The Small Hours of the Morning (1975) by Margaret Yorke

he Small Hours of the Morning by Margaret Yorke

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“What a lovely cake,” said Lorna. She felt tears pricking her eyes: all this love, this cake being made by a devoted trio, for someone who did not deserve it.

Lorna Gibson knows she isn’t like other people. She can’t stand to be touched or share her emotions with anyone. The dentist she works for is confused by Lorna: “She’s repressed, I suppose, but I thought no one was nowadays.”

Deep inside, Lorna wants the same things as anyone else—friends, a husband, children. The closest she can get is by watching her neighbors, living vicariously through glimpses of their lives. The Titmusses are her favorite family, the one she most longs to be a part of. When something happens to June Titmuss that could change her life forever, of course Lorna sees the whole thing. And of course Lorna would do anything to protect this family. Anything.

he Small Hours of the Morning by Margaret YorkeThe Small Hours of the Morning is an intense psychological crime novel that shows how seemingly unimportant moments in ordinary lives can build to an explosion. Every day, Lorna and her neighbors are making choices large and small that tie all of them together with invisible threads; none of them, absorbed in their own problems, notice the others until it is too late. Robbery, adultery, and murder are only a few of the consequences.

Perhaps the trouble all begins when a depositor is mugged outside the bank, a most unusual event for such a peaceful community. The fleeing robber knocks over elderly Mrs. Malmesbury and June Titmuss comes to the old lady’s aid. That’s how she meets Ted Jessop. June can’t help contrasting the handsome young hired-car driver with her husband Cecil, who spends his spare time building models of cathedrals out of matchsticks.

June married Cecil on the rebound; a decade on, she’s feeling stifled by the very security and predictability that was once so appealing. Not yet thirty, June whiles away her long days by entering contests, taking evening classes, and, when her husband permits it, working part-time at a florist’s shop. She is close to a breaking point, unnoticed by all but Lorna. Meanwhile, the robberies continue unabated, growing more and more violent.

he Small Hours of the Morning by Margaret YorkeIronically, it is when she begins crossing the line from fantasy to reality that new, healthier possibilities open up for Lorna. To carry out her plans, she must face her deepest fears, pushing herself to engage with others in a way she never dreamed she could. A visit to the injured Mrs. Malmesbury throws a scare into her, as she realizes that “the old lady had nothing to do but wait for death. And nor had she, at twenty-nine. Lorna Gibson, spinster, had no life of her own and no aim except to gaze from a window at the life of another, and wish herself part of it.” But there are other visits, growing easier each time, not only to Mrs. Malmesbury, but also to her coworker Nancy, local author Peter Guthrie, and, most daring of all, to Cecil and June Titmuss themselves. Lorna’s world is expanding, and she finds that she can function within it—if not brilliantly, at least adequately. Will Lorna be able to craft a new life for herself, or is it already too late to escape her obsession?

Lorna thinks of herself as a meticulous schemer when, in fact, she rarely plans more than one step ahead and is often too easily rattled to even carry that out. Her scenes are unbearably tense because, despite having access to her thoughts, it’s impossible to guess what she has in mind or what she’s capable of. The robber is a different matter. In some ways he is a photo negative of Lorna, acting out of greed rather than love, and easily able to hide his disturbed psyche beneath a superficial charm. His scenes are suspenseful because it’s perfectly clear what he is capable of: anything.

The strength of the book is how disturbingly easy it is for fantasies of stalking and violence to coexist alongside the more mundane, but often just as worrisome, problems of everyday life. These characters are full of contradictions. The treacherous June is also a genuinely nice person, who misbehaves out of boredom rather than malice. Her complacent husband Cecil is actually more perceptive than he appears.

Later, waiting for the traffic lights to change, he mused on the fact that you married because you wanted to share your life with a particular person; then you saw very little of them, for you shared most of your waking hours with those you worked among. You went home to eat, sleep, read the paper and follow your hobby; you could know less about how your family spent the day than about someone who meant nothing to you but happened to share the office…It was all so sad; no one could have a relationship with another person which touched at every point, however deeply committed; one could only make the most of every fleeting moment.

Various townspeople cycle in and out of the action, and part of the fun is trying to guess how different characters will come together. A particular source of comic relief is Peter Guthrie, the mild-mannered author of macho historical novels who aspires to be more like his hero Gadsby. No one ever seems to react to this local celebrity in quite the way he would wish.

“That Gadsby of yours doesn’t like [women] very much,” said Ted.

“He does! He’s always involved with some woman or other,” said Guthrie, amused at this criticism.

“Oh, he likes what they’re for, to his way of thinking,” Ted allowed. “But it’s all one-way, isn’t it? Gadsby’s only thinking of himself and what he’ll get out of it. He never thinks about the bird and what’s in it for her.”

“Well—no, I suppose he doesn’t,” said Guthrie. “But does any man?”

In The Small Hours of the Morning, almost everyone is out for themselves. The tragedy is that their desires are so modest. Most of the citizens of this pleasant, prosperous town are leading lives of quiet desperation, much of it self-inflicted. Only a few are willing to act upon that desperation to seize what they want. Only a few realize that their perfect town is built of matchsticks, ready to burst into flames at any moment.

