An Ax to Grind

Yes, I know that it may be difficult to wrap your mind around it, but I'm about to review my first thriller, The After House (1914) by Mary Roberts Rinehart, for this blog!

What's next? Discussing Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett? Chatting incessantly about the "literary" crime novels on today's best seller lists? Oh, for Carr's sake, what's becoming of me? ;D I promise that the next book will be a return to the great old detective stories... well... sort of... but for now let's embark on a frightful journey aboard a blood-soaked craft that might have gone the way of the Mary Celeste had it not been for a resourceful young man posing as a sailor. 

The Cursed Ship

The story of the massacre aboard the Ella, an old coasting-vessel reequipped as a pleasure-boat by the boozer millionaire Marshall Turner, on that "terrible night of August the twelfth," is retrospectively narrated by Ralph Leslie – a newly graduated, but nearly penniless, doctor, who still hasn't fully recovered from his bout with typhoid fever. While being hospitalized, he developed a yearning for the open sea, where he hopes to regain his strength and earn some money, and upon his release he jumped at the opportunity to join the crew of the Ella and is put to work as a deck steward mainly looking out for the passengers residing in the ship's after house.

With its crew and passengers all present, the ship sets sail to sunnier climes, but even before that blood-streaked night the voyage was troubled by dark undercurrents and ill-omens of things yet to come. The ship's owner and his drinking buddy, a ship officer named Singleton, act as a menacing scourge to pretty much everyone around them, and end up passing around motives to justify a small-scale holocaust.

During the faithful night of August the twelfth and the early morning of August the thirteenth, someone emerged from his berth or abandoned his post, and, under the cover of darkness and slumber, picked up a red painted emergency ax and gruesomely hacked three people to death – including ship's captain!

With three horribly mutilated, blood spattered corpses on their hands, the aghast crew puts Singleton, who had a one-sided skirmish with the captain, in irons, strip Turner of any authority he thought he had and nominate the levelheaded Leslie as their new captain to help them get out of this mess. But how do you lead a crew of experienced, seafaring men to a safe harbor when you lack their nautical knowledge and experience, and how do you keep them, and the passengers, safe and sane when there's a very real possibility that the actual ax-wielding killer is still prowling the decks with them?

Suspicion is abound as well as loyalty to one another as some of them try to obliterate tell-tale pieces of evidence that might identity the murderer, but don't make a mistake about it, this is not a straightforward, puzzle-orientated detective story, since there really aren't any legitimate clues to look at, but an atmospheric thriller not entirely unlike Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939).

For an early thriller yarn, this wasn't all that bad of a story, and I really liked the macabre picture Rinehart painted of the Ella towing a jollyboat that's been converted to a floating crypt for the three slain victims, nonetheless, she slipped up and botched the ending. The final quarter of the book transforms from a slightly paranoia inducing thriller to a full-fledged courtroom drama, which doesn't even yield the solution in a dramatic dénouement and only serves to suck out all of the atmosphere – which was the best thing the book had going for itself.

This feels like a stylistic anomaly. The murderer, who, by the way, is a complete whacko, should've been confronted before they reached their port of call, and not after a mistrial when Leslie revisits the ship, which felt like the solution was hastily given as some sort of after thought – and it shows... badly!

To sum up the book in one sentence: some good, some bad, but overall a readable enough story if you don't expect too much from it.


  1. Heh, I find it somewhat ironic that I found this before you but you read it first... It sounds somewhat enjoyable.

  2. The premise of an ax-wielding killer running amok on a ship, crossing the ocean, was too tempting to let it linger on my to-be-read pile. Unfortunately, the plot wasn't the masterful blend of detection and suspense I expected from my previous reading of Dorothy Cameron Disney – who is described as Rinehart's most talented follower.

    Oh well, you can't have everything.