Cottage Sinister (1931) by Q. Patrick

Cottage Sinister by Q Patrick

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“There’s something all wrong about this. God alone knows what it means.”

Lady’s Bower is the loveliest cottage in Somersetshire—more beautiful, even, than the nearby manor house Crosby Hall. Visitors are often surprised to find this choice property occupied by a servant, but Mrs. Lubbock deserves it after her years of service to the Crosby family. Mrs. Lubbock is enjoying a happy retirement, with her three daughters settled in life. Amy and Isabel are ladies’ maids in London. Lucy, a trained nurse, lives at home with her mother while working in the village hospital. It’s even rumored that Lucy has caught the eye of Dr. Christopher Crosby, the heir to Crosby Hall.

It seems impossible that anything bad could happen in such an idyllic setting. But the Lubbock family’s peaceful life is about to be shattered by violent death…not just once, but again and again. Continue reading “Cottage Sinister (1931) by Q. Patrick”

An Afternoon to Kill (1953) by Shelley Smith

An Afternoon to Kill by Shelley Smith

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“People never recognize sin in themselves, do they? We are always innocent in our own eyes.”

Lancelot Jones is way off course. Not only has his plane been forced to land in the middle of the desert due to mechanical difficulties, but it’s the wrong desert altogether. The landscape seems utterly desolate. The building in the distance must be a mirage; this is the last place in the world anyone would choose to build a home.

The lady of the house, Alva Hine, is happy to welcome a stranded traveler. Over the course of the afternoon, this seemingly harmless old woman tells Lancelot the story of her life. “It is all so long ago now,” she tells him. “It cannot matter.” It may be the last story he ever hears.

An Afternoon to Kill is a brilliant meditation on the art of storytelling. Alva’s tale does not unfold as a straightforward monologue; rather, she fields interruptions and objections from her listener and designs her narrative to keep him listening even against his own better judgment.

Alva tells the story of a dysfunctional Victorian family straight out of the most bloodcurdling sensation novel. Lancelot, who is terribly young and earnest, with no appetite for fiction, listens with great condescension. These poor Victorians, seething with complexes yet too innocent to realize it. Alva’s reaction is only the first of many surprises Lancelot will receive this afternoon.

“I don’t think you quite understand,” said Lancelot Jones kindly.

“But I do,” she said cheerfully. “You think I do not realize that I was in love with my own father; yet that is exactly what I have been at some pains to describe to you, my dear young man, in the simplest language possible, so that you could not fail to understand. It was a tragedy, and from it came tragedy. There is no need to veil ones meaning behind the timeless antics of Greek mythology.”

They are an ordinary middle-class family, until all at once they are not. From this moment forward, the entire family will be plunged into a maelstrom of love, hate, and violence, one which will drive Alva to the ends of the earth.

Although the events Alva relates are far from ordinary, her experiences as an awkward teenager trying to navigate family life, society, and dating despite being woefully ill-equipped for any of it are universal. However, a nasty little undercurrent runs beneath it all. Perhaps these are not just the typical calamities of adolescence, but rather the unheeded signals of disasters to come.

I have already said that I was self-conscious and gauche, and it pleased her to seek out all my sore little spots of unconfidence and call my attention to them in public as dulcetly as one could imagine. At the end of an afternoon’s tea party I would feel as full of pin-pricks as a dressmaker’s dummy and not half so handsome or useful.

An Afternoon to Kill by Shelley SmithHer account is so compelling because it is a collaborative effort between speaker, listener, and reader—The Princess Bride, but make it crime. Lancelot is never afraid to challenge Alva, questioning why she took a certain course of action or pressing for more detail on a point she is trying to gloss over. He is determined to solve the mystery before the end, and she is just as determined that he will not have the satisfaction. Many of his interjections are intelligent. Others reflect his own prejudice, which Alva delights in deflating. Lancelot is disgusted, for instance, by the sight of Alva’s Arab servant handling food unhygienically, only to learn that the man picked up those habits while training in the best kitchens of Europe. He is eager to impose modern standards upon nineteenth-century people, but his questions also require Alva to examine her own assumptions. Separated as they are by age and gender, the two are so different that neither can take anything for granted. There are several different kinds of stories being told here, and it’s up to the reader to sort it all out.

