The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Mabel Seeley’s Intermodernist Crime Fiction

Rosemary Erickson Johnsen
University of Minnesota Crookston


Minnesota writer Mabel Hodnefield Seeley (1903-1991) established herself as an important crime-fiction writer with her first four published books, The Listening House (1938), The Crying Sisters (1939), The Whispering Cup (1940), and The Chuckling Fingers (1941). This article argues that Seeley modernized the gothic-infused detective fiction created and popularized by Mary Roberts Rinehart in the early twentieth century, thereby bringing it forward into the mid-twentieth century. Building on path-breaking feminist scholarship by Nicola Humble, Phyllis Lassner, and Alison Light, this article reads Seeley’s first four crime novels from a feminist intermodernist standpoint in order to reclaim Seeley as an important writer of the intermodern period. Although her work has been overlooked in the scholarly discourse due to prevailing ideologies of literary value, it repays scholarly attention and expands our understanding of American women’s writing in the midcentury.

Keywords Crime Fiction, Feminist Criticism, Midwestern Literature, Mary Roberts Rinehart, Had-I-But-Known


Mabel Hodnefield Seeley (1903-1991) published fiction between 1938 and 1954. Her works enjoyed critical and commercial success and propelled her into service on the founding board of directors of the Mystery Writers of America in 1945. Yet that same year, in Minnesota Writes, Seeley deprecated her “mystery stories” and looked forward to “writing a serious novel” (“Mabel Seeley” 56), expressing a curious ambivalence toward the genre in which she excelled. In total, Seeley published nine books, seven of which were crime fiction. Born and raised in Minnesota, she chose Minnesota settings for all but one of her novels—the western ranch of Eleven Came Back—and she conducted on-site research for each book, an indicator of a serious purpose behind her popular genre novels. Seeley’s first four books—The Listening House (1938), The Crying Sisters (1939), The Whispering Cup (1940), and The Chuckling Fingers (1941)—established her reputation as a crime-fiction writer. Subsequent reprints have come from this group, including reissues by Doubleday’s Crime Club (The Listening House was a Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Crime Club Classic reissue in 1953) and, more recently, under Random House’s Berkley Prime Crime imprint. There is relatively little scholarship available on her work and few scholarly attempts to understand her fiction in relation to larger movements. The tenets and critical practice of intermodernism provide an excellent toolkit for such an attempt, as this theory addresses not only the content and style of works written during the period when high modernism was dominant, but also the institutional histories that shape reception of Seeley’s work and the crime-fiction genre more generally. Reading her first four novels from a feminist intermodernist standpoint enables a repositioning of Seeley’s contribution to the genre, uncovers her context in women’s writing in the midcentury, and suggests how institutional ideologies of literary value have conspired to suppress her achievements as a writer.

The value of intermodernism for analyzing Seeley’s work—and Seeley’s value to intermodernism—is implicit in Kristin Bluemel’s argument that “intermodernism should be functional. It should provide scholars with a literary-critical compass, analytical tool, or useful guidepost for finding and valuing vital figures and cultural forms that disappear in discussions of modernism or postmodernism” (“Introduction” 6). The fitness of intermodernism for reclaiming Seeley manifests through both theory and practice. On the one hand, Astradur Eysteinsson’s work on the concept of modernism uses postmodernism as a defining contrast, thus defining modernism as a key aesthetic in time which is then succeeded by postmodernism. Yet in his formulations we get glimpses of a simultaneous synchronic contrast between modernism and what we might call the intermodern, such as in Eysteinsson’s commentary on popular culture, which includes references to John G. Cawelti’s foundational text on convention and invention, formula and structure, in popular fiction genres (78-79). These are terms that recur when contemporary critics situate Seeley’s fiction as advancing crime fiction during this period. Pertinent for addressing Seeley in an intermodernist context is Eysteinsson’s observation that “every discussion of an author or a literary work is an act of literary history: any approach to a particular work is bound to involve its implicit placement, its inscription, into literary history” (50). To argue that Seeley “modernizes” a popular literary subgenre involves close attention to literary-historical placement as a historical process as well as an analysis of the novels. In other words, Bluemel’s assertion that “intermodernism is an ideology” suggests that critics can use this set of tools to understand individual works as well as their institutional histories (“Introduction” 5). Scholars in the field have published critical studies that model Bluemel’s “analytical tools,” such as Phyllis Lassner’s essay on Helen MacInnes and Margery Allingham. Lassner argues that their WWII-era detective fiction “leave[s] a legacy of questions about classifying genres and the prestige hierarchies in modern fiction” (114). Seeley’s work, as it exemplifies facets of subgenre and prestige through her reception and recovery, contributes to the working model of intermodernism as functional for scholars, particularly those who seek to trouble both the political and aesthetic dominance of modernism at midcentury.

The intermodernist genre developments masterminded by Mabel Seeley in the late 1930s and early 1940s engage the influential crime-fiction subgenre established and refined by the American author Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958). Kathleen Maio’s 1983 article offers a thorough overview of the subgenre, as do biographies of Rinehart by Jan Cohn and Charlotte MacLeod. As Maio observes, the typical Rinehart mystery is “a Gothic-detective hybrid, and it has inherited characteristics of both parents. [It] is an exercise in terror which is largely domestic terror and which focuses on a woman and her immediate ménage” (82-83). Much follows from the fact that these stories are almost always told by women. On the detective-fiction side of the hybrid, Maio makes a vital point about the inherent connection between narrator and narrative when she writes that the “hero is a woman who tells her own story. Instead of starting from the murder and reconstructing to one, final, pat solution (as with most detective stories), she takes us back to the beginning—to her beginning with the story—and moves forward from there” (83). Seeley exploits this potential to considerable effect in her novels. The first-person witnessing of the unfolding retrospective story also contributes to the feminist power of the novels in demonstrating woman-centered investigative and psychological power. However, this structure can be, and was, cited to dismiss Seeley and her compatriots in patriarchal critical terms. Even the genre’s nickname has a satirical, melodramatic edge: Had-I-But-Known.

