The Dollhouse Murders By Betty Ren Wright

The old dollhouse was trying to tell Amy something…

The Dollhous Murders

Just in time for Halloween: ghosts, an unsolved double murder and AN INAPPROPRIATE BURDEN OF RESPONSIBILITY!

The Plot: Amy Treloar, just weeks away from her 13th birthday, struggles with her feelings regarding her 11 year old sister, Louann, who suffers from non-specific brain damage. While Amy is fiercely protective of Louann, and always at the ready to come to her defense when anyone treats her unkindly, she is also starting to break under the burden of constantly having to “babysit” her sister after school, as both of her parents work late.

Amy tries to stifle the resentment she feels, but when it seems that the responsibility she has for Louann has messed up her budding friendship with New Girl In Town Ellen Kramer after an embarrassing incident at the mall, Amy finally has it out with her mother:

“I’m sick of baby-sitting and losing my friends and having everyone stare when we go by. I don’t want to protect her any more. I’m never, never going to take her any place again!”

Mrs. Treloar’s hands on the steering wheel were rigid. “I can’t believe what I just heard,” she said. “I can’t believe you can be so cruel. So selfish! A girl who has everything-“

“I don’t have anything,” Amy roared. “You want me to drag her around behind me the rest of my life. Well, I won’t do it!”

“You can be sure your father will hear all this when he gets home,” Mrs. Treloar said. “I’m going to tell him every word of this conversation. He’ll be as ashamed of you as I am.”

After this incident, Amy flees into the countryside, where her understanding Aunt Clare, her father’s much older sister, has recently arrived to clean out and sell the ancestral farmhouse.

Aunt Clare offers sympathy, and suggests that Amy come and help prepare the house for sale, staying with her for a week to give mother and daughter a cooling-off period. Amy is finally able to convince her parents, but in the course of cleaning out the attic, Amy begins uncovering DARK FAMILY SECRETS.

Clare and Amy’s father went to live with their grandparents as children, after their parents became ill and died while in South America. 12 years older than her brother, teenaged Clare began chaffing against her grandparents treating her like a little girl. When Amy uncovers an incredibly detailed scale model of the family home in the attic, Aunt Clare’s reaction puzzles her:

“Grandma and Grandpa expected me to play with it. It was an expensive, beautiful reminder that they wanted a little girl in their house, not a teenager who was in a big hurry to grow up.”

Aunt Clare begins exhibiting flashes of bad temper and refuses to discuss her childhood or the events surrounding her grandparents’ death, which she describes as “an accident”. Curious, Amy and Ellen head to the local library to look up Amy’s great-parents’ obituary and instead find a front page story on the couple’s gruesome murder, which was discovered by 18 year old Clare, returning home from a party. She also found her baby brother, Amy’s father, shut up in a closet but unharmed. As Amy and Ellen page through a year’s worth of microfilm, they also find a brief news item about Clare having been hospitalized for shock after receiving the news a few days later that her boyfriend had been killed in a car accident.

When Clare overhears Amy discussing the news story with Ellen, she is furious that Amy has been snooping into a painful family history and “gossiping” about it, but Amy is confused when her aunt accuses her of rearranging the dolls in the dollhouse to reenact the murder scene.

Wright is effective at building the suspense, as Amy starts to hear mysterious noises in the attic, and repeatedly finds that the dolls seemed to have moved around on their own. Aunt Clare eventually shares a few more details about the night her grandparents were killed, including the fact that she had always suspected that her hot-tempered boyfriend (of whom her grandparents did not approve) was behind the killings.

Amy is momentarily distracted from the mysteries when her mother unceremoniously dumps Louann off, uninvited, at Clare’s on the day of Amy and Ellen’s joint 13th birthday party. Although furious at her mother, Amy’s fears are proven unfounded when her friends handle the situation with unforeseen grace and maturity (they are TEENAGERS, now!) and readily include Louann in the party activities. Amy is relieved until she wakes up in the middle of the night and finds Louann in the attic, transfixed by the dollhouse, which is now emitting an eerie glow.

Can they convince Aunt Clare that the dolls are moving on their own? Is Great-Grandma Treloar trying to communicate from beyond the grave? Will they solve the 30 year old murders?

While Wright’s storytelling is genuinely suspenseful and the final twist is a pretty good one, the most striking thing about the book is how deeply flawed the adults are allowed to be. Amy’s mother is downright unsympathetic throughout most of the book, burdening Amy with Louann’s care and keeping her younger daughter isolated from other children (when Amy goes to stay with Clare, Louann spends the afternoons with a classmate and flourishes with her new independence).

In conclusion: adults are terrible, ghosts are totally real, and if you build an extremely detailed dollhouse to look like your actual house, you are just asking for this kind of thing to happen. Happy Halloween!

Sign It Was Written In 1983 Department:

There were other things she needed as well- the Charlie bath powder that had been a Christmas gift from Louann, the I-love-pizza-and-pizza-loves-me T-Shirt that she planned to wear at the party.

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10 Responses to The Dollhouse Murders By Betty Ren Wright

  1. Susan says:

    This seems uncharacteristically creepy for an Apple book, which I associate with elementary school. But I didn’t let my children read Goosebumps books either. The supense book I remember reading was “Magic Elizabeth” about a doll, not murders!

    • mondomolly says:

      It is! I was really surprised on the re-read by both how creepy the mystery was and how sophisticated some of the themes are. The other suspense book for younger readers that I remember really liking was “Wait ‘Til Helen Comes” by Mary Downing Hahn. Thanks for commenting!

  2. Pingback: Nothing’s Fair In Fifth Grade By Barthe DeClements | Lost Classics of Teen Lit, 1939-1989

  3. miss amy says:

    Oh, man, I love love LOVED everything Betty Ren Wright wrote, this one especially! I’m from Wisconsin, and pretty much all her books are set there, which made me unreasonably happy. Her books tend to hold up surprisingly well, and one of them taught me what Cornish people were.

    • Susan says:

      I didn’t know what Cornish people are, so I looked them up after reading your comment 🙂 .

    • mondomolly says:

      I was really surprised how well this one held up- the familial tension is a surprisingly sophisticated background for a middle-reader. I’ll have to see which other of Wright’s titles I have in storage!

  4. Anonymous says:

    LOVED this book – read it a few years ago – dolls that come to life, doll houses, a family mystery to solve…this book is sooooo down my street….:)

  5. Shawn Cullen says:

    I often see copies of this book for sale on Ebay. The particulars about the dollhouse being linked to the murders has overtones of the short story “The Haunted Doll’s House” by the English master of the ghost story, M.R. James (1862-1936).

    • mondomolly says:

      I think it’s worth a read, although my 10 year niece declared it “not scary enough”. Maybe I’ll have to pass James short story along to her 😉

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