Second Opinion

Cleopatra Loves Books

I really enjoyed the almost gentle unfolding of what is an exploration of the psyche of a number of characters as their actions reveal to the reader what they have managed to keep hidden from their nearest and dearest. This is a book that has a slow burn, as I got wrapped up in the characters lives.

Availability

The Small Hours of the Morning is out of print in the US, and is available as an ebook in the UK from Little, Brown.

Widows Mite (1952) by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

Widow's Mite by Elisabeth Sanxay Holding

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“You’ve been living in a house with a murderer. And you’re not even very curious to know who the murderer is.”

The chipmunk and the bird. That’s all Tilly can think of when she sees cousin Sybil and her husband Howard lying unconscious in Sybil’s bedroom. Earlier that day, Tilly’s young son Robert was frightened by a “big boy” who dropped poison into the mouths of a chipmunk and a bird. Tilly thought his story was a figment of his imagination—until Robert showed her the dead animals, laid out side by side. Just like Sibyl and Howard.

The “arrogant and domineering” Sibyl has never been easy to please. As a widow with a small income, Tilly appreciates her cousin’s invitation to spend the summer, but it’s sometimes difficult to accept her role as a poor relation. After Sibyl is killed, however, Tilly discovers herself in a new, and even worse position: murder suspect.

Widow's Mite by Elisabeth Sanxay HoldingWidow’s Mite is an amiable but undercooked effort from the usually excellent Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s not menacing enough to be a suspense novel, not deep enough to be a psychological study, and not baffling enough to be a detective story. While it’s pleasant enough to read, there’s no real purpose to it.

Tilly is a born people-pleaser, though lately her efforts don’t seem to please anyone. Early on, she is so cowed by Sybil that Tilly gives in to the other woman’s demand for sleeping pills even though she has been drinking heavily. When she later notices that her cousin may be sleeping too deeply, she doesn’t even try to wake her up for fear of Sybil’s wrath. Needless to say, Tilly feels awful when it turns out Sybil really has died. But how can she reveal to police that Sybil could have been poisoned earlier than they believe without also revealing that she herself may have been the one to administer the poison?

After Sybil’s death, Tilly transfers her obedience to Sam Osborne, a total stranger. Osborne seems reasonable at first, complaining about detective stories “with those fool girls in them.”

“Those dim-wits,” he said. “The ones that always keep something back from the police or the famous detective The girls that see a man coming out of the summer-house where the body is found later, and never tell. The girls that see the good-for-nothing nephew sneaking something into Auntie’s tea but never say a word when Auntie drops dead […] It’s all damn nonsense,” said Osborne, “and it never works. If anyone’s in any way mixed up in a police case, the only thing to do is to tell the truth about what you know, and tell it quick.”

Almost immediately, however, he has a radical change of heart and encourages Tilly to do all kinds of suspicious things. Though Osborne accuses Tilly of being too “innocent” and “artless,” he’s more than happy to take advantage of her trusting nature. She sees nothing to worry about, even as his advice gets her into more and more trouble. There’s nothing romantic about the way Osborne takes charge of Tilly’s life, and the only suspense is wondering how he’ll manage to top his previous bad ideas (which he always does).

The other suspects are also quick to impose upon Tilly’s meek nature. What should be a house of mourning soon becomes a madhouse. Sybil’s husband Howard survives the attempt on his life, but vacillates about whether he’s going to let Tilly and her son stay now that Sybil is gone. The high-strung Howard is barely able to handle the aftermath of Sybil’s murder but, as Osborne reminds Tilly, Howard didn’t find life with Sybil very restful, either.

“Howard’s a good egg, after his fashion. But he’s got what you might call a low breaking-point. And he’s had to stand all the things a stuffed shirt can’t stand. Disorder, confusion, crazy extravagances, crazy quarrels with the neighbors. One time when they were having a dinner-party, all the oyster forks had disappeared, at the last moment. He was absolutely sunk.”

“I can’t think that’s very tragic,” said Tilly.

“It was—for him. It was a humiliation he never got over, to see their guests eating oysters with big forks.”

While all teenagers say they hate their parents, Sybil’s son Taylor, fresh from a school for disturbed children, really seems to mean it. Their neighbor, emotionally unstable divorcee Carola Dexter, claims that Sybil was her best friend and often complained to her about Tilly’s grasping ways. But would a best friend try to steal Carola’s boyfriend Dick Cantrell, as rumor suggests? Maybe a best friend who thought Carola was after her own husband. Soon Tilly’s head is swimming from all the unasked-for gossip her fellow suspects insist on sharing.

Tilly’s lifestyle is an old-fashioned one that is likely to irritate many readers. Why doesn’t she get a job instead of becoming a professional houseguest? Her late husband Ian’s modest life insurance is due to run out very soon. This worries Tilly, yet she has no plan in place. As Tilly herself reminds us, though, not everyone is capable of rising to meet extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are very ordinary indeed, muddling along as best we can and making plenty of mistakes along the way.