Mary Roberts Rinehart and Had-I-But-Known Detective Fiction

Mary Roberts Rinehart’s writing career spanned more than five decades; for many years up to her death, she was the most successful woman author in the United States. Her first best-selling crime novel, The Circular Staircase, published in 1908, came to be “the cornerstone work of Had-I-But-Known” (Maio 84). Rinehart’s novels, plays, and screen adaptations garnered around $27 million in sales (half a billion dollars in today’s money). Her papers are held at the University of Pittsburgh, and both scholarly (Cohn 1980) and popular biographies (MacLeod 1994) of Rinehart have been published. It can be hard to grasp the extent of her renown, given how quickly after her death her work fell from the public view. The bare facts of Rinehart’s career emphasize the significance of her model, dismissively labeled Had-I-But-Known (HIBK hereafter) by male critics,1 but they also indicate how deliberately hostile categorization can speed dismissal from the literary mainstream. Like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s “d—d mob of scribbling women,” the HIBK coinage resulted from ruffled masculine literary feathers. Ogden Nash’s ditty, “Don’t Guess, Let Me Tell You,” published in The New Yorker in April of 1940, mocked the successful genre, its women authors, and its presumed-woman readers. Nash’s mocking term was widely adopted to belittle the mode and mock its narrative power. What male critics dismissed as dithering—“Had I but known what would happen next!”—is in fact a vital connection to traditions of first-person retrospective narration and represents a considerable achievement when handled suspensefully.

Seeley’s reputation requires rehabilitation, however, as a result of the institutional framing of her work. A 2015 blog post celebrating Seeley’s first novel as “Not Your Maiden Aunt’s HIBK” indicates the label’s staying power; it also affirms the original derogatory implications of Nash’s coinage while simultaneously underscoring Seeley’s modernization of HIBK and the status of Seeley and her readers as historical successors to Rinehart and her readers. Seeley’s mastery of the form led the 2021 Kirkus reviewer to write of The Chuckling Fingers that the novel is “a model of construction, cascading revelations, and controlled hysteria that will still fool most readers 80 years on” (“Chuckling”). Defining a subgenre which draws on multiple generic forerunners is complex; it is complicated further when the genre’s widely accepted label was generated in hostility. It is worth noting, then, that when Howard Haycraft refers to Rinehart’s “formula” and its legions of imitators, there is real cultural influence attached to what he too casually dismisses; the existence of all those imitations demonstrates a powerful cultural appetite for these stories, which is lost when influential male critics are taken as undisputed authorities. Whatever the merits of others whose work drew inspiration from Rinehart’s model, Mabel Seeley brought distinction to the subgenre and updated it for the 1930s and 1940s. Her novels offer carefully observed Midwestern locales in which ordinary modern women pursue their lives. Seeley illuminates the intersections of modern lifestyles with traditional heartland immigrant traditions through the exposition of local cultures as integral to suspenseful narratives.

The pattern of narrative elements Rinehart made famous is a strong, adaptable structure in the hands of skilled inheritors such as Seeley, Rinehart’s “most important successor” (Maio 85). Rinehart herself called it a “formula,” and said that she had discerned the presence and elements of her formula after she had written her first three mysteries (Cohn 219). She diagrammed and published her formula in Ladies’ Home Journal in 1931.2 Rinehart’s diagram shows the two stories, one she designates “buried” and the other “surface,” and their intersections. What she called “outcroppings” are eruptions of the (unknown) buried story into the surface story; the outcropping, Rinehart explained, may be a clue for the readers of the surface story or “it may simply be ‘a device for continuing the interest’” (Cohn 220). Rinehart sells herself short by reducing the outcroppings that are not intended as clues to the mystery’s solution to mere mechanical devices. Her own self-deprecation is too readily converted into Haycraft’s characterization of her model as a “story which is artificially stalled and prolonged by coincidence and happenstance” (238). In contrast to Haycraft’s attribution of pure randomness or an artificiality at odds with realism, Maio characterizes the complexities as “sub-plots and emotional cross-currents”: “Events occur in a rapid and confounding chain reaction. Often there are multiple murders. Seldom is there a professional detective, and when there is, he is never a mastermind. Law and male authority are clearly not the heroes in HIBK” (83). Patriarchal ideologies of literary value and subject pervade Haycraft’s judgment; a feminist scholar discerns the logical foundations of the pace and complexities of women’s experience. The fact that law and patriarchal authority are not particularly useful relates to Bluemel’s point about the “fraught” nature of witness: these narrators cannot rely on the authority of male professionals to protect them from harm.

