From the dust jacket: “Disaster, or something infinitely more terrifying, seemed always to be lurking in the shadowy halls and corners of Ashton Park. It dwelt in old Nelson Ashton’s mean little eyes and in his brother Clare’s malicious smile. It lived in the hate-filled glance of their sister, Lee Stair’s mother, whenever she looked at anyone but her dour maid, Millicent. And it pursued Lee herself through the darkened cellars of the old house until she came face to face with—murder.”
Ann Cardwell is the pseudonym of Jean Powley. She is a Canadian author who wrote two novels, this being her second. The first, Crazy to Kill was reprinted a few times, including as an early Harlequin. Murder at Calamity House enjoyed only a single printing.
Lee Stair has returned to her family home, which she not so affectionately names Calamity House. Her young husband has died at sea and Lee now lives with her uncle Nelson, confined to a wheelchair, Uncle Clare, who “hung onto his life just to annoy Mother,” is bed bound, her mother, who “broke her hip in April and, although the doctor told her in August that she could get up and about on crutches or in a wheelchair, she was still confining herself to bed in October”, and an assortment of servants and nurses, who pretty much treat Lee as beneath them.
With this lovely cast of characters, one day Steve Many, the gardener and childhood friend of Lee is drowned in the house cistern while Lee is in the cellar also. No one can understand why someone would want to kill poor old Steve. Even the local police Chief Hamlin and the big city detective Lawrence Fry can’t seem to find a motive for the murder. Suspicion falls on Lee as she apparently was the last person to see him alive.
This is a frustrating book. Lee, who has lived by her self in New York and has travelled to Europe, during the war to entertain the troops, should be a pretty self confident and independent woman. Instead we are presented with a doormat of a person, a shrinking violet who pretty much lets everyone around her dominate her and push her around. According to Lee, “Terror in broad daylight is somehow more horrible than terror at night. At least, at night, you can put your head under the protecting bed clothes and shake. But you do look silly sitting on the edge of your bed with the sun streaming in through gay chintz, and shivering with a mental ague.” Lee seems to go out of her way to do everything in her power to be ineffectual and to direct suspicion her way. To the reader it is obvious that Lee was the target of the murder and Steve was mistaken for her at the cistern. No one in the story, including Lee, seems able to pick up on that.
There is one, possibly unintended, chilling scene. Lee, in a more than usual hysterical moment, is given a sedative to calm her. What in fact happens is that the men “in charge” drug her into unconsciousness while the reader is aware that there is a murder present out to get Lee. I’ve come across the whole sedative thing many time is books and movies. It’s pretty much a stock item for work of the period. Yet, it this case it’s a chilling realization of just how very dismissive men were towards women. Against her wishes Lee is rendered helpless in a house in which someone wants to kill her, and by this time she knows it.
Why does someone want to kill Lee Stair? Why does Lee’s own mother hate her? What message was uncle Clare going to pass on to her before he too is killed? Of course all turns out well in the end. Questions are answered. The guilty are arrested and the good guy gets the girl. I can see why this book was never reprinted. Never the less, if one is looking for a very light read, this is the book. It demands nothing of the reader.