Me? I’m nobody. Nothing. I’ve never had a job or earned a penny in my life. I’m not able to support my own child. I’m not a really good housekeeper or cook, I can’t sew. I’ve got friends, and I love them, girls I went to school with, but they’re not important, dazzling people. Just dear and nice. I’ve had beaus, the average number, but never anyone like Ian. Never anyone with such charm and wit; never anyone so handsome and debonair. Only that little, little time together—and now I haven’t anything. I’m nobody.

No! That’s disgusting. That’s shocking. I am somebody. I’m Robert’s mother, and I was Ian’s wife, and I made him happy. I made my parents happy. I’m not mean or cruel or dishonest, and I’m not stupid.

A strong, intrepid heroine is always appreciated, but most people are not strong or intrepid. Tilly certainly is not. She is, however, a good person who has never hurt anyone and doesn’t deserve the ordeal she’s going through.

There’s still no excuse for Sam Osborne, though. That’s an ordeal she brought upon herself.

Widow’s Mite is less a mystery than a series of random events. The ending is one of those solutions that seems to happen simply because the author feels the book has gone on long enough and she had better put a stop to it. The novel is otherwise well-paced, with a nicely understated sense of humor. It’s adequate light entertainment. To experience Elisabeth Sanxay Holding at the height of her powers, however, check out The Blank Wall or The Innocent Mrs. Duff instead. Widow’s Mite is too meager a portion.

Availability

Widow’s Mite is available in paperback and ebook from Stark House as part of a double volume with Who’s Afraid.

The White Dress (1946) by Mignon G. Eberhart

The White Dress by Mignon G Eberhart

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Your future is before you. Or, if you choose, it is already behind you.”

There’s no reason for Marny to feel so uneasy about this trip. After all, her boss, airline owner Tim Wales, has invited her to his family’s vacation home in Miami many times. She gets along well with his daughter Winnie and his much younger second wife Judith. It’s foolish to worry, but she does.

Maybe the reason has something to do with Andre Durant. The handsome stranger appeared in Marny’s life only a week ago, but she is strangely drawn to him. When they arrive in Miami, however, she starts to wonder just how much she knows about Andre. She’ll have even more cause to wonder when a dead body turns up on the Wales estate, the body of a woman with ties to Andre. But Marny’s nightmare is only beginning, for the description of the killer matches only one person—Marny herself.

The White Dress is an enjoyable but fairly basic example of Mignon G. Eberhart’s brand of romantic suspense. This particular entry offers up murder in a swanky Florida mansion ringed by balconies that always seem to be teeming with aspiring murderers. Perhaps it goes without saying that Marny confronts the killer during a hurricane, in a genuinely hair-raising scene. Sadly, the fact that our protagonist shows any intelligence at all during that sequence is the most surprising part. Despite being an ambitious business executive in line for a vice-presidency, Marny is astonishingly witless. Everyone keeps telling her, “You may be smart in business, but not in your personal life.” The latter is definitely true, but sadly we see no evidence of the former.

One thing Eberhart always delivers is a glamorous setting. We know Marny’s sense of foreboding is serious, because even the sight of beautiful Shadow Island cannot dispel it.

Something was wrong with her, something that the tropic twilight, the lush greens, the bright scarlets, the sweet, humid air had sharpened, rather than lulled. It was like a bud, that small hidden sense of uneasiness, forced by the tropical air into swift, full—and rather sinister—bloom.

There are the usual two suitors for Marny to choose from: Andre, who may not be as shady as he looks (but then again, he might be!) and Commander Bill Cameron, who literally pops up out of the shrubbery to tell Marny that Winston Churchill has sent him to Miami to prevent World War III. Neither of these men seem like great options, to be frank.

The White Dress by Mignon G EberhartMarny tries to quell her fears by making out with Andre in front of a hibiscus bush, but she’s distracted by the very real possibility that Bill might still be lurking in the foliage. This is a legitimate concern, as shrubbery seems to be Bill’s natural habitat. A confused Marny stumbles up to her room only to be greeted by Cecily. The fragile young woman says she won’t give Andre up, to Marny or anyone, and she flashes a gun to prove it. Before Marny has time to process this new information, Cecily is found dead: shot, according to a passing pilot, by a woman in a white dress.

Not only is Marny the only woman in the house who owns a white evening dress, all of her dresses are white. How can she possibly prove her innocence, especially with the other potential suspects being so wealthy and influential?

The investigation unfolds with no particular urgency, perhaps due to the impending hurricane. Eberhart nails that sense of restless expectancy when you just know a disaster like a major storm or statewide lockdown is on its way, you just don’t know exactly when it’s going to strike. Marny whiles away these hours eyeing one of her beaux suspiciously.

He looked no different. There was only a curious blankness about his face. As if he had not put on his usual mask of charm, of gaiety, of humanity. He drew nearer. His eyes were blank, too, and curiously opaque. It was the look of a creature from another and unknown world, something alien, something walled and untouchable by its own choice and being—and something evil.