In choosing HIBK as her starting point, Seeley adopts a strong structure, one that already foregrounds women as investigators. Seeley’s work extends the Rinehartian purposes for the interwoven surface and buried stories: Seeley uses the outcroppings not merely for continuing the interest or heightening the suspense but to actively introduce red herrings. Seeley further develops the outcroppings’ potential to enrich characterization, particularly that of her women narrators, taking the novels beyond the stereotypes implied by the HIBK moniker. The buried story also propels Seeley’s social and cultural critique, facilitates serious engagement with the immigrant communities of her chosen regional focus, and establishes a new model for the woman as sleuth. These purposes are woven together into a presentation of women’s sexuality—in these specific locales in the interwar historical period and including new freedoms and new constraints upon feminine sexuality—that helps Seeley “make it new” while advancing proven tools and structures of HIBK detective fiction into an updated, franker version of itself.

Seeley Sets the Tone

Seeley’s first novel, The Listening House, epitomizes the richness available through close analysis of these novels from an intermodernist perspective. The features of Seeley’s first novel stake out an approach that instantly updates Rinehart’s tropes for the midcentury. Rinehart’s work, as noted by Maio and Nickerson, was itself a deliberate modernization of earlier gothic-influenced settings; Seeley furthers that process of “removing the Gothic from the crumbling castle and replanting it in a recognizable modern environment” (Maio 83). Seeley’s strategy, Maio argues, creates “a less detached, more ominous, journey into fear” because the threats to women are ordinary (83). Seeley sets The Listening House in a recognizable St. Paul, Minnesota, fictionalized as Gilling City. The novel concentrates on a dingy boarding house run by a peculiar landlady: there is no Rinehartian circular staircase at 593 Trent Street. The sleuth, Gwynne Dacres, is bracingly up to date: she has come to Mrs. Garr’s house because she lost her job writing ad copy for a department store through no fault of her own, but rather as a convenient sacrifice for someone else’s error. She has limited funds in the bank and “no earthly chance of getting another steady job before heavy advertising began again in August and September; perhaps not then” (13). Gwynne’s tragedy is routine workplace politics, and her response is practical rather than melodramatic, based on knowledge of the industry rather than outrage at her mistreatment. The Depression permeates the book, framing choices made by all characters, not just Gwynne. Social attitudes are surprisingly frank, and the dialogue would not be out of place on film. When Gwynne first views the advertised room, Mrs. Garr interrogates her about her circumstances:
“You any chillern?”
“No. There’s only myself. I’m divorced.”
“Oh. You give parties?”
“Not very many.”
“One or two quiet men friends, now, I don’t object to. I know how girls are; they got to have men friends. But I don’t like my furniture broke.”
“I’ve never had any furniture broken.”
“You a working girl?”
“Yes,” I said, “but I shan’t be working all the time. I’m taking most of the summer off.”
“Oh.” I’d expected suspicion there, and got it. “I like my rent paid in advance. A week advance. And them as don’t pay up, I only give a day notice to.” (19)
Gwynne freely admits her status as a young divorcee, and Mrs. Garr’s responses are a barometer of stereotypes (for example, divorcees “give parties”) that Gwynne easily dispatches. Gwynne does not register concern or surprise about Mrs. Garr’s inquiries, answering them briefly and anticipating the suspicion about prompt rent payment. Do not damage the property or fail to pay your rent; beyond that, this landlady is not concerned with conventional propriety.

During the course of the novel, Gwynne has various temporary jobs, dates one of the other residents, and dates the police officer who comes to investigate the crimes. The incidents begin with the discovery of a dead body thrown down the high embankment from the back yard within a week of Gwynne’s arrival. Gwynne is attacked, she investigates, and ultimately the buried story—the tragic scandal of Rose Liberry (abducted, forced into prostitution, and dead at the age of sixteen)—explains the strange cast of characters in Mrs. Garr’s boarding house. Seeley handles the Liberry story with extraordinary frankness; a 2009 online review by Kevin Killian observes that “Seeley’s no-nonsense honesty about the harsh realities of what today we call ‘sex work’ distinguishes her book” from others of its period. Killian perceives that Seeley’s debut novel shows how “crimes against women are endemic because they’re built into the system, they’re the mortar which holds the bricks together in an edifice larger than a listening house.” The search for a suicide note appears regularly in detective fiction, but Seeley’s “buried” and “surface” time frames and her critical stance reveal that she is not simply using the device to generate suspense. During the 1919 criminal trial for Liberry’s death, the absence of a suicide note made it impossible to “prove beyond question that the girl was a victim”; in the 1930s, the revelation of a note which, by its very existence, “clears her character” serves to censure the hypocritical society of both decades for judging a young girl caught in the snares of adults’ illegal activities (232). Furthermore, Seeley draws on knowledge of historical corruption in the city to construct a portrait of a deeply immoral society with broad complicity from civic actors. In a final gesture repudiating weaponized conventional morality, Gwynne redistributes the cache of money she finds at novel’s end to provide “anonymous” assistance to those residents of Mrs. Garr’s rooming house who were victims of tragedy and corruption. The remainder she uses to launch a modern marriage with her choice of suitor and a bracing lack of sentimentality: as the man who performs the marriage observes disapprovingly, “‘Young people are so lighthearted nowadays’” (251). Seeley’s debut crime novel builds on the Rinehart plot formula but yanks it dramatically into the cultural atmosphere of the midcentury.

