The latest hardboiled double header from Stark House features two gripping tales from Dolores Hitchens, with an introduction by Nicholas Litchfield. Hitchens’ work is incredibly varied but consistent when it comes to depth of character and plotting. These distinct standalone tales of jeopardy display very different characteristics but they are both well told and there are enough twists to keep the keenest pulp fan guessing. I’ve read Hitchens before and I recognise some of the qualities I’ve previously enjoyed here but these novels also took me by surprise in the sense that the stories are styled very differently to her other work, her railway mysteries for example. That’s no bad thing of course, longevity and popularity rely on keeping the reader on their toes.
Stairway to an Empty Room (1951)
Monika Marshall takes a breath, a moment’s pause, then she presses the doorbell, accepting responsibility for Winifred, her dead sister Biddy’s child. Mrs Lannon, the woman who has taken the child in, opens the door complaining that she had no advance notice of Monika’s arrival. The child is sleeping, her clothes aren’t packed, they’re not even washed. Monika takes the court order from her purse, she’s in a hurry, she wants to get away from this place. Winifred isn’t sleeping, when they enter the bedroom the child is openly hostile to Lannon, the woman describes herself as Mama Ida the child doesn’t seem to feel that way. As Winifred gets ready Monika asks Lannon what the child knows of her mother’s brutal murder at the hands of her father, her face smashed by a ball-peen hammer. The woman swears very little but it soon becomes clear that’s a deliberate lie. Jerry Huffman is awaiting execution for the murder of his wife, he has a few weeks time.
Monika has sold up her furniture and sub-let her apartment in New York to come fetch her niece in LA. She thinks the best thing is to get away, the newspapers are still full of the story and, of course, what is to come. Monika and Winifred head up into the mountains to allow the fuss to die down. The they can think about getting back to a normal life. The first time Monika broaches the subject of her mother and father she’s surprised by the reaction of Winifred who says, ‘he didn’t do it.’ When Monika says of course he did the girl lashes out. When Winifred won’t calm down Monika threatens to return her to Mrs Lannon and Winifred instantly becomes meek, promising to behave. When they arrive at the camp in the mountains they are greeted by temporary manager Stevens, the owner Raboldi is ill. They get a cabin. Winifred swears she knows some of the other guests, the Vetchs, which sounds ridiculous, Monika has begun to wonder:
‘was Winifred simply a congenital liar?’
That night they go for dinner and on the way back the car crashes, the breaks fail or maybe they’ve been tampered with. Odd things start piling up and Monika begins to believe that she and Winfred may be in danger, the child might know something. It’s not just the Vetchs, Stevens isn’t who he says he is either. Is the wrong man on death row? Was Biddy involved in something that got her killed?
You might think you can guess where this is going but the story is much more complex and layered than a simple miscarriage of justice. Stairway to an Empty Room is an intriguing tale that grips from the evocative images of the first page.
The characters in this story are incredibly well drawn, particularly Monika. She has a blind spot around Winifred early on, she has no natural parental instinct, and is stuck in her own grief with no obvious outlet for her pain. Is Winifred naughty or just traumatised, does she actually know something? Monika is buttoned down tight, that’s obvious from the first scene, she’s judgemental and the child rubs her up the wrong way. What she doesn’t realise herself is how affected she is by her sister’s death. Her character arc is impressive for a pulp, a small novel.
Terror Lurks in Darkness (1953)
Katherine ‘Kitty’ Quist is driving home to West LA from a party in the Valley, her friend Sunny told her about a short cut, on a night like this that’s an appealing. The weather is rough though, it’s raining and visibility is poor, she finds the turn off but the road soon turns into lane and then she’s on a rutted dirt track. It can’t be much further so she ploughs on. Branches brush the car and she can’t see any lights. Suddenly, there’s a big yellow dog caught in the car’s headlights, mean looking. Kitty pulls up, winds the window to shout at the dog but it lunges, she pulls back just in time to avoid the creature’s jaws. The ferocious dog sits on the bonnet Kitty reverses the car, swerves into a rut and hits a rock, one of the wheels is damaged. She tries to get out of the car by the dog grabs her shoe. Resigned to waiting it out, a man appears. He coaxes her out, the dogs Saki and Saladin are meek as lambs now. Edmund Linder knows her friends the DeGraffens, he doesn’t want to wake anyone on the house but he’ll drive her back home. Kitty can send a garage for her car in the morning. Kitty’s flatmate Ardis is up when she gets in, Ardis assumes Sunny sent Kitty the wrong way deliberately, she’s like that. Ardis has good reason to dislike Sunny on account of the young soldier, Burns. Ardis is a loyal friend, but Sunny:
‘under all the fun and laughing and the sense of mischief that had given her her name, you sensed the utter lack of honor, the emptiness of soul, the heart like a small cold stone.’
Kitty fetches a mechanic from a garage and they head for her car. As they approach they see a lot of men gathered nearby it. Lieutenant Doyle of the sheriff’s office asks her about her accident, then explains a woman has been killed. Kitty approaches but when she sees the body, the neck, she nearly faints. It’s Sunny Walling lying in her own blood. The dogs are missing, why was Sunny out here?
Kitty is visited by a number of people later that day, all of them wanting to talk about Sunny and what might have happened. Kitty begins to look into things for herself. Terror Lurks in Darkness is a great title and for my money it’s the better of the two tales here. Again nothing is quite what it seems. Hitchens is clever enough to get the reader thinking a certain way only to dismiss that idea and leave us in the dark again. The party set and the other characters are again very well drawn. What particularly stands out about this story is the setting which is perfectly pitched, the opening scene is truly memorable.
Both stories are written in spare prose and there’s a real psychological depth here. Hitchens work will delight a new audience and it’s frustrating that much of her life is shrouded in mystery. We don’t know, for instance, whether she divorced her first husband or he died. Yet Julia Clara Catherine Maria Dolores Robins Norton Birk Olsen Hitchens, born 1907, died 1973, was one of the most widely read pulp writers of her generation. From the late thirties on she was prolific, her thrillers coming out under her own name but also three pen names: D.B. Olsen, Dolan Birkley and Noel Burke. Dolores’ paired up with her second husband, Hubert “Bert” Hitchens, to produce five railway mysteries between 1957–1964 (check out my earlier review of End of the Line). Bill Pronzini and Marcel Berlins are among Hitchens fans and her novels were lauded in the world’s press throughout her career. Her story Fools Gold was filmed in 1964 as Band of Outsiders by Jean-Luc Goddard. There’s a full bibliography at the back of the this book.
Paul Burke 4*
Stairway to an Empty Room and Terror Lurks in Darkness by Dolores Hitchens
Stark House Press 9781944520793 pbk Oct 2019