Mabel Seeley: The mistress of mystery

by Steve Trimble • "A high priestess in the cult of murder as a fine art” was how Saint Paul  literary critic James Gray described her. She was often referred to as “the Mistress of Mystery.” But until recently, she was an almost forgotten figure in the city’s literary lineup. Her name was Mabel Hodnefield Seeley.
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The hall wasn’t inviting. It smelled of old gas. It smelled of animals confined to cellars. The ghosts of long-fried dinners, the acridity of long-burned cigarettes haunted the air that was a thicker, foggier dark than the gray day outside; a murk that might have been the grime of the outside walls floated loose and suspended in the hall. Ahead a rectangle of lighter gray showed the door of a room on the right, farther ahead on the right glowered a doorway into pitch-blackness. —The Listening House

Mabel was born on March 25, 1903, in Herman, Minnesota. Her family came to Saint Paul when her father, a teacher, got a job at the Minnesota Historical Society. Her mother was a natural storyteller, “so I started life with a book in my hand and well-said words in my ears,” she once wrote. Seeley attended Mechanic Arts High School and was encouraged to write by an English teacher. As a result, she contributed some work to the school’s literary magazine. Mabel once wrote about her decision to get serious about writing. She was crossing a busy street, was almost hit by a speeding car, and thought, “Here I’m going to die and I haven’t written any books.” She would eventually pen ten titles, eight of them mysteries, all set in Minnesota. Mabel won a Saint Paul college scholarship and graduated with honors from the University of Minnesota in 1926. She married fellow student Kenneth Seeley and they moved to Chicago but came back to the Twin Cities for medical treatment when Kenneth was diagnosed with tuberculosis. They later divorced. Mabel became an advertising copywriter for a local department store. After seven years she quit, planning never again to write, but within a year had started The Listening House (1938), a mystery set in a seedy Saint Paul rooming house. To create believable settings, Seeley did field work. While writing The Crying Sisters (1939), she ran through fields of tall, dry grass to see how grasshoppers responded when startled. For The Whispering Cup (1940), she spent time at her uncle’s grain elevator to experience the wind whistling in the bins and to hear the talk of farmers. Character development was also important to her. Protagonists were never detectives but ordinary, self-reliant women like librarians or stenographers caught up in unusual circumstances. Seeley empathized with one of her creations so much that she couldn’t write for two weeks after killing her off. Mabel even kept a mirror close at hand while writing to see how to describe different facial expressions during various emotions. Seeley always worked hard to improve her novels. “The only time I’m pleased with myself,” she said, “is when I’m exhausted and shaking from having written too much.” She was given good reviews by the New York Times and the Crime Club of America. The Chuckling Fingers (1941) won a Mystery of the Year award. She was an early member of the Mystery Writers of America and served on its first board of directors. In the late 1940s, Mabel and her son Gregory moved to California. While promoting The Whistling Shadow (1954), she met the lawyer Henry Ross. They married two years later, settling down in New Jersey. She never wrote another novel. Mabel Seeley died on June 9, 1991. At that time, her husband told a Pioneer Press columnist that she had quit writing to devote time to the marriage. Mabel never offered an explanation for the end of her active writing career, so it still remains—well, a mystery.

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