Detecting (in) Seeley’s Intermodern Crime Fiction

Seeley’s protagonists are always women; they are nearly all unmarried. The presence of single women as sleuths is characteristic of earlier models, but Seeley’s characters are not the well-to-do young women or middle-aged spinsters of Rinehart. In the four novels examined in this essay, all four narrators are independent, working women in their late twenties. Like Gwynne Dacres in The Listening House, The Whispering Cup’s Solveig Nayes opens the present-day story in a financial pinch with a cloud over her employment prospects. After six months working in the Minneapolis law firm of Duquesne, Harris, and Liemoller, she is unexpectedly—and very publicly—sued by Mrs. Duquesne for “alienation of [Mr. Duquesne’s] affections” (2). Penury drives Solveig not to a rooming house, but back to her hometown of tiny, isolated Cup, Minnesota, where she has a small house and a lot of family history: her grandfather Nayes had founded the small town in the nineteenth century. Janet Ruell of The Crying Sisters is a small-town librarian, and Ann Gay of The Chuckling Fingers has an office job with an insurance agency. Seeley’s crime fiction is part of a larger body of women’s crime writing with literary qualities, which Nicola Humble denominates the “feminine middlebrow” in her study of English authors (5). Seeley’s work demonstrates Humble’s claim that “the feminine middlebrow had a significant role in the negotiation of new class and gender identities in the period from the 1920s to the 1950s” (5). The shift in the socioeconomic circumstances of the sleuth brings Seeley’s novels into the mid-twentieth century not only in the sense that the changing economic landscape between the wars made Rinehart’s independently wealthy spinsters seem the stuff of romance, but also to address new ways of navigating gender and class roles.

Seeley’s choice of Minnesota settings, and the care with which she develops them, offers another link to the priorities of intermodernism as a troubler of modernist definitions of what counts as valuable literature. Kristin Bluemel's introduction to Intermodernism points to “another intermodern quality: a provincial, countryside or regional landscape as site of origins or identity.” “Unlike many of the modernist writers who were associated with London and the home counties,” Bluemel notes, many intermodernist writers were “geographical ‘outsiders’” (12). Atypical geographical locations go hand in hand with what J. B. Priestley deems a characteristic "sense of community" (qtd. in Bluemel 12), a prominent element in Seeley’s explorations of provincial settings complicated by criminal behavior. Seeley uses a series of well-developed rural Minnesota settings to advance the HIBK model. Howard Haycraft, raised and educated in Minnesota before moving to New York City for a career in publishing, noted that “it is not the least of her achievements that she has dared to use, and with striking effectiveness, the most commonplace of settings: a drab Minnesota lake resort, a grain elevator, a cheap rooming-house” (216). But to whom is a Minnesota lake resort or a grain elevator “commonplace”? These settings would be unfamiliar or even exotic to a large proportion of the readers who made her books a commercial success; Haycraft’s backhanded compliment contains an assumption that the modern has geographic limits.

Seeley’s work shows the rural, agricultural upper Midwest to be in the same historical moment as its urban counterparts. Like the authors featured in Rural Modernity in Britain, Seeley “set[s] out to know and represent the complicated reality of rural life, respect[s] its beauties and terrors, represent[s] its everyday materials, routines and scenes even as [she] recognize[s] how tedious these things may be” (5). Seeley’s Midwestern quotidian is simultaneously exotic for the majority of its original market. Seeley’s rural Minnesota undergoes changes and stresses recognized as products of modernity, and her plots are informed by her authorial method: Seeley visited sites and interviewed people in rural areas as an important stage in her writing process (“Mabel Seeley” 57). In The Chuckling Fingers, the main house belongs to the new generation lumber baron, but Seeley also features the workers, offers information about reforestation, and highlights Bill Heaton’s less-destructive timber cutting plans. The operations of the grain elevator in The Whispering Cup, which Seeley herself had to learn before writing the book, impact the plot and establish the forward-looking business acumen of its operator.

Seeley expresses thematic concerns through close ties between her protagonists and their settings. These connections exist on multiple levels, from the individual’s relation to a familiar, new, or threatening environment, to Seeley’s exploration of heritage and local history. This exploration is an aspect of her crime novels that surpasses the floorplan and estate maps that feature in, for example, reissues of Rinehart titles and the clue-puzzle detective fiction of Agatha Christie, to engage in techniques that mirror folktales and local history.

The titles of her novels underscore connections to rural culture. Her titles replicate the classic “object” titles associated with Rinehart’s works—The Circular Staircase, The Red Lamp, The Swimming Pool, the money-making play The Bat—but transcend their generic nature. With her first novel, The Listening House, the noun refers to an actual house and the adjective refers to protagonist Gwynne’s keen sense that the house itself is listening. In her next book, The Crying Sisters, the title is the name of a cottage resort in northeast Minnesota, located between the Twin Cities and Duluth. One dimension of the “crying” in the title is the distinctive call of the local loons, as protagonist Janet Ruell learns when she inquires about screams, though she remains certain that she heard human cries. The Crying Sisters resort takes its name from its location on a pair of lakes, Little Sister and Big Sister, which are connected by narrow shallows. The lakes, in turn, were named after a Native legend about twin sisters being forced into separation upon their marriages. Rather than acquiesce, the sisters drown themselves in the lake. “As punishment for their willfulness and disobedience the Great Spirit separated their souls,” Janet is told, and “only at night can they cry across the lakes” to one another (39). The legend and its patriarchal lesson frames Janet’s desperate desire to escape her lonely existence in small-town Minnesota. Known to all in her small town as someone who was jilted by her fiancée eight years earlier, Janet is offered in marital recompense only George Train, a bank cashier with “no ambition to be anything else” and his self-serving assumption that Janet would not want children because she is already twenty-nine years old (2).

