Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Room Upstairs by Mildred Davis

NOTE: Although it’s impossible to “spoil” a real work of art—we all know that Holden Caulfield marries Jane Gallagher and has four children and lives happily ever after at the end of The Catcher in the Rye yet we continue to read and re-read it—please be warned that this post contains very specific information about the plot and the ending of the book discussed.

The Room Upstairs by Mildred Davis is a hardboiled gothic novel* complete with an “idiot heroine in the attic” (actually it’s a room on the top floor of a mansion) covered in bandages after a horrifying car accident, and an undercover investigator with murky motives.

Gene Swendsen is dropped off on the road just around the bend from the Corwith estate by a mysterious man called Mart. Swendsen and Mart exchange a few mysterious words about “the job,” with Mart wishing Swendsen good luck and Swendsen promising to keep Mart posted. Then Swendsen continues to the estate, where he presents himself as the new chauffeur. The butler, Weymuller, introduces him to the estate’s other servants and the Corwiths themselves. They need a chauffeur for one month only—their previous chauffeur left suddenly and mysteriously and Mr. Corwith has some affairs to wind up before the whole family moves to Washington. The Corwith daughters are all troubled in their own ways. Hilda, the youngest, is an alcoholic. Dora, the oldest, is flighty and arrogant. And Kitten, the middle daughter, lives in a room upstairs from which she never emerges. She only entertains the occasional visitor. She’s the one with the bandages on her face. As Swendsen puts it in Chapter 15:

She must be quite a character. She sits there all alone in that room upstairs, doesn’t see people, doesn’t come out, and yet she dominates the whole house. She can be felt in every part of it, every person. You all seem worried when you think no one’s watching, and you all look over your shoulders when you walk through an unlit room. And it’s somehow connected with her.

In addition to the daughters, there’s Lewis, the Corwiths’ fourteen year old son. Then there’s Francis, Dora’s fiance (he’s a doctor), and Helen, a friend who’s had a string of affairs.

Swendsen drives the Corwiths around, to parties where we meet vacuous uppercrusters who speak in arch, pseudo-clever dialogue. (Despite his working-class pedigree, Swendsen is their equal in the banter department, and he even gets in a few zingers that cause Hilda to blush worse than Mander Manley.) These parties tend to end in emotional outbursts, recrimination, or with someone being hypnotized into attempting a murder (I’m not joking). He’s also got several newspaper clippings about the Corwiths, he maintains contact with Mart, and he manipulates the car’s speaker so that he can listen to the backseat discussion whether those in the backseat want him to or not.

Everyone is deeply troubled, as Swendsen observes. Swendsen attempts to trouble the family, in particular Hilda. He takes her out on a date and inadvertently drives onto the Batchfelder estate, where a search party appears to have been formed. One member of that party threatens Swendsen and Hilda, and Hilda vomits when she realizes where she is. And that is the highlight of the date.

All along Swendsen uncovers clues here and there, mainly through observing and spying. And he takes one of the servants, Patricia, who’s apparently very good looking but not very smart, on a date, where he pumps her for information. Finally he manages to uncover the truth— that Kitten is dead and Hilda has been wrapping her head in bandages and pretending to be Kitten, when certain people come over (she speaks in a sort of a rasp to disguise her voice). Swendsen accuses Hilda of killing Kitten and concocting the car accident that allegedly took Kitten’s life. Hilda confesses, claiming to have accidentally struck Kitten with one of the Corwiths' cars, but when she drove home she couldn't remember where exactly she'd left the body, only that it was somewhere on the Batchfelder estate.

Interspersed throughout the novel are italicized Arthur Schnitzler-esque stream of consciousness vignettes in which Davis uses a semantic trick to disguise the identity of “the patient” “in the room upstairs.” The vignettes seem to mainly take up space, until the second to last chapter, where Davis alternates the main action with this stream of consciousness stuff. It’s in the stream of consciousness that we learn that in fact the jealous Dora is the actual murderer, because Kitten got Dora’s toys, her clothes, her boys, etc. Dora brutally killed her and buried her body, unable or unwilling to tell anyone where, which was why the police found it. Dora, driven by guilt I suppose, leaps to her death.

Swendsen is a jerk. He spends the entire novel acting like he has a chip on his shoulder—he’s arrogant, rude, cocky, and annoying. His unlikability is a problem, especially once the reader learns who he is and why he’s there. I kept thinking he must be, say, the son of someone who died because of the car crash that marred Kitten’s face. But, no—his background and motives are completely banal: He turns out to be a police detective investigating after Kitten’s body had been found. Foul play was suspected, so the police decided to orchestrate Swendsen’s chauffeur employment because Corwith is so wealthy and powerful and therefore so well protected that the police would never be able to get at the truth, without concocting such an elaborate ruse. I get it and I’m sympathetic—the rich have their own justice and law enforcement apparently have to be inventive to get at the truth. But it still felt anticlimactic. Worse, it leaves Corwith as just a jerk without a real driving motivation for his unpleasantness.

The final chapter is heavy on suspense, but it’s not generated by the narrative itself. It’s the suspense that comes from watching an artist destroy everything that’s good about what she’s built up with one bad decision. Will she…? Won’t she…? Then, she does! But not only does she do the thing that I as the reader was so desperate to see her not do, she commits to that mistake (if I disagree with it, it’s a mistake!) one thousand squillion percent. I mean, Davis lays it on so thick that I’m tempted to believe that it’s parody.

