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.

Cottage Sinister is a deceptively gentle, amusing tale of rural mayhem that builds to an impressive body count. There’s not much hope of solving this one unless you’re a scientist (like coauthor Richard Webb, who worked with various writing partners under the names of Q. Patrick, Jonathan Stagge, and, most famously, Patrick Quentin). The solution is very clever but highly specialized. Still, Cottage Sinister offers all the charm of a traditional village mystery with a tart core that keeps things from getting too sentimental.

Cottage Sinister by Q PatrickIt all begins innocently enough, as a group of friends gather at Lady’s Bower to celebrate Amy and Isabel’s visit home. Amy is well-liked, and the crowd includes at least one hopeful suitor. Isabel’s sharp tongue makes her less popular than her sister. Mrs. Lubbock and Lucy are present, of course, along with Dr. Hoskins and several of Lucy’s colleagues from the hospital. Lady Crosby, her son Christopher, and their friend Vivien Darcy even drop by from Crosby Hall. Everyone eats and drinks the same refreshments, yet by morning, Amy will be dead of poison. More deaths will follow in the days to come, as suspects become murder victims themselves.

With the county constable laid up by gout, Scotland Yard sends one of their best men down to the village of Crosby-Stourton: Inspector Inge, known as the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon is presented to the reader as a Great Detective, and he certainly sees himself that way. He prides himself on his logical crime-solving methods. “He was an expert in psychological crimes because he never used his imagination—an adept at motiveless murder because he firmly believed that there was no such thing…he did not believe that anything could be really mysterious!” The Archdeacon revels in his catchy nickname, even affecting all-black garb and an ascetic demeanor in the hope that someone will mistake him for a clergyman so that he can dramatically reveal his true identity.

There is a hint of absurdity to this character, just enough that the reader is never quite sure how seriously to take his sleuthing. The Archdeacon is always painfully aware of himself as a detective. He daydreams of earning new nicknames like “the Society Detective” and sizes up his fellow train passengers in the manner of Sherlock Holmes (though with less success). Still, the village casts a spell over the Archdeacon. He finds himself constantly torn between his duties and the beauty of the countryside.

He was enjoying the case very much indeed. He had never been quite so comfortable in his life. He liked the village. The old cottages, with their crumbling stones, their mossy roofs and bright, cheerful gardens, gave him a sense of peace and repose. He took a quiet pleasure in the gentle, unobtrusive wisdom of the rustics. He liked the village and—above all—he liked his propinquity to the aristocracy. A twinge of conscience reminded him that he had no right to be enjoying himself in the midst of tragedy and death. And yet, in some innermost recess of his mind, he secretly wished that the case might not prove too easy—or, at least, that the solution might not present itself too quickly.

The Archdeacon is equally delighted and baffled by his contacts with the local gentry. Lady Crosby is no ordinary country gentlewoman. She has known for many years that her husband, Sir Howard, loves his land and his horses more than the wife whose money pays for it all. Instead, she turns her attention to other things, in particular her son Christopher and the education of her protégé Lucy Lubbock. Lady Crosby encourages Christopher to attend medical school against his father’s wishes. Their mutual interest in medicine is also bringing Christopher and Lucy closer, causing a local scandal. (“It all happened on the day when Doctor Hoskins was doing that op for multiple tumors three weeks ago. You know—I was doing the anesthetic and you were holding the instruments while he worked,” confides the lovelorn Christopher.)

Cottage Sinister offers all the pleasures of a typical village mystery with a mild vein of cynicism running throughout. Attractive though it may be, Crosby-Stourton is presented as insignificant even in its own region. “True, Wordsworth walked over one day from Nether-Stowey and wrote a rather poor sonnet in praise of its ‘historic stones and slumbrous living dead,’ but he soon passed on and wrote better sonnets elsewhere.” It is populated by eccentric characters whose opinions are easily swayed by gossip. Some are a little too eccentric, in particular the village constable who is addicted to misusing big words, but others are more entertaining.

