Born 25 March 1903, Herman, Minnesota; died 9 June 1991
Daughter of Jacob and Alma Thompson Hodnefield; married Kenneth Seeley, 1926; Henry S. Ross, 1956
Mabel Seeley was raised in Minnesota, Illinois, and Wisconsin in a family of storytellers. She worked in Chicago as an advertising copywriter after she obtained her B.A. at the University of Minnesota.
Seeley's nine novels, seven of which fall into the "Had I But Known" subgenre of detective fiction, showcase Midwesterners who are at once regional stereotypes and highly individual characters. In her detective novels, Seeley's slow-talking Norwegian-Americans, mercurial French-Canadians, and ironic heroines all contribute to the sense of the regionally familiar that Seeley consciously works to establish, as she shows Midwesterners at routine jobs in grain elevators (The Whispering Cup, 1940) and small-town hospitals (The Beckoning Door, 1950), between jobs in seedy rooming houses (The Listening House, 1938), and out of their element in Wyoming (Eleven Came Back, 1943) and Georgia (The Whistling Shadow, 1954). This identification with a specific geographic region and its heritage paves the way for the special brand of horror and suspense that Seeley develops in her stories of ordinary people caught up in extraordinary circumstances.
The background against which Seeley casts her crimes is solidly middle class, and the predominant work ethic colors the manner in which Seeley's money-oriented crimes are viewed: criminals are those who take economic power from others, while positively viewed characters are those who either work to regain what was theirs or acquire additional property or status. Seeley includes people under proprietary claims, so that murders with economic implications originate in dominating love that turns into jealous and possessive obsession. This money-love nexus can be viewed positively (as when the heroine gets man and money in The Listening House) or negatively (as when the villain loses girl and money in The Beckoning Door). In the well-ordered, familiar world of Seeley's detective fiction, crime and murder are intrusions which let themselves be felt in the economic and romantic inversions which they effect.
The interlocked themes of love and money run strongly through Seeley's two nondetective novels, the well-received Woman of Property (1947) and the thought-provoking The Stranger Beside Me (1951). Unlike the seven mysteries, these novels rely on third person narration, and in them Seeley portrays particularly sensitive women who are very different from her wisecracking detective fiction heroines. For Frieda in Woman of Property and Christine in The Stranger Beside Me, economic success does not go hand in hand with success in marriage. Both novels present sexual incompatibility, men who are not particularly successful at their work, families marred by psychic if not physical abuse, and women who strive for success in what is very obviously a man's world. It is a far cry from the world of Seeley's detective fiction, where the clever woman solves crimes as she falls in love with a man who considerately encourages her in her work.
The Crying Sisters (1939). The Chuckling Fingers (1941).
Barzun, J. and W. H. Taylor, eds., A Catalogue of Crime (1972). Haycraft, H., ed., The Art of the Mystery Story (1946). Haycraft, H., Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941). Slung, M. B., Crime on Her Mind (1975). Symons, J., Mortal Consequences (1972).
American Novelists of Today (1951). Encyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). TCAS.
—SUSAN L. CLARK