Ethel Lina White | Paperback Library | 1967 | 223 pages
Freshly graduated from journalism school, Sonia Thompson accepts a position at the Riverpool Chronicle, a small-town paper with a few reporters and an advice column that, to her great disappointment, becomes her primary assignment. Although a rash of petty thefts and purse snatchings are the biggest news in town, Sonia is more fascinated by the local Waxwork Gallery, and its chequered history of unusual deaths. The museum features well-worn wax representations of historical figures, plus a macabre Chamber of Horrors displaying a rogue’s gallery of infamous poisoners.
It seems to Sonia that everyone in town has a doppelgänger in the museum gallery, including prominent citizen, Alderman Cuttle, whose boisterous manner and intimidating physical build resemble that of Henry VIII. A retinue of female hangers-on trails behind in Cuttle’s wake, including his employee, Miss Yates, and doctor’s assistant, Nurse Davis. Sonia begins to fear for Cuttle’s neglected wife, whose poor health—coupled with Cuttle’s unusual interest in various poisons–leads Sonia to suspect foul play.
Sonia frequently returns to the wax gallery, where seemingly all the threads from local criminal activities or adulterous assignations converge. The atmosphere of danger intensifies when Sir Julian Gough, goaded into a reckless dare by his lover’s husband, mysteriously dies during a challenge to stay overnight in the gallery. As more deaths follow, Sonia discovers the existence of a secret drug ring operating underground, and becomes convinced that she knows the identity of the kingpin responsible for it all.
Hubert Lobb, lead reporter at the newspaper, offers a contrary proposition to Sonia–that a woman could be their culprit–with his assessment of feminine qualities, “A woman has tact, finesse, and no moral sense or conscience.”
Ultimately, Sonia’s investigation drives her to her own overnight vigil in the murderous museum. However, the crimes and adulteries of Riverpool are as much at the center of the mysterious happenings as the wax gallery itself, with any traditional house of wax horrors mostly left aside.
Wax features as many purse or dress thefts as actual frights, with the only hint at supernatural terror occurring when Sonia briefly envisions a wax figure—Mary, Queen of Scots, somehow escaped from the museum—in the place of a missing woman. Otherwise, the sense of mystery surrounding the waxworks feels as dusty and anachronistic as that faded relic from a bygone age.