Meanwhile, she follows the other man around adoringly while he tells her what to do. Only rarely does it occur to her that she knows both of these men equally well—which is to say, not at all.

The White Dress by Mignon G EberhartThe biggest drawback of the book is that only a few characters in addition to Marny are singled out for more nuanced portrayals, most of them men. This lends a slightly monotonous quality to the middle passages, where Marny drifts around in a haze, interacting mostly with her love interests. It’s hard to evaluate other suspects when we never spend much time with them. The interplay between women is always the most intriguing aspect of Eberhart’s work, and that is sorely missed here.

Thankfully, the hurricane and a mysterious phantom snap Marny out of her romantic reverie, at least for a little while. The ending of The White Dress works psychologically, even if the logistics are iffy. Sometimes with an unlikely solution, it’s best to just power through and try to get it done as quickly as possible, before the reader has time to think about it too much. This conclusion is actually one that could have seemed much more plausible if given a little more time to play out. Marny’s romantic choices, on the other hand, will never seem plausible no matter what.

Second Opinion

Kirkus, 1945

Haute couture in a good blend of romanticized mystery detection with psychological highlights.

Availability

The White Dress is out of print, with many affordable used copies available.

 

The Hornets’ Nest (1944) by Bruno Fischer

The Hornet's Nest by Bruno Fischer

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Age or youth didn’t interest Rick at the moment. She was a female, waiting in his room at an ungodly hour, and a female was out to kill him.”

Anselm File’s daughter isn’t Rick Train’s problem. Normally, he would love to report on the juicy story of the actress who claims to be a millionaire’s long-lost daughter, but Rick isn’t the New York Courier-Express‘ star reporter anymore. He just enlisted in the army and is due to report for training in seven days.

A lot can happen in a week, though: multiple murders, three attempts on Rick’s life, two more women claiming to be Anselm File’s daughter, and one beautiful girl who might turn out to be the love of Rick’s life…or the one trying to end it. Even Rick Train might have trouble clearing up this mess in only seven days.

The Hornet's Nest by Bruno FischerThe Hornets’ Nest is a stylish, reasonably intelligent crime novel, but not a fair-play mystery. The whole last section is packed with action that makes little sense, which segues into a denouement that is equally confusing because it requires Rick to explain a great deal of information that is being revealed for the first time. The solution hinges on a clue that could have been easily slipped in at an earlier point but was not, making the killer’s identity impossible for the reader to deduce. If you don’t mind that, it’s a fun ride that doesn’t require much effort to enjoy.

Rick Train is a character with a certain amount of backstory. As the young woman who seeks him out at the newspaper office exposits, “I’ve never met you before, but I’ve heard about you. They say you’re the best pistol shot in the country. They say you can write anything you please about the most dangerous criminals because they’re all afraid of you.” The girl is there to sell a sensational story to the paper, but Rick advises her that he is no longer on the job. She will have to return the next morning. He puts her in a cab, a piece of chivalry that will cost him dearly in the days to come. By the next morning, the mysterious woman is dead, killed by a trick shot that only a sharpshooter like Rick would be able to pull off.

The Hornet's Nest by Bruno FischerNone of the papers take notice of an unknown young woman’s murder. Instead, the scandal du jour is the death of rich misanthrope Anselm File, who left a fortune to the daughter he abandoned years ago. Three women claim to be the missing heiress: Hollywood starlet Sabine, gangster’s moll Carlotta, and southern belle Nelda. Even as he’s fighting off murder charges, Rick gets dragged into this circus by Anselm’s cousin Brenda File. She wants him to determine whether one of the claimants is legit. Rick can’t help noting that, if the genuine daughter cannot be found, all the money will go to Brenda and her niece Debby.

Along the way, Rick survives a number of murder attempts. All he knows about his assailant is that she is a woman. Needless to say, such a female-heavy case unnerves him, especially as he finds himself drawn to the lovely Debby.

The Hornets’ Nest is a highly professional production. It’s more workmanlike than inspired, but Bruno Fischer is a skilled workman, displaying a dry sense of humor between all the shootouts and heaving bosoms. A trip to Palm City, a down-at-heel Florida resort town, makes for a welcome change of scene, though not always a cheerful one.

Somewhere from the field of tombstones a rhythmic tapping drifted toward them […] The rich Florida moon spread an eerie pallor over the white and gray tombstones. The tapping was like the beating of a giant heart here among the dead. Rick was conscious of his wound now as he followed the others from one grave to another. There was a coldness in his blood that was not fear. The three other men scurrying from tombstone to tombstone seemed as tenuous and unreal as the spirits of those who lay beneath the ground might be.

Everything moves along very quickly. The Hornets’ Nest is like the weather—if you don’t like it, wait five minutes. That goes for the romance, the sharp-shooting, the gangsters, everything. So many characters and subplots cycle in and out and back in again that there’s no point even trying to keep track. Even the murders blend together after a while.

