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Skeleton-Key

February 11, 2015

Excerpt from Sarah Weinman’s Introduction to Skeleton Key

Lenore Glen Offord was new to me until quite recently. But once I delved into her not very large body of work – twelve novels between 1938 and 1959, eight of them mysteries – I discovered a writer of utterly delightful tales that mixed a strong sense of fair play, a wry wit, and a shrewd sense of domestic relationships that were, for their time, quite innovative, even subversive. How near-modern to trip across a mystery with a blended family in the making, where the murder-solving gets equal time with mother-daughter bonding. Here is crime fiction without airs, thunderous moralizing, or ponderous prose. The touch is light, even sprightly. It’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Offord herself wore multiple hats, as a novelist, a literary critic, a passionate theatergoer, and a mother.

Lenora Frances Glen was born on October 24, 1905 in Spokane, Washington to Katherine and Robert Glen, the latter a longtime newspaper editor in the city. She lived on the West Coast for her entire life, making ample use of Pacific Northwest and California settings in her fiction. She moved to Oakland, California for college, received a B.A. (cum laude) from Mills College in 1927, and after marrying Harold Offord in 1929, migrated to Berkeley, CA, ostensibly for graduate work at the city’s University of California outpost. They remained in and around Berkeley for nearly sixty years, with Offord giving birth to a daughter, Judith, in 1943.

For a time the Offords lived in the San Francisco neighborhood of Russian Hill, which provided the setting and title of her first novel, Murder on Russian Hill. That book introduced Coco Hastings, a voracious reader of mystery novels who, with her antiquarian husband Bill, gets embroiled in an actual murder in her own proverbial backyard. The pair returned for their second and final engagement in Clues to Burn (1942).

In between Offord ventured into more mainstream territory with Cloth of Silver (1939), about a girl reporter at a local newspaper contemplating love and marriage (she dedicated the book to her father: “To Pops, who told me so”); Angels Unaware (1940), a family drama where the arrival of unexpected guests exposes long-dormant fault lines; and the standalone thriller The Nine Dark Hours (1941) more in the classic domestic suspense mode of an ordinary young woman caught up in increasingly sinister events. (Offord’s superior standalone thriller, My True Love Lies, set in the San Francisco art world, was published in 1947.) Yet mystery/suspense was always Offord’s favorite genre, as she explained in a 1949 interview with the Oakland Tribune. “It is the first, and sometimes forgotten commandment for any novelist that he have a story to tell…I think [mystery novels] are sound discipline for the writer.”

With Skeleton Key, published in 1943 by Duell, Sloan & Pearce, Offord mixed a smart, curious heroine, her own insider’s knowledge of California, and a deft hand with the foibles of domestic conflict – and fashioned the start of her most artistically successful works. Skeleton Key introduces Georgine Wyeth, a twenty-seven-year-old widow, with a small child, whose personality emerges, fully-formed, in a descriptive paragraph early on in the novel: “one glance…left you with no more than a vaguely pleasant impression. A second proved unexpectedly rewarding; those who troubled to take it saw her eyes and thought ‘lonely,’ her mouth, and thought ‘sweet’; and then this increasingly sentimental gaze, having reached her chin, was brought up with a round turn. The set and tilt of the jaw spoke of stubbornness and humor, and more than hinted at a peppery though short-lived temper.” …

 

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