond School of Social Work in Virginia.  In 1939, just a few weeks after the outbreak of the Second World War, Nedra at the age of thirty fatefully accepted a position as a caseworker with the Fulton County Department of Public Welfare.

It is obvious from her writing that Nedra held great empathy, born partially of her own personal travails, for the struggling souls on relief whom she daily encountered while working with relief cases in a poverty-stricken region still struggling with grim anguish to pull itself out of the depths of the Great Depression.  Her experience of eight years in this field in three states (Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee) filled to the brim her impressive debut book, Red Wine First, a pungent collection of earthy regional dramatic monologues which intoxicated reviewers across the country, some of whom compared the author, in terms of her depiction of the South’s downtrodden plain people, to Erskine Caldwell, Sherwood Anderson and William Faulkner.  James Agree, who wrote the text to the seminal photo book Let Us Now Praise Famous Men (1941), might have been mentioned as well.

Nedra published Red Wine First in 1947, not long after her beloved mother was gravely injured in a street accident when returning home from work one day in 1946; and during the next five years until Frances’ death at the age of sixty-four, Nedra, in addition to carrying out her professional duties, cared for her invalid, ailing parent.  After Frances’ death, Nedra, then nearing forty years of age, left both Atlanta boarding house life and case working behind her for good and bought a little house filled with reproduction fine art in Richmond, Virginia, where she taught English and sociology at the Richmond Professional Institute (now Virginia Commonwealth University).  There she also rapidly published a trio of crime novels, in the most productive years of her writing life.  In 1928 genteel English author Virginia Woolf famously pronounced: “A woman must have money and a room of her own to write fiction.”   Finally Nedra had these, as well as a precious bit of time in which she could actually write.

*

Into her oddly titled first crime novel, Mouse in Eternity, Nedra retrospectively poured her dozen years’ experience in social work.  Set a decade earlier in 1942, the novel suggests that, while within her diminutive body the author was filled with a great reservoir of sympathy for the region’s poor and downtrodden, the “weak and the weary” (to quote from a Pink Floyd song), she abominated the grueling grind of her job and the cruelly callous indifference of her bureaucratic overseers.

In Mouse–the novel derives its strange title from a poem that speculates “one may either be/A cat that nibbles a moment/Or a mouse in eternity”–soulless bureaucracy is symbolized by the odious, pedantic ogress symbolically named Mrs. Jennifer Patch, who is roundly despised by all the caseworkers in her office–and by everyone else who encounters her.  The novel is narrated by caseworker Jane Wallace, a confirmed detective fiction freak (like the author) whose best friend and crime fiend alike is one of her cases, an elderly decayed gentleman invalid by the name of Mr. Lawrence, who lives alone with “his devoted friend” Andrew.  Their talk about crime fiction is one of the highlights of the novel.  (We learn that Jane’s favorite mystery short story and novel are, respectively, “The Hands of Mr. Ottermole” and The Nine Tailors, while Mr. Lawrence’s are “The Two Bottles of Relish” and The Moonstone; the two respectfully disagree on the merits of Sherlock Holms, with Mr. Lawrence pro and Jane con.)  It is Mr. Lawrence, in classic armchair fashion, who will eventually solve the murder of Mrs. Patch (speak of the devil), but only after Jane herself has almost been done to death by a desperate murderer, by means of an acutely described sleeping pill overdose:

I was sinking deep inside nothingness, being welcomed wherever I was going softly, with the gentleness of tender fingers on a tired, aching head. Death was entering, as a lover, kind, generous, soothing me, caressing me, foundling me. Life was the enemy, calling me back to its stupid, unendurable tasks, trying to cajole me into resistance, trying to tear me from the sweet peace and inaction of death, Life with its harshness had nothing to offer so good as death’s soft calm.

Mouse in Eternity earned roars of approval from critics, including such leading names in the field as Anthony Boucher, who lauded Nedra as a “highly talented writer who has joined the small group which is trying to relate the detective story to human reality”; Dorothy B. Hughes, who praised Mouse as one of the best crime novels of the year; and Doris Miles Disney, who allowed herself to be quoted in a back cover rave: “It is the authentic background and the way people…are developed that makes the story so unusual.  It is certainly not run-of-the-mill mystery fare.  I shouldn’t think anything Miss Tyre wrote would be.”

I agree with Doris Disney that the authentic regional and professional background of Mouse is the story’s greatest strength.  (A review of this novel which I published about a decade ago I now believe egregiously underestimated its virtues.)  Some readers may be reminded, as I was, of the feminine dress shop milieu in English detective novelist Christianna Brand’s Death in High Heels (1941).  However, the most intriguing characters, aside from Jane herself (surely to a great extent a self-portrait by the author) are that odd male couple Mr. Lawrence and Andrew.  Only later in the novel is it made clear that the younger man, Andrew, is black (the only character of color in the novel I recollect).  Throughout the tale Andrew is portrayed with uncommon respect and dignity for the period, but, even more than that, just what exactly is the relationship between the two men?  It does not seem merely that of master and servant.  I suspect that the two men are same-sex partners, in the accepted modern sense of the term, presented with all the care and discretion required at a time when publishers deemed positive representations of such relationships unseemly and unacceptable.  It is a quietly remarkable portrait.

*

In its depiction of the drudgeries and draining nature of social work, Mouse in Eternity can seem dispiriting at times, but the novel is spiritually sustained by Jane Lawrence’s steadfast love for certain of her co-workers and her gay (?) male friends.  The book is, in fact, a veritable ramble in the park compared to Nedra’s bleakest realistic crime novel, Hall of Death.  Nedra clearly found real life inspiration for Hall of Death in the nasty 1950s scandals at the Georgia Training School for Girls in Adamsville, Georgia, now a predominantly African-American neighborhood in Atlanta.  (The Georgia Training School of course was segregated.)