The Hornets’ Nest is a fast, zingy read that, while acknowledging that its readers have brains, practically demands that they turn them off. Rick Train is an appealing character, street-smart without being cynical, with a certain sense of decency that inspires him to stick with the case. While not quite a bullseye, The Hornets’ Nest at least hits the target.

Second Opinion

The Criminal Record, March 4, 1944

Action-filled tale of mysterious deaths, fortune-hunting ladies, and super-tough gangsters. Exciting.

Availability

The Hornet’s Nest is out of print, with used copies available. It was included in a Detective Book Club volume with Arrow Pointing Nowhere by Elizabeth Daly and The Deaths of Lorna Karen by Roman McDougald.

The Deadly Joker (1963) by Nicholas Blake

The Deadly Joker by Nicholas Blake

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

What worries me is what’s going to happen next. The letters have dried up, as far as we know; but I feel it in my bones we’ve not heard the last of this nasty customer, whoever he is.”

John Waterson always planned a quiet retirement in the Dorset village of Netherplash Cantorum. The mental breakdown of his wife Jenny means that retirement has come a little sooner than expected, but there could certainly be no better place for Jenny to recover.

From the moment they arrive, however, the village is plagued by practical jokes and poison pen letters. These seemingly harmless hoaxes threaten to bring secret passions and hatreds into the open. John worries that his wife’s sanity is in danger. He should be fearing for their lives.

There’s nothing better than a good anonymous letter—in fiction, of course. The masterpiece of this subgenre is Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger, but other authors like Ethel Lina White, Patricia Wentworth, and Henrietta Clandon have used this small, yet deeply unsettling, crime to excellent effect. The Deadly Joker does not rise to those heights. The anonymous letters are astonishingly nasty—so vile that they’d be impossible to shrug off. Several of the villagers who become victims (or possible perpetrators) of the hoaxes are portrayed with surprising depth. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for John, Jenny, and his two young adult children. Their dullness creates a black hole right at the center of the story.

The Deadly Joker by Nicholas BlakeThis is a difficult flaw to overcome. John is meant to be our everyman hero, with Jenny as the object of his protection and suspicion. Most of the plot consists of following him around as he does commonplace things and describes them at great length. Well, all right, he is supposed to be a slightly stodgy older man, after all. Jenny, however, is intended to be far more fascinating than she actually is. John is obsessed with his young wife, rhapsodizing about her beauty, brilliance, and charisma, none of which is apparent to the reader.

The scraps of personality Jenny does display are brought out, not by her husband, but by their new neighbor Bertie Card. Handsome cad Bertie and his half-brother Alwyn were once the squires of the manor. Having fallen on hard times, they sold the estate to Ronald Paston, a pushy businessman who is trying, and failing, to make a splash in the village. Alwyn is a former Bright Young Thing and inveterate practical joker. He’s an obvious suspect when the pranks begin, but doesn’t that, in itself, argue against his guilt? The Cards are not good people, yet they do have great charm and there is something pitiful about their immaturity.

Jenny claims she can’t stand Bertie, flippantly declaring, “I couldn’t take seriously the advances of any man called Egbert.” They seem to argue every time they’re together. One spat, after Jenny challenges Bertie on his use of a racial slur, feels especially real; it’s one of the few times Jenny seems like a human being. Yet John cannot help being aware that love and hatred are close neighbors.

Jenny loves me wholeheartedly, I said to myself, yes, but she is a young woman. I am an elderly man. So long as she needs me for a comforter, a father-figure as well as a lover, a support for her unstable temperament, all will be well. But how much longer will that dependence last, now she is almost restored to mental health? What right have I to expect that, with her loveliness, her vitality, her passionate interest in human beings, she should remain emotionally satisfied by a dry old stick like myself?

I heard an atrocious voice whisper in my mind, “So it would pay you to keep her unstable, wouldn’t it? Wouldn’t it?”

In fact, The Deadly Joker includes several husbands who fear they cannot satisfy their younger wives. Though Jenny forbids John from referring to their age difference, she often playfully calls attention to it, calling him her “old man.” Many of the jokes are designed to stoke fears of cuckoldry: a cuckoo that sings all night, anonymous letters warning that their wives are “wide open,” even a line of verse scrawled on the Watersons’ wall referencing a cuckoo. John would like to believe these are all harmless coincidences, maybe even a child’s prank. As he recognizes, however, “Village children do not customarily draw upon medieval poetry for their graffiti.” The very nature of the hoaxes suggests an adult mind, and a highly disturbed one.

Ronald and Vera Paston’s circumstances are uniquely difficult because Vera is Indian. Many of her neighbors exoticize her as Alwyn Card does. “Doesn’t go out much. The harem type,” he describes her. “Exotic is the word, I believe. Odd bird to find in a Dorset village. A passion flower among the primroses.” The passive, good-natured Vera is viewed by many as a sultry temptress. John sees her differently, but no less stereotypically. To him, Vera is infused with the “fatalism” of the East. “A goddess does not need to flirt, I found myself thinking: that is why she is so dangerous.”