Let it never for a moment be supposed that Mrs. Greene so much as breathed a word of what she had read in the telegrams. She listened very carefully to all that was told her and then went on her mute and mysterious way. And yet—somehow or other—her very silence, coupled with various noddings and shakings of the head and an attitude of “I could a tale unfold” was more pregnant of wild rumors than if she had disclosed the whole contents of Dr. Hoskins’ dispatches.

The murders at Lady’s Bower illustrate how old traditions are giving way to modernity, even in this isolated village. Local girls are no longer content to work as servants. Squires’ children want to marry for love, not money or social position. Modern medicine offers new treatments for age-old problems, as afflictions that ruined the lives of older generations can now be treated and discussed frankly. I was initially surprised by this book’s setting in an English village, having always associated Patrick/Quentin/Stagge with more sophisticated American milieus. Despite the seemingly quaint backdrop here, however, Cottage Sinister is fully on the side of youth, science, and progress. When Sir Howard advises Christopher against his friendship with Lucy, arguing that it is “tactless for a young man in your position to go around so ostentatiously with the daughter of a servant,” his son disagrees.

In my position…and what exactly is my position, sir? A young and indifferent medical student with his way to make and not even one major operation to his credit. In what respect am I superior to a fully trained and remarkably efficient young nurse?

Many young people of the village are cheerfully going their own way, to the astonishment of their elders. With change comes conflict, however, and this generation gap may have deadly consequences.

Cottage Sinister accomplishes a neat trick. It includes the atmosphere a reader might wish to find in a golden-age village mystery, while adding more modern and humorous touches that subvert the standard cliches. The solution includes several impressive twists that almost make up for the lack of fair play. There are some first-novel wobbles: it’s a little long, there’s a stretch in the middle where nothing much happens, and the rustic dialect adds nothing to the book. Still, maybe I’m just in the right mood for this sort of thing right now, for I found Cottage Sinister a thoroughly enjoyable place to spend time.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

It’s really everything that you want from this type of story wrapped up with a neat little bow.  Top that off with a solution that truly caught me off guard (and predates a similar known-but-not-exactly-famous twist) and I was left a bit stunned.  This is one of those books that you finish thinking “damn, that was good”, and then a week later you’re wanting to preach the gospel of.  Just to be clear, there’s nothing exceptionally brilliant about this one – don’t think you’ll walk away shell shocked or enamored by some clever jolt – but man, the pure GADness of this is astounding.

The Passing Tramp

Their first mystery, Cottage Sinister, has all the trappings of a classic English village mystery, but something about it just doesn’t work like it should, in my view.

Availability

Cottage Sinister is available as an ebook in the US from the Mysterious Press.

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.

The Glass Slipper by Mignon G EberhartThe Glass Slipper is an exercise in claustrophobia, as Rue finds the home and marriage she entered so hopefully closing in around her like a jail cell. The plot contains many of Mignon G. Eberhart’s trademarks: a heroine torn between two men, a clever older woman who may be friend or foe, all set against the background of Chicago’s upper crust. Eberhart does offer up some macabre surprises, however, including a series of poisonings that cause the victims’ hands to turn green. Despite the atmosphere of romantic suspense, there is also a whodunnit here, though solving it depends on two key facts that are not revealed until late in the book.

It isn’t until after Rue marries Brule, “her emperor,” that she discovers the other woman in his life. The beautiful and imposing Alicia Pelham was Crystal Hatterick’s best friend and is engaged to Crystal’s brother Steven. Now that Crystal is gone, Rue can’t help wondering whether Brule would have married her if Alicia had been free. Alicia certainly makes herself very much at home in the Hatterick mansion. “Her look said, You are the interloper here; you are the stranger; your time is short.”

As one murder follows upon another, Rue becomes the prime suspect. Police descend upon the house like locusts: the imposing Inspector Miller and his partner Funk, who shyly touches everything “with thin, not too clean hands, like little claws.” Through it all, Crystal’s memory is more suffocating than ever.