Yes, she rewards the arrogant jerk Swendsen with the sad, damaged, but still redeemable Hilda. That in itself is bad enough. But the language that Davis uses in explaining how they end up together is downright cruel to Hilda. When Swendsen returns to the Corwith estate (after exchanging a few unpleasantries with Weymuller), he has a brief conversation with the completely deflated Mrs. Corwith, who seems resigned to the fact that Swendsen has come for Hilda and he’s going to take her, no matter what. Then Hilda joins Swendsen and after he throws open the blinds (letting the sunshine in!), Hilda tells him about the pain she’s going through, then asks him to leave.

Swendsen’s having none of that. He gives her a lecture in which he absolves himself of any guilt or even responsibility for anything that’s happened. He tells her, “The trouble with you…is that you don’t cry.” Then he goes on:

”Listen to me. And this time try to get it straight. That little head of yours must be pretty twisted if you can blame all your troubles on me. I brought them to a climax. I had nothing to do with causing them. Your father was finished when Kitten died. And Dora would have committed suicide eventually, anyhow. And then your mother would have been in the same spot she’s in now. if you weren’t almost crazy with brooding and loneliness, you’d know I had nothing to do with it. I just happened along when everything was about to break and hurried up the process a little. I was only the guy who told you the score. Maybe that’s what hurt.”

If he does say so himself. He sounds vaguely like Obama giving a speech about how terrible things were when he was elected and how great things are now, despite all evidence to the contrary. If not for me, things would have been so much worse for you let me tell you and you ought to be grateful for all the great stuff I did for you and if you're too emotional to see just how great I was then that's your problem, baby

Swendsen then destroys the toy kitten that had been a gift to Kitten Corwith from one of her suitors, and had come to symbolize the missing Kitten. It’s pretty meaningful. Time to move on and cheer up! Turn that frown upside down! Quit living in the past!

Even after that, Hilda still resists Swendsen. For about a page or so. Then, she gives in. And this is where Davis really starts twisting the knife in poor Hilda’s back. Swendsen tells her, “You’ll come away with me today. You can stay at a hotel until we’re married.” Then:

”My eyes hurt,” she complained like a small child.

A couple of pages later, Davis gives us this: “Her eyes were trusting, almost like a puppy’s.” Then: “Clinging to Swendsen, she waited for him to take the lead.” When she gets into the car Swendsen/Davis compares Hilda to an “orphan,” and Swendsen belittles her:

”The fashionable Miss Corwith goes for a drive,” he chuckled. “I wonder what your friends would say if they could see that getup—and this car.”

She looked down at her dress, and then back at him uncertainly. She smiled a little too, not quite sure what the joke was, but trying to be pleasant.

At the look on her face, he threw his head back and shouted with laughter. She had never before seen him do anything more than smile sarcastically. The laugh seemed to please her and she smiled again.

Hilda is a child, an orphan, a puppy. Before she’d only known him to smile sarcastically; now, as she sits meekly in his car, he roars with laughter at the sight of her—her response is to smile at him, as if grateful for his mockery. AND THEY LIVED HAPPILY EVER AFTER!

Now that Hilda has entirely submitted, Swendsen turns to her parents tells them that they’re leaving but will be in touch when they know where she’s staying. That’s followed by this bit of third-person omniscient narration:

It was hard to talk to these two people to whom he had given the last shove over the precipice. Hard to watch their eyes.

Which would tend to contradict Swendsen’s assertions from earlier in the final chapter that he just happened to come along at the right time—all the terrible stuff that happened was going to happen anyway and it's not his fault, not any of it.

Obviously, Swendsen didn’t kill Kitten. He didn’t push Dora off the ledge. He didn’t compel Hilda to take Kitten’s place for all those years. (And by the way—how deeply was Lewis involved? He was the doctor who supposedly treated "Kitten" after she was murdered, and he was in on the ruse that had Hilda bandaged and pretending to be Kitten. But did he not know that Dora was the real killer? After all, he was engaged to her, even if he did wisely call it off with Dora after she collapsed or fell on their wedding day. Actually this opens a whole new can of worms and forget I brought it up.) But he did, as part of a police conspiracy, infiltrate this family under false pretenses, act like a jerk, and drive Dora to suicide.

The set-up for The Room Upstairs is diverting, and I was curious as to where Davis was going with the story more than halfway in. And if the book had ended with Chapter 24, instead of continuing on that deadly Chapter 25, it would have been a real triumph. Unfortunately that “happy ending” feels tacked on, or insincere. Maybe it’s post-ironic; I don’t know. But it left me feeling unsatisfied.

The Pocket Book edition I read, published in 1950, has this to say about Mildred Davis:

Mildred Davis looks about seventeen and fragile as a snowflake. Actually, she’s old enough to have graduated from college and to be a wife and mother. The Room Upstairs has captured something of her own quality: delicate, yet completely matured.

There’s certainly something to that “delicate yet matured” bit—I just wish Davis had let the story mature just a little bit more before releasing it.

 Here's the author herself. "Delicate yet matured" indeed!

Mildred Davis photo source.

*ANOTHER NOTE: After spending about a minute and a half on Google I think that The Room Upstairs might be the only hardboiled gothic novel ever published. 

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