The titular nouns of The Whispering Cup and The Chuckling Fingers also refer to geographical formations with rich local-historical connections, embodying a multi-layered advance on Rinehart’s more direct use of object-titles. Cup, as noted above, is the name of a fictionalized, geographically enclosed community south of Winona, Minnesota, population ~300. Its name reflects the bluffs, rounded cliffs which feature prominently in the geography of that region of Minnesota. The whispering is gossip, in person and over phone lines (phone technology, with shared lines and switchboard operators who know the callers, adds to the mystery); it also alludes to the whispering of the wind, particularly near the grain elevator. In the latter novel, the Fingers are unusual stone formations characteristic to the north shore of Lake Superior. A particular fictional formation gives its name to one of the Heaton family estates, Fiddler’s Fingers; highly visible, the stone outcroppings feature in multiple crime scenes in the book. The chuckling is an underground river which to Ann Gay sounds like a “large, satisfied, silky gurgle that seem[s] to come from beneath the stones” (7). Set on the North Shore of Lake Superior, some real towns are named in The Chuckling Fingers, but the specific location of the fictional estates is strategically imprecise. Ann Gay, who comes to help her cousin Jacqueline, immediately has “an overwhelming impression of the wilderness and its power” (8). Seeley’s protagonist respects the power of Lake Superior and the rugged landscape in this corner of Minnesota, but she is not susceptible to imaginary fears. Like the crying sisters, there is a folk legend, this one from the Paul Bunyan tradition. Also like the crying sisters, this story features male constraints on women’s sexual behavior. Bunyan returns from a trip to find “a girl named Lily Lou whom Paul had favored . . . at a lakeshore dance, waltzing in the arms of one of his own henchmen while his own favorite fiddler scraped out the tune” (6-7). The fiddler “had died in his own last effort, falling, soaking into the earth like one of his own tunes. Only his right hand had stayed aboveground, the fingers reaching for the bow” (7). Glacial potholes are part of the visible geology of the northern portions of Minnesota; in Seeley’s book, non-native folklore becomes attached to a rocky formation, and the rocks and the human tales alike create atmosphere for a complex, suspenseful crime novel.

These examples of well-developed, detailed rural settings reflect Seeley’s distinctive combination of HIBK suspense, cultural critique, and regional history. As S. L. Clark argues, Seeley “sees the Midwest as providing a rich ethnic heritage coupled with an upwardly mobile economic sensitivity: Seeley’s heroes and heroines are thus interested both in acquiring and in keeping what they have” (31). The modern young woman sleuth that Seeley contributes as she advances her chosen subgenre is particularly credible in the Minnesota settings. The British writers Allingham and MacInnes, in Lassner’s analysis, “are deeply ambivalent about restoring a mythic rural order representing national and cultural stability and security” (115). HIBK, in uncovering a buried story, similarly affords Seeley’s heroines opportunities to question nationalist mythmaking. American rural mythology differs from that invoked in Lassner’s essay: in Seeley’s novels, the characters’ relation to the world of work and real property is tied to their second- and third-generation immigrant status. Decoding the surface story and interpreting the Rinehartian outcroppings of the buried story offers lessons in the repressive functioning of local history. This is particularly so in The Whispering Cup, in which the mysteries and their resolutions bring to life Caitlin Sackrison’s claim that “the relocation of entire, or nearly entire, communities [from Norway] created a uniquely Norwegian identity in many parts of Minnesota. Though many Norwegians had left their family farm and land behind in Norway, they sought to recreate that connection to the land in Minnesota” (3). From “the golden dangles of my Norwegian breastpin tangled in the sweater on that still shoulder” of the first page through the references to “rose maling,” interjections of Norwegian phrases (“Aa, men hun var deilig”), and character description (“your blasted Norwegian conscience!”), the novel naturalizes Norwegian heritage in material and social realms. The characters are aware of their generational status as Norwegian-Americans: they do not claim to be Norwegian but take pride in their establishment through generations of family in Minnesota. Solveig’s friend Helen Lindemann Gilbertson has decorated her house “to be absolutely authentic Norwegian settler” (23), full of “lovely old Norwegian things” (38). When she hosts a Kaffe Sladder, a social event to force the townswomen to acknowledge Solveig’s return, she dangles the opportunity to see these items as bait, and it succeeds.

More compelling than these material objects, however, are the tales Helen collects: “anecdotes about the old settlers” (25). When Solveig first hears some of these anecdotes in the novel, three are referenced: one is told about the Halvorsens and the nisse (Norwegian farm sprite), one is alluded to as “the story of Hans and the devil,” and a third is shared as an example of how “the old superstitions hang on” (26-27). None of these tales seem particularly important, or even true, yet not only do they establish the cultural environment in which the crime takes place, they also point toward the solution of the crimes. Folklore scholar Jennifer Attebery’s explanation of how such stories relate to truth illuminates some of the challenges in sifting such tales: “personal experience, related contemporaneous to an event, eventually became historical legend told and inscribed generations later. . . . To say that historical legends are told as true, however, does not mean that the events related in legend can be corroborated” (Attebery 87). Helen keeps her collected stories in a journal, which subsequently becomes an important piece of evidence: what was on the pages that someone cut out of the journal after Helen’s murder? The answer reveals that one person’s “old superstition” is another’s witness to murder; Seeley here flips the relationship Attebery describes between legend and corroborated events to expose a killer. In Seeley’s hands, the powerful presence of local history, folklore, and material culture fuels the “surface story” of the HIBK model. The surface mystery plot appears to be driven by personal rivalries which are simply framed by a great deal of Norwegian-American heritage exposition. And yet the buried story that drives the apparently personal motivations turns out to be an immigrant family property inheritance story, charged through with subversive sexuality.