That drawing room, too, had been Crystal’s; she had decorated it. Its pastels, its French chairs, its gilded mirrors and crystal-hung lamps had been Crystal’s selection. Rue had never liked the room; now it seemed garish and full of grisly contrast. Crystal’s room; Crystal’s white hands touching and selecting these soft fabrics; and now the two men in the room had come, businesslike, to investigate Crystal’s murder.

Rue is offered help from the two men in her life, though she is unsure whether either can be trusted. Her husband Brule reminds her that they have come through other life and death situations together, “shoulder to shoulder.” But how can Rue believe him when she’s seen the way he looks at Alicia? Brule has made it clear throughout their marriage that “he wanted her to be gay and laughing and, though he didn’t say it, frivolous. A doll, pleased with the pretty things he gave her instead of love. A person who didn’t really matter and thus wouldn’t trouble his conscience.” By contrast, Brule’s assistant Andy Crittenden seems deeply in love with Rue. He is the first to warn of danger, even offering to help her escape the police. Still, Rue knows little of Andy’s life outside the hospital. Essentially, her choice is between someone she trusts who treats her badly, and someone who treats her well but leaves her feeling oddly suspicious. You know, just a typical romantic dilemma.

Though the characters spend much of their time trapped in the mansion, there are still some moments that vividly convey the book’s Chicago setting. Does the city still have the “dark days” Eberhart describes or are they, like London fogs, a thing of the past?

The day darkened with afternoon, became all in a moment one of Chicago’s dark days. It is a curious thing, this sudden shifting of air currents (affected somehow but mysteriously by the lake), which combine themselves with a pall of smoke and fog and settle down like a blanket upon Chicago. Perhaps the extreme concentration of Chicago’s business area has something to do with it; perhaps Lake Michigan, stretching north and east into dull grays, enormous, incalculable, is the sole cause; however that may be, it is so accustomed an occurrence that Chicagoans accept it without comment, turn on lights and go about their business quite as if daylight instead of twilight mantles the streets.

Rue has a few moments of intelligence (not drinking from a glass left by someone who broke into her room at night) that are mostly counterbalanced by moments of idiocy (not locking the door of her room at night in the first place). Her tendency to go along with whoever happens to be around at the moment gets her into some muddles. Rue actually does manage to solve the crime herself, albeit at the last possible second, which puts her ahead of many HIBK heroines.

The Glass Slipper is an entertaining example of Mignon G. Eberhart’s usual type of florid suspense, with a few extra twists added. These new additions probably won’t be enough to win over skeptics, but fans of women in jeopardy will find much to enjoy.

Second Opinion

Mystery*File

It’s an enjoyable enough read, with a teasing bit of the bizarre that is something out of Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr (the murder victims all have hands that have turned green).

But there’s really no way for the reader fairly to deduce the criminal (though s/he may guess it on GA mystery aesthetic principles), unlike with some of Eberhart’s earlier books.

Availability

The Glass Slipper is out of print, with used copies widely available.

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.

The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony GilbertThe Clock in the Hatbox has a spectacular ending. I mention this up-front because it was not until reaching that ending that I realized how good the book actually is. As an Anthony Gilbert super-fan, I expected to be blown away by this, her most widely and positively reviewed title. Instead, I found myself increasingly bored by the tiny circle of suspects and overly detailed narrative. Richard’s first-person narration feels rambling and colorless compared to Gilbert’s normally vivid prose style. Then I remembered another book of Gilbert’s that gave me this same restless, disconnected feeling early on. Sure enough, The Clock in the Hatbox ends with exactly the same twist as that book does, but executes it even better. Once that astonishing moment arrives, Gilbert suddenly begins working at full power, casually dropping one big twist after another for a truly stunning finish.