In reality, Vera’s situation is deeply sad. Shunned by most of the villagers, treated as a trophy by her husband, she is willing to tolerate a great deal of casual racism in exchange for companionship. The Cards refer to her by a racist nickname, and even  John, who grows quite fond of Vera, argues heatedly that “You Indians are all over-sensitive about this colour-bar business.” Vera retorts, “Naturally we are. It’s we who suffer from it,” but John is utterly uninterested in learning about her feelings. He only wants to pat himself on the back for his own sensible opinions. Later, John is surprised when his son Sam suggests that maybe Vera “likes the idea of being treated by the English as a human being, not a sort of exotic curio,” but he’s still not terribly interested. Neither is the author, not really.

A mystery novel is, at heart, a kind of practical joke. Readers want to be fooled. They want to be surprised, to experience the relief of catharsis, and they want it all pulled off in plain sight. The Deadly Joker lacks the panache of the best practical jokes, the ones that leave you feeling delighted to have been tricked. Instead, there’s a real sense of nastiness lurking just below the surface. It never quite emerges, but it’s always there giving off an unpleasant feeling. At the same time, the milquetoast mind of John Waterson seems to make everything it touches a little more ordinary, allowing potentially fascinating situations to fizzle out. Ultimately, nothing about this story ends up being as interesting as John thinks it is. What should be an explosive ending is more like a deflated whoopee cushion.

Availability

The Deadly Joker is available in ebook and paperback from Bloomsbury.

The Tragedy of X (1932) by Ellery Queen

The Tragedy of X by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

Crime—the crime of violence induced by mastering emotion—is the highest refinement of the human drama. Murder is its own peculiar climax.”

This should be the happiest day of Harley Longstreet’s life. The handsome, successful stockbroker has just announced his engagement to actress Cherry Browne and invited a whole cocktail party’s worth of friends to continue the celebration at his home. Everyone hops on a streetcar, crowded on this rainy evening.

Only minutes later, Longstreet is dead, but how could he have been poisoned on a busy streetcar? Such an unusual crime demands a unique detective. Drury Lane was a famous actor until he lost his hearing. Now he hopes to perform on a very different kind of stage. The Longstreet murder is his first case—and it may be his last.

Despite a strong opening, The Tragedy of X cannot always sustain that promise across its gargantuan length. Ellery Queen (who originally published this novel under the pseudonym of Barnaby Ross) always knows how to stage a striking murder. The tensions of the cocktail party, the mad dash through the rain as the victim and suspects cram themselves into the streetcar, and the early stages of the investigation in the streetcar barn—all have a brisk, jangling energy. This energy reappears from time to time throughout the book, only to be quashed whenever Drury Lane enters the scene.

The Tragedy of X by Ellery QueenThe novel’s prologue introduces Lane in a gloriously over-the-top manner, as Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno make a pilgrimage to his country home, The Hamlet. Having heard that the retired actor wishes to change careers, they naturally decide that handing over this high-profile case to an inexperienced amateur detective is the right course of action. The sight of Lane at The Hamlet nearly changes their minds, however. Not just an estate, The Hamlet is a full-blown Elizabethan village staffed entirely by elderly grotesques (including Lane’s loyal, much-abused assistant Quacey, short for Quasimodo). “Massive, massive, old…Everything was old and flavored and redolent of Elizabethan England. Leather and oak, oak and stone.”

It makes sense that Lane would need a side hustle to finance his personal theme park, and he makes an impassioned case for himself as an investigator.

I think I can bring to this pursuit a rather unique equipment. I have murdered on the stage countless times; emotionally I have suffered the agony of plotting, the torture of conscience. I have been, among others perhaps less noble, Macbeth, and I have been Hamlet. And like a child viewing a simple wonder for the first time, I have just realized that the world is full of Macbeths and Hamlets.

At this point, the narrative flashes back to the murder as Thumm and Bruno explain what has happened with the case to date. So far so good. Once the story returns to the present, however, and Drury Lane takes his place in the spotlight, the pace slows to a crawl. There are a few eccentric touches, like Lane using theatrical makeup to disguise himself as other parties involved with the case, but these are more confusing than entertaining.

The Tragedy of X by Ellery QueenThere are a number of excellent suspects in Longstreet’s murder, starting with his new fiancée Cherry Browne, who believed she was the main beneficiary of his will. The other guests at the engagement party include John DeWitt, Longstreet’s business partner. The two colleagues often clashed due to Longstreet’s slapdash habits—he never came to work before noon or left after three. DeWitt’s wife Fern was quite fond of Longstreet, who in turn had his eye on her stepdaughter Jeanne, much to the displeasure of her jealous fiancé Kit Lord. Even without this colorful group, a passenger on the streetcar might have spotted Longstreet and taken a little impromptu revenge. In the early years of the Depression, more than one person might be tempted to murder their stockbroker. The only difficulty is the murder weapon, a cork full of poisoned needles. Anyone might have slipped it into the victim’s pocket, but who would be carrying such an awkward and dangerous item in the first place?