Both The Whispering Cup and The Chuckling Fingers demonstrate Alison Light’s observation that Agatha Christie’s “rural settings, which so many have seen as hermetically sealed, provide an especially empty security. . . . The village in her novels is a community whose members ought to know each other but don’t” (92). Not only are the communities in Seeley’s novels very small and remotely situated, they are also interconnected through family relations, both biological and by marriage, to an even greater degree than are Christie’s villages. As in Christie’s work, sometimes the failure to recognize the import of local history in shaping current crimes is due to people pretending to be someone or something else that fools the community, such as a disguised relative. Even more disturbingly, however, some of Seeley’s rural characters are precisely who they claim to be, but still fool the community: personal knowledge, even in a contained community, does not guarantee security. The series of revelations in The Whispering Cup and The Chuckling Fingers lies not only in the present but also in the past: long-hidden actions and relationships concerning people who have been dead for years bear fruit in murder. In this respect, Seeley modernizes the American Rinehart model, matching Christie’s modernization of her crime-writing forebears. Light perceptively links these challenges to modernization; in her argument, Christie moves forward from the clichéd perils presumed to come from outsiders or the lower classes to a model where “her characters must always realize with alarm, the criminal is first of all ‘one of us’” (94). Seeley also illustrates Light’s insight that it is “not physical disguise so much as psychological disguise which is potentially pathological” (94). Forced recognition that the people we know may be psychologically dangerous is essentially modern, even more unsettling than the dangers of a stranger passing through or masquerading as a member of the community.

The primacy of Light’s “psychological disguise” corroborates the modern potential of the HIBK subgenre in the hands of a writer such as Seeley: if what Seeley’s sleuths must learn is about what hides inside long-known community members, that information is modern social knowledge. Even in the remote resort of The Crying Sisters, apparent strangers in the temporary community are revealed to have relationships that drive their present-day behavior. The mysterious stranger and his son with whom Janet Ruell teams up are pursuing a cause that is personal but also, at bottom, another domestic inheritance plot. The presence in this novel of bank-robbing gangsters does not distract from the central cast of characters. The gangsters seem like escapees from a masculine hardboiled crime novel, and Seeley does not look to them for a solution. Unconvincing suspects in the world of the novel, the suspense the gangsters create springs from anxieties about whether the local law enforcement may believe in their guilt thereby leaving the community in danger from within. In her crime novels, Seeley adheres to the principle of the criminals being community members who are present throughout the course of events rather than outsiders. The community is surprised and astonished, not by strangers abruptly appearing at novel’s end, but by members of their own community. The buried story matters: it haunts the present and threatens the protagonist’s ability to exercise her modernity, but Gwynne Dacres, Janet Ruell, Solveig Nayes, and Ann Gay excavate the buried story and meet the challenges of the surface story. Seeley and her sleuths have a shrewd eye for the past and a knowing gaze for their modern milieu.

Theorizing Literary History

References to Howard Haycraft are seeded throughout this essay, and his work provides an important anchor for placing Mabel Seeley’s work in its intermodernist context. Haycraft’s 1941 study Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story was a pioneering work of scholarship when it was published and, of interest to scholars and general readers, it has been in print continuously since its release. Published three years after Seeley’s debut novel, The Listening House, Haycraft’s study lauds Seeley as the author “who will pilot the American-feminine detective story out of the doldrums of its own formula-bound monotony” (89).3 The formula Haycraft references is the “readily recognizable ‘Rinehart formula,’ [which is] becoming increasingly tedious in the hands of her far-too-numerous imitators among American women writers” (89). Haycraft’s work is important in illuminating the conundrum Seeley faced in the midcentury critical landscape as a woman writing crime fiction. Seeley is an inheritor of Rinehart and an innovator within the HIBK, yet Haycraft paradoxically cites her separation from that subgenre as the value of her work. Haycraft does not recognize that the woman-centric HIBK is far more flexible and dynamic than any mere genre “formula” could be, and consequently resilient enough to be updated for the intermodern period. Lauded by Haycraft as a modernizer, Seeley is singled out due to her stature in the crime fiction landscape of the late 1930s.

Eighty years after Haycraft’s testimonial to Seeley’s innovative talents, Penguin Random House reissued two Seeley titles, The Chuckling Fingers and The Listening House. The 2021 notices give insight into twenty-first-century perceptions of the novels’ strengths and promote Bluemel’s notion that “intermodernism is a postmodern invention” because intervening scholarly discourse and the rise of cultural studies allow for a reassessment of institutional practices that eliminate writers like Seeley from literary history (“Introduction” 9). In David Wright’s Library Journal review of The Chuckling Fingers, for example, Wright credits Seeley with “adapting Golden Age conventions to middle-class, middle-American settings” (82). His verdict on the novel is that, “from its foreboding had-I-but-known opening to the suspenseful and romantically satisfying climax (more Douglas Sirk than Alfred Hitchcock), this stylish time capsule . . . represents the cream of plush, popular midcentury crime fiction” (82). Wright’s invocation of Douglas Sirk is significant because critical reception of Sirk’s films follows a trajectory similar to that described by Humble and by Lassner for the middlebrow. Critical hindsight shows value in what had been dismissed earlier. As Lassner writes of her detective novelists, “in recent years, however, this genre fiction has yielded evidence of a surprising seriousness. From the 1920s . . . and beyond to [the Cold War], critics now find innovative aesthetics with more than enough political, cultural and social critique to go around” (115). Film scholar Will Scheibel explains in OUPblog that Sirk’s 1950s films were not properly valued by reviewers until Jean-Luc Godard intervened with a 1959 review in Cahiers du Cinéma. Since then, there has been a growing belief that “the midcentury family melodrama is thought to be the primary locus for [Sirk’s] signature style and personal vision, as well as a genre that could be manipulated for progressive or subversive critique of postwar America’s bourgeois ideology. Thus, Sirk became a favorite both for auteurist film criticism and for Marxist, feminist, and psychoanalytic film theory.” These examples demonstrate the need for more inclusive approaches to studying midcentury culture, and they affirm the value and place of Mabel Seeley’s fiction both in, and to, intermodernist studies.