Everyone assumes that Richard is in love with Viola, but he swears that’s not the case. In fact, he’s already more or less engaged. His girlfriend Bunty is remarkably understanding as Richard’s investigation wreaks havoc on their lives. At first, all he learns is that Edward Ross was an unpleasant man. Though Ross was disliked by many, even Richard has to admit that there are only a few suspects who could get close enough to smother him in his bed and hide his alarm clock in a hatbox to delay discovery of the crime. One, of course, is Viola. She married for security, never anticipating how angry and controlling Ross could be. He even disowned his only son Harry for dropping out of university to become a journalist in London. It was Viola’s insistence on seeing Harry against her husband’s wishes that drove Edward to contemplate divorce—an action that would leave both Viola and Harry penniless. Edward’s secretary Irene was in love with him, but there is a thin line between love and hate. Most intriguingly, Richard finds that a local man may have seen someone entering the house that night. Who could this mysterious suspect be?

I felt suddenly exhausted, as if I were trying to hunt my way out of a thicket, with the thorns tripping up on every side. I wished desperately that the whole thing were over, Viola Ross free, and myself safely married to Bunty. I was beginning to be afraid, and I knew that that was fatal.

As Richard is such a bland presence, it’s fortunate that he seeks advice from the flamboyant attorney Arthur Crook. Crook is attracted by Viola as a potential client (“I like a bold sinner. I can’t stand your timid muddlers who give you a little push when the train’s coming in”), though he’s less keen on Richard’s rather clumsy efforts at detection.

Ever heard of Through the Looking-Glass? Yes. Then you’ll remember that the immortal prig who was the heroine of that story only reached her objective by walking away from it. That’s how the best detective work is done. Once you let this fellow see that you suspect him, it’s like a burglar breaking into a room, complete with facemask and jimmy, and making for the lady wearing the handsomest pearls. What you want to do is get into a boiled shirt and look so like a gentleman that nobody spots the difference.

Instead, Richard’s efforts only draw further attention, putting both himself and Bunty in danger. As the investigation progresses, however, he grows more and more obsessed, going so far in pursuit of his preferred suspect that it starts to seem like entrapment. “You’re ready to do anything to get Viola off,” Harry tells him. “It’s become an obsession with you. I suppose you can’t stand the thought that you might fail […] You don’t care who hangs as long as it isn’t your candidate. It’s the worst case of pride complex I’ve ever come across. I don’t believe you even mind if she did kill him.” The stranger the case becomes, the less anyone is willing to listen to his theories—including, after a while, me.

The Clock in the Hatbox has an intriguing premise, a long, verbose middle, and an ending that makes up for all the rest. In fairness to Richard, his solution is much more focused and engaging than his account of the investigation, and, as surprising as that solution is, all of the evidence is present in his story. These last chapters are so wonderfully executed that I wish the rest of the book had been as lively. In particular, the reader never gets to spend much time with Viola, which is a real loss to the story. The ending is truly splendid, however, and it’s worth enduring a little irritation along the way if it results in such an enthralling final coup de grace.

Second Opinions

Beneath the Stains of Time

All in all, The Clock in the Hatbox is a classic textbook example of what it is that attracts me to these cunningly cut gems from the genre’s Golden Era. I went in with expectations that were, perhaps too high, but began to get slightly disappointed as the explanation appeared to be obvious in spite of the author’s to cover it up as inconspicuously as possible – only to learn at the end that I was supposed to think that all along! The Clock in the Hatbox is without question one of Gilbert’s best detective novels and deserves to better known.

Clothes in Books

This is a very unusual and cleverly structured murder story, and quite an unnerving book. You keep thinking you have got a handle on it, that you know what kind of crime book it is, then it subverts itself one more time.

Crossexamining Crime

Well first of all I did not hate this book. Phew! However to be completely honest I feel like I could write many a sentence beginning with, ‘I enjoyed X about the plot,’ yet there would always be a but following after it. In some ways there is a lot of brilliant material in this book, but I think it was not fully exploited.