A second crime narrows the focus to a single suspect for quite some time. As a result, the rest of the suspects only receive that first, cursory interview in the streetcar barn before being discarded, some never to be picked up again. Only Fern DeWitt makes a real impression. She’s decked out in leopard-skin from head to toe, but it’s not always clear whether Fern is predator or prey.

At various points, Lane admits that he could reveal the killer’s identity, but “We play on! My instinctive sense of the dramatic prevents me from spoiling a perfect climax for you.” What it does not prevent him from doing is constantly chiding Thumm and Bruno for their subpar detection, rebukes they tolerate with surprising patience.

The producer shapes Hamlet, whittles it, changes its proportions, redesigns it to fit Mr. Barrymore, instead of measuring Mr. Barrymore against the original specifications of the piece as fixed in their true proportions by Shakespeare. You, Inspector Thumm and District Attorney Bruno, commit the identical error when you shape the crime, whittle it, change its proportions, redesign it to fit [the suspect], instead of measuring [the suspect] against the fixed specifications of the crime.

The Tragedy of X is distinguished by some clever and wonderfully atmospheric murders, which take advantage of the wide array of commuter transportation available to killers in the tri-state area. In between murders, however, the pace slows to a crawl as Lane alternates endless monologues with bouts of nude sunbathing.

Yes, nude sunbathing. Throughout the novel, we have received ominous allusions to the sixty-year-old Lane’s handsome, youthful appearance, and eventually this theme reaches its natural conclusion, the full Drury.

Mr. Drury Lane lay, almost nude, on a bearskin, arms shading his eyes from the sun high overhead.

Inspector Thumm stopped short and Quacey grinned himself away. The Inspector could not conceal his stupefaction at the bronzed vigor, the firm youthfulness and muscularity, of Drury Lane’s figure. His lean, sprawling body, hairless except for a faint golden down, brown, hard and smooth, was that of a man in the prime of life. The shock of white hair on his head was a startling incongruity when the eye traveled the full length of the clean hardy body.

Lane invites Inspector Thumm to “discard your swathings and join me on the bearskin,” an offer he mercifully declines.

The real tragedy of X is that it contains a number of compelling elements, only to squander them on an inconsistent and overlong narrative. The Tragedy of X includes individual sequences that are exceptionally vivid and engaging, and the solution involves some nice deductions. However, it’s not a coincidence that the best moments do not include Drury Lane. Most of the time, it seems clear that Lane is intended as a parody of the eccentric, egotistical great detective, driving Thumm and Bruno crazy with his antics. Other times, however, the authors appear to be playing it fairly straight. It’s never obvious how seriously Lane should be taken. Either way, it hardly seems worthwhile to find out.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

I worry that I unduly criticize these books because the writing isn’t bad by any means.  Well, that is to say “if you examine the writing of any given page, all things seem in order.”  And yet, I need something – whether a impossible hook, or just a glimpse of a soul – to pull me along.  I have yet to encounter it with the Queens.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

And then we come to the overall plan – there are a couple of other deaths to keep the plot jogging along – but it’s mindblowingly stupid and overcomplicated. Add to that a middle section of the book concerned with proving (or disproving) the innocence of the obvious suspect where, again, the critical piece of evidence is obvious and, to be honest, this is a bit of a letdown. Still worth a look, but you have to suspend your disbelief at times.

Availability

The Tragedy of X is available in ebook and audiobook formats from the Mysterious Press.

The Little Lie (1968) by Jean Potts

The Little Lie by Jean Potts

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“Doesn’t it occur to you that somebody is—well, not telling the truth?”

“Lying,” she specified. “Somebody’s lying.”

It all starts with a white lie. When her boyfriend Chad breaks up with her, Dee Morris is humiliated. To save face, she tells her family and neighbors that he is out of town for a job interview. She assumes the story will eventually peter out on its own. But when outside forces intervene, Dee’s little lie becomes a very big one. How far will she go to protect her reputation? And what will happen when Chad returns?

The Little Lie is a stunning work of suspense that builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, toward a shattering climax. The final chapter is a masterpiece—utterly shocking and merciless, but the only way this story could possibly end.

For a while, the plot seems deceptively low-key. It is primarily a character study of Dee, her brother Oliver, sister-in-law Erna, and their lodger Mr. Fly, all of them disappointed middle-aged people clinging to their illusions. Even within the context of this dysfunctional group, however, it soon becomes clear that something is off about Dee. There are hints of a troubled past, especially in her relationships with men. This includes Oliver. No sooner has Chad left, than Oliver starts talking about leaving town as well, beginning a new life somewhere else. Dee doesn’t want that. She wants her brother all to herself. And if Oliver’s wife Erna stands in the way, Dee will just have to do something about that.

Jean Potts takes a deep dive into the psychology of these characters and the small-town New England atmosphere, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Aside from the high drama at the beginning and end of the book, Dee’s lie serves largely as an entry point into her world; while others are certainly interested or suspicious, the one who is most obsessed with Dee’s lie is Dee herself. For a long time, the violence is emotional, consisting of tiny, devastating incidents that wound all the more deeply because the perpetrator uses their intimate knowledge of the victim to determine the most effective target.