The sinister atmosphere of Alva’s story begins to pervade the modern-day narrative as well. Lancelot has come down in the wrong place, in the middle of nowhere. Not even his pilot knows where he’s wandered off to. Periodically, Lancelot grows bored or apprehensive and tries to leave. At these times, it’s clear that Alva is adjusting the way she tells the story in order to keep him engaged (and, of course, Shelley Smith is doing the same for the reader). Lancelot, and the reader, cannot help wondering: is Alva simply lonely, or does she have some other reason for keeping him there? Is he even free to leave at all?

An Afternoon to Kill is a masterclass in how to craft a compelling mystery. Stories are never really passively consumed—books are always a conversation between the author and the reader, built upon unspoken assumptions on both sides. Alva’s account is fascinating, yet the way the tale is shaped by its audience, and the way the audience is shaped by the tale, is the real story here.

Second Opinions

Crossexamining Crime

All in all, I would say this was a great read, with what I would describe as a delicious ending.

Only Detect

Smith writes crisply and with a light touch, and the novel is as admirably brief as it is dense and sly. Each of her two tales concludes with a firm snap that, like all good endings, combines a note of surprise with the clear knell of inevitability.

Pretty Sinister

In An Afternoon to Kill (1953) she explores the talent and skill involved in storytelling and makes a sound argument for it not only being a true art but also a powerful tool.

Availability

An Afternoon to Kill is available as an ebook from Lume Books

The Glass Slipper (1938) by Mignon G Eberhart

The Glass Slipper by Mignon G Eberhart

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’m afraid. I’m afraid of this house. I’m afraid of every shadow and every sound. I’m afraid when the door opens; I think I’ll die during that split second when I see the door’s about to open and can’t see yet that it’s just a policeman. Or someone I know…”

From the outside, Rue’s life looks like a Cinderella story. The former nurse has married her boss, brilliant surgeon Brule Hatterick, after the death of his wife Crystal. But no one ever tells you what to do when the fairy tale goes wrong. Brule has married Rue out of convenience so that she can run his home and raise his teenage daughter in the same efficient way she runs the operating room. The household remains loyal to Crystal’s memory, however. Rue can’t seem to get a foothold with the servants and young Madge won’t even speak to her. Rue is painfully aware that she isn’t beautiful like Crystal. She doesn’t know her way around high society. And if her marriage to Brule is strictly business, how long is he going to keep her around if she can’t fulfill her side of the bargain?

Just when it seems her situation couldn’t get worse, Rue learns that police are investigating the death of Brule’s first wife. Rue was the nurse on duty when Crystal Hatterick died, and it would be very convenient for Crystal’s friends and family if an outsider were the killer. The clock is about to strike midnight. Rue’s happy ending is in danger…and so is her life. Continue reading “The Glass Slipper (1938) by Mignon G Eberhart”

The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) by Anthony Gilbert

The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony Gilbert

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

I write this in case of emergencies. I have reason to believe that I am in great danger and I cannot say how it will all end.”

The jury is in, and no one expects a surprise. Viola Ross is clearly guilty of murdering her husband Edward. She had the means, the opportunity, and certainly the motive—Edward Ross was suspicious of his younger wife’s relationship with his son Harry. Much to everyone’s shock, however, it’s a hung jury, with one juror refusing to convict.

The lone holdout on the jury is novelist Richard Arnold, who remains convinced of Viola’s innocence. He is determined to find the real killer before Viola’s retrial, even if it means risking his relationship, his reputation, and even his life. Continue reading “The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) by Anthony Gilbert”

Fear by Night (1934) by Patricia Wentworth

Fear by Night by Patricia Wentworth

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“No one lives here, and no one comes here. The people who live round about, they wouldn’t come here if you paid them. And why wouldn’t they? Because, I’m telling you, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous and it’s deep.”