The Grandest Game in the World

This is first-rate.  It’s surprisingly dark, with menacing atmosphere and untrustworrthy characters.  The misdirection is titanic, playing on the reader’s knowledge of the genre, and one of its classics.

A Hot Cup of Pleasure

A cracker of a mystery. Recommended whole-heartedly.

Pretty Sinister

I could go on to mention that this is rather a landmark mystery novel that for some reason is NEVER mentioned in the many studies of the detective novel. I thought Death Knocks Three Times (1949) was a tour de force, but The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) is also worthy of that laudatory label. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this novel is just plain ballsy. Lucy Malleson had nerve when she wrote this one and she pulls it off rather well. 

Availability

The Clock in the Hatbox is out of print in the US with few used copies available. Happily, it has been reissued in the UK by the Murder Room, in paperback and ebook formats.

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.

Fear by Night adds a few twists to the standard woman-in-jeopardy plot, though even the wonderfully strange ending is not enough to keep the second half from dragging. An heiress in danger, a lonely island, unscrupulous relations who will stop at nothing…these are classic elements, but an author also has to work pretty hard to make them surprising. To her credit, Patricia Wentworth doesn’t belabor this part of the plot. Refreshing as this is, it winds up leading to a different, much less mysterious, kind of story. It’s an easy read, often pleasurable, but just as often too drawn-out.

Fear by Night by Patricia WentworthThe early chapters maintain a good balance of revelation and mystery. Straight off, Ann’s great-uncle Elias Paulett does what so many prospective murder victims ought to do. He knows that his great-niece Hilda and his secretary Gale Anderson are plotting against him. Gleefully, Elias tells Gale that he has left his fortune to Hilda’s cousin Ann, whom none of them have ever met. With no inheritance to hope for, it is now in Hilda and Gale’s best interest to keep him alive. Elias doesn’t seem to care that he has purchased his own safety at the cost of Ann’s: if she dies before her uncle, Hilda will become the heiress.

Some time later in London, Ann is unemployed and hungry. The conversation she overhears in the hotel barely registers. She has problems of her own, like the fact that Charles keeps proposing to her and she’s afraid someday she’ll say yes. As deeply as she loves Charles, Ann knows that he needs a wife with money.

There’s nothing the least bit heart-smiting about being poor, you know. It’s very deteriorating because you have to keep on thinking about money all the time—horrid, sordid things like, “Will it run to a bus fare?” or “Can I have butter to-day?” Everyone ought to have so much money that they never have to think about it at all. You’ve no idea how nice I should be if I had a thousand a year.

When she is offered a job as a lady’s companion, she can’t afford to turn it down. Charles is suspicious, but how could an old woman like Mrs. Halliday be anything other than who she says she is? After all, “villains in films never make marrow jam.”

It was a scene of the deepest and dullest domesticity…How could you look at Mrs. Halliday’s cap, with its crisp net ruching and its little bunches of black and violet baby ribbon, and believe that you were in danger? […]

Quite suddenly she felt as if she couldn’t bear it any longer. It wrenched you too badly to live on both sides of that divisionto be dull, and safe, and Victorian, and respectable, and Mrs. Halliday’s companion, and at the same time to be someone who was being plotted againstsomeone who had to be got out of the way…someone who was to be murdered. You couldn’t be both these peopleyou simply couldn’t. And something kept forcing it upon you.

This early section of the book is full of intrigue, as the reader suspects, without quite knowing for sure, what is being planned for Ann. That job offer is strange (any position explicitly stating that orphans are preferred should be looked upon with skepticism). Yet Mrs. Halliday and her bootlegger son Jimmy are well-known figures in London. Jimmy is famously devoted to his mother; he would never involve her in anything shady. They’ve been visiting their holiday home on the Scottish island of Loch Dhu for years.