Dee kills through kindness, and for half their lives her main target has been her sister-in-law Erna. Oliver and Erna met and married in her southern hometown, but relocated to his native Rushford to deal with a temporary family crisis. Eighteen years later, they’re still there, much to Erna’s dismay. Dee has been wonderful to Oliver and Erna, maybe a little too wonderful. After she went to so much trouble to set up an apartment for them in the family home, it would have been ungrateful to get their own house, even if that’s what Erna really wanted. Dee is always doing chores for them, tidying up the apartment. It leaves Erna with nothing to do all day—not a problem, since the icebox is always stocked with beer.

There was no forgetting the kindnesses; they weighed like a yoke on Erna’s shoulders.

So did the loneliness, the friendless, discontented years of feeling like an exile. But was any of that Dee’s fault? Of course not; if anybody was to blame, it must be Erna herself. Something blind and stubborn had risen up in her, a resistance against Rushford and everybody in it. Something cold, the bone-deep, bone-hard chill that had crept over her when she walked in and saw Dee for the first time, huddled in that little sewing chair, rocking back and forth.

What makes the situation so maddening is that Erna cannot deny Dee really has been a lifesaver in the past. Their relationship is a toxic stew of gratitude and resentment. Only in the aftermath of Chad’s departure is Erna able to find a crack in Dee’s iron self-control. Rather than frightening her, it exhilarates and empowers her. “Poor Dee, she thought—and realized, to her shame, that there was something exciting, even a little pleasurable, about feeling sorry for someone like Dee…The difference between being pitied and pitying…Erna had never seen it until today; how great the difference was, how much more blessed to give pity than to receive it.”

The Little Lie by Jean Potts Each of the major characters is refreshingly complex, their behavior relatable and infuriating by turns. The lodger Mr. Fly is always poking his nose into other people’s business. It eventually becomes clear, however, that Mr. Fly is facing serious difficulties and throws himself into his neighbor’s problems so that he doesn’t have to think about his own. Oliver’s passivity is annoying, but it is also understandable. He loves both his wife and his sister. Since it is impossible for any action of his to please both, it’s easier not to act.

Dee is the most complicated of all, constantly wavering between victim and tormentor. Love is her weapon, but it is also the agent of her own suffering, a need so great it can never be fulfilled. It’s hard not to empathize with her sheer panic upon realizing how deeply she is trapped in the lie, which leaves her feeling “cold and hollow. If only she had not had to lie to Oliver too! She could not back out now. She could not stand still, either. She had no choice but to go on.” Even Dee is sometimes startled by how easily the lie becomes a part of her life.

There was no rush. Chad wasn’t going to call, tonight or any other night. It wasn’t true. She had made it all up…Yet the urgency of the past three quarters of an hour had not been feigned. Not at all. The itch of impatience had been as genuine as if it were based on absolute reality.

At first, Dee embraces the lie because it gives her the illusion of control. Even if she can’t get Chad back in reality, she can live in a world of her own making, managing everyone else’s perceptions. As the border between fantasy and reality becomes shakier, however, Dee may no longer recognize the difference.

Dee is hypervigilant in her interactions with the other townspeople. Even the most innocuous comment can send her into a spiral of paranoia—though Potts also uses these moments to show that everyone has at least some kind of a dark side. It’s very easy to let a well-placed barb slip, whether through carelessness or the result of a moment’s cruelty. Sometimes the consequences are small, as when Erna tries to puzzle out whether an acquaintance was really complimenting her homemade dress, or insulting it. Other times, a chance remark may lead to far more dire results. Like Dee’s little lie, one small comment can start a chain reaction.

By the end, The Little Lie has gone from the simple story of a small-town scandal to something more like grand opera or Greek tragedy. The irony is that Dee’s lie about Chad is only one of many deceits she has built her life around. She is willing to take drastic action to avoid facing the truth, preferring to smash the mirror rather than see herself as she really is. For Dee and the other characters in The Little Lie, the biggest lie is the one they tell themselves.

Second Opinions

Pretty Sinister

The Little Lie is perhaps Jean Potts’ finest contribution to genuine domestic suspense. In Dee Morris Potts has created one of her most unnerving and deeply disturbed characters. The story hits all the right notes, focuses on the lives of women and their husbands (or in the case of Dee, her intended husband) with the perceptive plot gimmick, a seemingly innocuous lie, serving as the catalyst for all that follows. The final pages are fraught with tension, a neatly noirish touch in the revelation of Dee’s most creepy secret, which leads to a near operatic mad scene. Like the best of noir we know everything was leading to this explosion, that Dee was doomed when she uttered that little lie. 

Crossexamining Crime

Potts’ work is a testament to the truth that you can plunge the darker areas of the human psyche in an engaging way without recourse to extremely graphic descriptions. You can’t help but keep reading this tale, keenly wanting to know how ‘a seemingly innocuous lie’ will end and what carnage will follow in its wake.

Availability

The Little Lie is available in paperback and ebook formats from Stark House Press, in a double volume with Home Is the Prisoner.