All Ann Vernon wants is lunch, but her boyfriend Charles is late again. As she waits for him in the lobby of the Luxe Hotel, she can’t help overhearing a conversation nearby. “If he dies the whole thing will be in the papers. She must be got away at once before she knows,” says one man. “And then?” asks the other. A heavy silence is the only reply. As soon as Charles arrives, Ann forgets all about it. She has no idea these strangers are talking about her. Continue reading “Fear by Night (1934) by Patricia Wentworth”

Policemen in the Precinct (1949) by E. C. R. Lorac

Policemen in the Precinct by ECR Lorac

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

She was a menace! So many people must be thankful to know she’s dead. It’s a dreadful thing to say, but it’s true.”

Lilian Mayden has always been an invalid, so her death from a heart ailment is not unexpected. The only surprising part is that Lilian had a heart in the first place. Even in the cathedral town of Paulborough, whose residents consider gossip a holy calling, Lilian’s brand of gossip is exceptional for its malice.

The only person who seems dissatisfied about Lilian’s death is her doctor, since her condition was stable the last time he saw her. The postmortem results are astonishing: Lilian Mayden died of electrocution. How could a woman be electrocuted in her own sitting-room? Continue reading “Policemen in the Precinct (1949) by E. C. R. Lorac”

The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen

The Spanish Cape Mystery by Ellery Queen

3 Stars(3/10 stars)

“Don’t you folks realize what you’re up against? What the devil does a little personal trouble mean when it’s a case of life or death? This is murder, Mrs. Godfrey–murder!”

Normally, there is no more peaceful spot for a beach vacation than Spanish Cape. That is why business tycoon Walter Godfrey has built his summer home there. One night, however, that peace is unexpectedly shattered by a modern-day pirate. Walter’s daughter Rosa and her uncle David Kummer are snatched from the terrace of the mansion, and Rosa must watch in horror as her uncle is dragged away to meet an unknown fate. By the time she is rescued by Ellery Queen, David Kummer has vanished without a trace.

When Ellery arrives at the Godfrey home, he discovers an even more bizarre crime: the nude corpse of houseguest John Marco sitting on the terrace. Ellery learns that nearly everyone at the house has reason to want Marco dead. When it comes to identifying the killer, however, the naked truth is much harder to find. Continue reading “The Spanish Cape Mystery (1935) by Ellery Queen”

Vanish in an Instant (1952) by Margaret Millar

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“We may never know the truth of what happened. Maybe there isn’t any whole truth about anything, just a lot of  versions, of different colors and different flavors, like ice cream, and you pick the most palatable.”

The holidays are a time to be with family, but Mrs. Hamilton never imagined she would be visiting hers in jail. Her daughter Virginia has been accused of an unspeakable crime, and she is a suspect that only a mother could love. Even Virginia’s own lawyer, Eric Meecham, dislikes his spoiled client and her overbearing mother. Little does he realize how complicated his first murder case is about to become. Continue reading “Vanish in an Instant (1952) by Margaret Millar”

Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing

Moss Rose by Joseph Shearing

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Christmas Day, thought Belle, and things going on just the same. People at the mortuary ready to bring round the hearse, doctors and policemen on duty, and all that crowd of idlers in the street, with nothing better to do than just stare at the house where a stupid woman, for whom nobody cared, was murdered last night.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and Belle Adair is about to cut her throat. Once a lady (more or less), Belle is now reduced to the most sordid poverty. Dancing in the pantomime when she’s lucky, walking the streets when she’s not, spending more and more of her meager funds on gin–it’s no kind of life, she decides. Due to a strange twist of fate, however, it isn’t Belle who is found with her throat cut on Christmas morning, but her neighbor Daisy. Belle is sure she knows more about the murder than Scotland Yard. If she plays her cards right, this could be the chance of a lifetime, but the slightest miscalculation could lead to Belle from the gutter to the grave. Continue reading “Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing”

Reprint of the Year Nomination 2: The Little Lie

The Little Lie by Jean Potts

Who among us has never told a lie? The power of domestic suspense comes from its ability to infuse the everyday with horror, even something as mundane as a little white lie. Few authors are more skilled than Jean Potts at tapping into these anxieties, and The Little Lie (reissued by Stark House) may be her masterpiece. Potts uses a single moment of dishonesty to prod at the many other secrets and lies hidden beneath the surface of small-town life, as one small sin escalates into shocking consequences. Continue reading “Reprint of the Year Nomination 2: The Little Lie”