Fear by Night by Patricia WentworthJust as the reader is settling in, happily anticipating revelations to come, the whole scheme is suddenly laid out, leaching all the suspense out of the story. It isn’t long before Ann starts putting the pieces together as well. There are still a few chills to be wrung out of an intelligent (if sometimes misguided) heroine trying to get herself off an isolated island, and Wentworth wrings for dear life, but the action becomes repetitive and predictable.

As the characters go through their well-worn paces, they are aided by the authentically creepy setting of Loch Dhu. The Hallidays’ vacation home, with the facade of a modern villa disguising an ancient, maze-like interior, is Loch Dhu’s only inhabited building. The other cottages are crumbling to ruin; their owners fled to the mainland in fear. Ann, who has other things to be afraid of, loves to roam the island, hypnotized by its beauties and terrors.

Under the veiled half light she saw something that moved among the ripples—something without shape, a darkness in the water, a darkness that moved. The clouds above were denser, and the half light failed. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t see at all. She felt a cold and dreadful terror of the dark. And Mary had said, “Keep away from the water or it’ll get ye.” She couldn’t see, but she thought she could hear the wash of that dark, moving thing. The cold fear broke into panic, and she ran, scrambling and slipping, up the steep path to the house. Half way up she looked back and saw that the clouds had shifted. The water lay bare and open to the moon. There was nothing there.

Loch Dhu’s caves, cliffs, and bottomless lake are ominous, with hints of something primeval going on below the surface. Will these forces of nature help Ann, or doom her to destruction?

Fear by Night begins with great promise and concludes with an ending so bizarre that the author feels compelled to add an epilogue defending it. I kind of love the oddity of the conclusion, but cannot deny that there’s a certain once-out-of-the-pit quality to the execution. Part of the ending’s interest comes from the fact that it’s the first unexpected thing to happen in at least fifty pages. While Fear by Night does offer quite a few pleasures, the plot is ultimately just a little too thin.

Second Opinion

Todd Downing, Daily Oklahoman, March 4, 1934

Maybe it’s the restful familiarity of the formula; maybe it’s the writer’s real skill in narration; maybe it’s taste on our part for vicarious something or other. At any rate, we—and, it would seem, many others—like books like Fear by Night. Serious-minded fans can pass it by.

Availability

Fear by Night is available as an ebook from Open Road Media in the US and in ebook and paperback formats from Dean Street Press in the UK

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?

There is nothing flashy or spectacular about Policemen in the Precinct. It’s simply a superb detective story with a well-realized setting, a hateable victim, and plenty of sympathetic yet fallible suspects. The murder method is definitely unusual, and actually quite frightening—every light switch or appliance is fraught with danger. Chief Inspector Macdonald and his cheerful sidekick Inspector Reeves must immerse themselves in the community as they painstakingly prove their case, with all of the clues cleverly planted by Lorac.

No Place for Murder by ECR LoracMrs. Mayden is the sort of person who writes poison pen letters and proudly signs her name to them. The mere sight of an envelope from her in the postbox is enough to strike terror into the hearts of her neighbors. The people of Paulborough have long wondered at the source of her information, since ill health has confined her to her home for years. No one blames her handsome, immature husband Guy for seeking solace in alcohol (and maybe other things as well) behind his wife’s back. Lilian’s only defender is her old friend Allison Bentham, who remembers Lilian’s emotionally abusive childhood with her religious-fanatic father. “When a woman’s mind is warped there’s nearly always a reason for it,” Allison asserts. “Do you think anyone is happy when they turn everyone against them? She made enemies of all her friends, and she knew it. She was the most unhappy creature I have ever known.”

Massage therapist Gillian Arkholme can’t feel any sympathy for the dead woman. She hasn’t forgotten that Lilian tried to ruin her career by spreading news of a wartime liaison with Captain Yealand, a married man. While Gillian did spend the night with a serviceman, it wasn’t Captain Yealand—it was her own fiancé, who was killed soon after. In the days before her death, Lilian was starting to circulate the old, false story again, perhaps because Yealand is back in the area. Gillian is distressed by the rumor’s resurgence; she is newly engaged, and a headmaster’s wife must be above reproach. Macdonald is very interested to learn that Gillian uses electronic massage equipment on her patients, including Lilian.