An intermodernist lens also helps to reframe ground-breaking scholarship on women crime writers, such as that by Catherine Ross Nickerson, which seems to suggest that Mabel Seeley is not an important crime writer. Part of placing Seeley firmly where she belongs is closing the loop with Nickerson’s foundational study, The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women. In Nickerson’s book on Metta Fuller Victor, Anna Katharine Green, and Mary Roberts Rinehart, Seeley features only in a footnote explaining why Seeley is one of the women writers Nickerson excludes from the study. Nickerson writes that the excluded authors’ fiction “lacks the literary and cultural edge that I see in that of the authors I do examine [and] to discuss the work of these later writers is to take up a different set of questions having to do with the codification of detective fiction into genre and subgenre over the course of the twentieth century” (319n3). I would argue that the advancing of subgenre development, rather than calling for mere classification, opens the door to displays of “literary and cultural edge.”

The title of Nickerson’s section on Rinehart, “Mary Roberts Rinehart and the Modern Era,” however, points the way forward to reading Seeley as an (inter)modernizer, as does Nickerson’s characterization of Rinehart’s novels as blending the gothic and the domestic. Rinehart, Nickerson concludes, “continued the nineteenth-century tradition of blending the gothic and domestic modes, but she also made that style resonate with the conflicts surrounding the woman question in the modern era” (Web 196). Nickerson describes Rinehart’s “as a kind of middlebrow modernism” (196), a comment that characterizes Rinehart in the ways that intermodernist scholars might see as perpetuating the aesthetic perspectives that devalue women’s writing. However, in the 1991 dissertation which she developed into her 1998 book, Nickerson identifies Seeley’s contributions as a modernization effort: “While Rinehart, like her heroines, continued to look backward to the Victorian era for her literary and cultural models, Mabel Seeley, for example, is more clearly a modernist, and it would be impossible to read her novels without understanding the influence of the hardboiled school” (“Domestic” 9). The 1930s, the decade when the masculinized hardboiled private-eye subgenre achieved prominence in American crime fiction, nonetheless had space for women to make important debuts in modernizing modes of traditional forms such as, for example, Edith Meiser’s success in pitching the U.S. Sherlock Holmes radio serial to reluctant studios and advertisers and then scripting the episodes herself in the 1930s and 40s (see Johnsen, “Edith Meiser”). The terms in which Nickerson discusses Rinehart do, in fact, support extension of these concepts to Seeley within the framework of intermodernism, which allows scholars to see them in a larger historical context. Seeley’s work can be seen as modernizing the previous modernizer, Rinehart, particularly with women’s place-specific experiences of gender and class in the foreground. Modernizing as a process is iterative, and literary genre, with what Franco Moretti describes as patterns of convergence and divergence (80), is a rich site for observations that contribute to intermodernist scholarship.4
“In the years after the First World War,” Nicola Humble observes in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s, “the status of the realist novel was dramatically altered by the coming to public consciousness of the modernist and associated avant-garde movements” (11). This important reminder points to the value of well-made genre fiction such as that by Mabel Seeley, while also framing Seeley's desire to produce “serious novels” as distinct from her crime novels. Without blaming the victim, an intermodernist perspective can contextualize Seeley’s self-deprecating remarks within institutional narratives that value some aesthetic styles over others as historically significant. Humble’s study is vital, and it theorizes generously from the genre-friendly concept of “textual pleasure” and thinking about readers (5). Adding to Humble’s English exemplars of feminine middlebrow writers through study of American writers like Seeley contributes to our literary and critical knowledge base. Seeley can—and should—be brought under the umbrella of intermodernism, not only for what she accomplished as a writer but also for what her reception history tells scholars about value and prestige as contingent. Seeley advanced the Rinehart Had-I-But-Known “formula” forward into the mid-twentieth century in ways that illuminate women’s experience. The subgenre anchors her work in a tradition of women’s writing and provides a literary-historical context which renders visible Seeley’s value as a research subject for intermodernist studies. This broadening of focus aligns with intermodernist scholarly recognition of the value of work that “[blurs] boundaries between modernism and genres associated with regional literature and popular culture” (Bluemel and Lassner 22). Analyzing Seeley’s work in relation to the Mary Roberts Rinehart tradition she inherits and modernizes is only one of many approaches to her oeuvre, but it is one that illuminates her distinctive blend of Midwestern, feminist, and popular-genre achievements and places her in the pantheon of intermodernist writers.