Like Mouse in Eternity, Hall of Death derives its title from a poem which Nedra suggestively quotes as an epigraph, Matthew Arnold’s Requiescat: Her cabin’d ample Spirit/It flutter’d, and fail’d for breath/Tonight it doth inherit/The vasty Hall of Death.  The dark novel is set primarily–and unnervingly claustrophobically–at the Training School for Girls in the city of some unnamed, obviously southern and rather socially backward, state.  However, as Nedra’s old Georgia friend Celestine Sibley, a beloved longtime columnist at the Atlanta Constitution, noted when reviewing Tyre’s novel in 1960, the connection of her pal’s fictional school–more a prison, really–to the Georgia school for delinquent girls is obvious.  A half-dozen years earlier Celestine Sibley herself had written a series of articles about the problems at the Georgia school, contrasting it rather unfavorably with Florida’s Industrial School for Girls at Ocala.  Sibley condemned Georgia’s school for its “inhuman treatment of students” (including shaving their heads as punishment), not to mention “recurrent runaways, old and inadequate facilities and unsuitable or untrained staff.

Sibley thought it telling that at the Florida School the entrance sign cheerily read “WELCOME!” while at the Georgia school the sign read forbiddingly “Enter on Business Only.”  At the Florida school, walls gleamed with fresh paint, while at the Georgia school walls were scrawled with profanity.  At the Florida school, “shining window panes [were] framed with crisp curtains and potted plants,” while at the Georgia school “shattered window panes” had been replaced with “boards and iron bolts.”

In Hall of Death, Nedra excels at portraying this grim atmosphere of pervading gloom.  “If you’ve ever been in a penal or reform institution of any kind,” Celestine Sibley assured her readers, “….You’ll smell the tired old plumbing, hear the rats in the walls, taste the sponge cake and canned fruit.”  What the girls at the school are forced to endure, Sibley noted, is not wanton cruelty, but the banality of bland societal indifference–“a terrible bleakness engendered by the fact that the state, which held them as wards, was really indifferent to them.  They were cared for by the ‘Manual of Operation’ put out by the State Department of Welfare and there was nothing in the manual that mentioned love or healing damaged spirits or restoring confidence. So the girls themselves and the nine women staff members are grimly suitable figures for Miss Tyre’s drama of hatred and murder.”

The narrator and protagonist of the story, Miss Michael (I do not believe we ever learn her first name), is the idealistic new assistant to the stolid, by-the-book school superintendent, Miss Spinks.  At one point the latter woman bluntly tells her new assistant (who also teaches English and grammar at the school): “Miss Michael, please don’t philosophize.  Just try to protect yourself.”  So Miss Michael keeps speculations like these to herself:

No one ever seemed to look directly into a girl’s eyes.  I suppose there was too much agony and defiance in them.

To establish contact with angry, hostile persons the easy way is to appeal to their anger and hostility, to claim their emotions and hatred as your own.  The way to love and kindness is infinitely more difficult.

Reflecting her bleakly resigned commitment to blanket punitive incarceration, Miss Spinks lectures Miss Michael with fatalistic finality:

We’re carrying out instructions and it’s not for us to question them.  I’d like to have an adequate staff.  I’d like to have comfortable buildings.  But we have to make out with these barns.  You’ll get along much better, Miss Michael, if you don’t criticize.  We haven’t a rehabilitation program.  The girls are here to be punished.  They don’t want to change themselves and there’s nothing we can do to change them.

In spite of Spinks, Miss Michael tries to reach the girls somehow.  She makes connections of a sort with two of them in particular: an angel named Lucy and a devil named Johnny.  With interesting results, to say the least.

For readers interesting in learning about a certain horrible place in terrible time, Hall of Death delivers the deadly goods.  In its own way it is as memorable a female institution mystery novel as Dorothy L. Sayers’ Gaudy Night or Josephine Tey’s Miss Pym Disposes, though it will never be as generally popular, I would imagine, on account of its pervasive gloominess.  (Many people like their murder fiction to be gay, as it were.)  Nedra Tyre herself loved British novels of manners, including manners mysteries, but in this particular book her tone is altogether more earnest and her outlook frequently pitch dark.

Yet there is also a very nice little mystery tucked away in the text of this book, which, after all, includes two suicides, a couple of murders and another attempted one.  It is fairly clued, with some fine strategies of deception.  In other words, in contrast with some other of Nedra’s crime novels, Hall of Death is a genuine detective story.  Like Celestine Sibley, Anthony Boucher, a great admirer of the author, highly praised the book, as did others newspaper reviewers.  “Told with a perception and sensitivity that few mystery novels can match,” declared the Miami Herald of Hall of Death, “it is a story of chilling violence.”  The St. Louis Post-Dispatch concurred, proclaiming of Hall: “A chilling story of terror and despair written with discernment and compassion.”  Both novels suggest that social work may kill both body and spirit.

 

[1] Celestine Sibley later related that Loretto Chappell, head of the children’s division of Georgia’s State Welfare Department, felt compelled to resign her office after being summoned before a legislative committee in 1951 and accused of being a Communist or Communist sympathizer.  It seems that the head of the committee, one Bush Mims, had espied subversive literature in the welfare department’s library, including a copy of Red Wine First.  History repeats itself!