The Scotland Yard officers discover that these crimes—Lilian’s blackmail and Lilian’s murder—have their roots in the culture of Paulborough itself. The presence of the cathedral encourages outward shows of virtue that inevitably breed secrets and hypocrisy. It’s not that the people of Paulborough are so bad, says Reeves sardonically. “They only seem worse than other people because they profess to be so much better.” Allison warns Gillian to be careful in her interactions with townspeople.

You weren’t born and brought up in Paulborough, my dear. I was. I know that under the very shadow of the great Abbey there is more envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness than in any godless ramshackle township in the Middle West. Plant a seed of slander in this soil and it will grow. You should know that. You said just now, “She tried to ruin me.” In any other place than this she wouldn’t have had much chance of succeeding, would she?

A murder investigation is Paulborough’s worst nightmare, as outsiders come in to expose their hidden lives. Even Macdonald sometimes finds it difficult to reconcile the beauty of the cathedral, its stained-glass windows climbing up to heaven, and the less-then-divine behavior of its parishioners. Their idea of decency has nothing to do with morality and everything to do with appearances. Macdonald, however, feels that “It’s not my province to be decent. It’s my job to get at the truth.” This isn’t The Nine Tailors—Macdonald turns down the chance for a guided tour of the cathedral, viewing it as an unnecessary distraction. As it turns out, however, the cathedral may have a closer relationship to the murder than police initially suspect.

And Then Put Out the Light by ECR LoracMacdonald develops a rapport with several suspects, especially cynical organist Silverdale and kindly widow Allison Bentham, who was once in love with Guy Mayden and might still be. While never forgetting his suspicions, Macdonald nonetheless reveals a bit about his personal life during their interactions. A “London Scot” and First World War veteran, Macdonald’s attempt to resume his interrupted education after the war was dashed by the death of his father. No longer able to afford further studies, he left university to join the Metropolitan police. For twenty years, he shared rooms with a manservant, his batman from the war, but this man was killed during the Blitz in 1941. Since then, he has lived alone, not without occasional moments of melancholy. London is very different than it used to be but, then again, so many things are.

Macdonald’s capacity for taking interest in others is apparent as he and Reeves circulate around the area, picking up leads in the most unlikely places. Their most important clues come from simply interacting with local residents and paying attention to what they have to say. One major break results from Reeves taking time out of his day to help a woman stack her firewood, only for her to casually reveal new information that changes the whole course of the investigation. The culprit is not too difficult to figure out—if there is one flaw to Policemen in the Precinct, is the small list of suspects for a murder that should have had people lining up around the block to commit it—but I will admit that the biggest clue is right out in the open, yet I missed its significance entirely.

Policemen in the Precinct has a comforting solidity. It is just what you would want a village mystery to be, with plenty of secrets and surprises unfolding within a reassuringly familiar framework. Macdonald is described as a “humane” man, and this is certainly a humane book. Murder is committed, murderers are arrested, and life goes on Paulborough, just as it has for a thousand years.

Second Opinions

The Grandest Game in the World

It comes close to Crime Queen territory: a splendidly drawn cathedral town full of pious hypocrisy and class consciousness; good characterisation […] and a solid, well-constructed plot. 

Martin Edwards

In fact, I found her portrayal of the small world of the Abbey precinct even more interesting than the whodunit puzzle. In saying this, I must add that the “mystery” element of the story is certainly not weak or flimsy.

His Futile Preoccupations

I managed to guess the identity of the murderer and I suspect that most die-hard crime fans will do the same. Still this is an entertaining read that recreates post WWII Britain and its shifting socioeconomic and moral landscape.

Availability

Policemen in the Precinct (also published as And Then Put Out the Light and No Place for Murder) is out of print, with a few, rather expensive, used copies available.

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”