1. The term is still in use, but it is no longer always a slight. Charlotte MacLeod riffs on it in the title of her Rinehart biography, and even a cursory search online reveals widespread use and reclamation of it.
2. Rinehart’s diagram is reprinted as Figure 1 in Cohn (220), along with discussion of its original publication (219-220, 264n42).
3. In her 1982 M.A. thesis at the University of North Dakota, Jeanne McLeod Hoversten addresses herself to “determin[ing] if there is a development of [Seeley’s] writing through the series of mysteries and to see if a consistent formula is used in all of the mysteries” (4; emphasis added). The thesis groups Seeley’s crime fiction into “first mysteries,” “middle mysteries,” and “last mysteries,” concluding that “a specific formula is evident in the majority of the novels” after mapping “elements of plot, characterization, and setting” (77). The formula defined in the thesis is reached inductively from Seeley’s work and is not linked to other possible models.
4. A similar pattern can be discerned in the twenty-first-century subgenre of domestic noir, an emergent subgenre with ties to the HIBK, as “new Irish gothic.” I have argued elsewhere that Tana French’s “new Irish gothic” modernizes Irish predecessors Sheridan LeFanu and Elizabeth Bowen because “in her novels, recognizable tropes of the Irish gothic are transformed into the violence of contemporary domestic noir” (“The House” 222). The specifically regional context of “the house and the hallucination” in my title is essential to “the upending of Irish literary history into the contemporary” (222), a dynamic reminiscent of Rinehart’s “outcroppings” of the buried story into the present-day happenings.

Works Cited

Attebery, Jennifer Eastman. “Imagining Borders and Heartlands through Legend.” Swedish-American Borderlands, edited by Dag Blanck and Adam Hjorthén, U of Minnesota P, 2021, pp. 86-100.

Bluemel, Kristin. “Introduction: What is Intermodernism?” Inter/Modernist: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain, edited by Kristin Bluemel, Edinburgh UP, 2009, pp. 1-18.

---, and Phyllis Lassner. “Feminist Inter/Modernist Studies.” Feminist Modernist Studies, vol. 1, no. 1-2, 2018, pp. 22-35.

---, and Michael McCluskey. “Introduction: Rural Modernity in Britain,” Rural Modernity in Britain: A Critical Intervention, edited by Bluemel and McCluskey, Edinburgh UP, 2018, pp. 1-16.

“The Chuckling Fingers.” Kirkus Reviews, vol. 89, no. 3, 2021, n.p. EBSCOhost, Accessed 22 May 2022.

Clark, S. L. “A Sense of Property: Midwest and Money in the Novels of Mabel Seeley.” Great Lakes Review, vol. 6, no. 1, 1979, pp. 24-36.

Cohn, Jan. Improbable Fiction: The Life of Mary Roberts Rinehart. U of Pittsburgh P, 1980.

Eysteinsson, Astradur. The Concept of Modernism. Cornell UP, 1990.

Haycraft, Howard. Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story. 1941. Carroll and Graf, 1984.

Hoversten, Jeanne McLeod. “Mabel Seeley: The Development of her Mysteries.” M.A. Thesis, U of North Dakota, 1982.

Humble, Nicola. The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism. Oxford UP, 2001.

Johnsen, Rosemary Erickson. “Edith Meiser as The Woman of the Sherlock Holmes Interwar Radio Serial.” Feminist Modernist Studies, vol. 6, no. 1, 2023, pp. 42-46.

---. “The House and the Hallucination in Tana French’s New Irish Gothic.” Domestic Noir: The New Face of 21st Century Crime Fiction, edited by Laura Joyce and Henry Sutton, Palgrave Macmillan, 2018, pp. 221-238.

Killian, Kevin. The Listening House, by Mabel Seeley. Mystery*File 25 Jan. 2009.

Lassner, Phyllis. “Under Suspicion: The Plotting of Britain in World War II Detective Spy Fiction.” Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain, edited by Kristen Bluemel, Edinburgh UP, 2009, pp. 113-130.

Light, Alison. Forever England: Femininity, Literature, and Conservatism between the Wars. Routledge, 1991.

MacLeod, Charlotte. Had She But Known: A Biography of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Mysterious Press, 1994.

Maio, Kathleen L. “Had-I-But-Known: The Marriage of Gothic Terror and Detection.” The Female Gothic, edited by Juliann E. Fleenor, Eden, 1983, pp. 82-90.

Moretti, Franco. Graphs, Maps, Trees: Abstract Models for Literary History. Verso, 2005.

Nickerson, Catherine Ross. “The Domestic Detective Novel: Gothicism, Domesticity, and Investigation in American Women’s Writing, 1865-1920.” Ph.D. dissertation, Yale U, 1991.

---. The Web of Iniquity: Early Detective Fiction by American Women. Duke UP, 1998.

“Not Your Maiden Aunt’s HIBK: The Listening House (1938), by Mabel Seeley.” The Passing Tramp, 3 June 2015,

Sackrison, Caitlin. “Space of Belonging: The History of Land Rights for Norwegian-American Women in Southern Minnesota.” Presentation at Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Study Annual Meeting (virtual), 2021.

Scheibel, Will. “Revisiting Douglas Sirk’s A Time to Love and a Time to Die.” OUPblog, 30 Apr. 2017,

Seeley, Mabel. The Chuckling Fingers. Book League of America, 1941.

---. The Crying Sisters. 1939. Afton Historical Society Press, 2000.

---. The Listening House. 1938. Doubleday, 1953.

---. “Mabel Seeley.” Minnesota Writes: A Collection of Autobiographical Stories by Minnesota Prose Writers, edited by Carmen Nelson Richards and Genevieve Rose Breen, Lund Press, 1945, pp. 54-57.

---. The Whispering Cup. Grosset and Dunlap, 1940.

Wright, David. Review of The Chuckling Fingers, by Mabel Seeley. Library Journal, November 2021, p. 82.

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