The Pattern (1937) by Mignon G. Eberhart

The Pattern by Mignon G Eberhart

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Later, after she’d turned out her light, Nan went to the window and looked out through the pines toward Haven. There was no light anywhere. But then you couldn’t see the lights in the house anyway. She thought fleetingly of the chintzes and books and cushions in the living room of the house on Haven as she had seen them Sunday night. Chintzes she had chosen—bookshelves she had planned. And never, selecting that chintz pattern, had thought of seeing it as an intruder. Seeing it on a dark, still night, with no one in the house and a canoe drifting on the lake.

She wondered when they would be arrested—she and Jerome—for the murder of his wife.”

If there’s one thing I’ve learned from classic crime, it’s that you should always, always give your husband a divorce when asked. Adultery, debt, blackmail, gambling…all of these are potentially survivable. Refusing a divorce is the only action that results in murder every single time.

Nan Bayne is finally returning to Tredinick Island, three years after her heart was broken there. That’s when she learned that her fiancé Jerome was in love with another woman. Jerome and Celia are married now, and the honeymoon is definitely over. All the neighbors agree that Celia “is a vixen…she’s rotten at the core.” Now she’s getting drunk with their teenage neighbor while Jerome canoodles with Nan on the beach. Divorce would be such a simple solution, but Celia doesn’t see it that way.

Needless to say, Nan decides to reason with her rival by rowing across the lake at midnight in the fog and breaking into her house. Celia isn’t at home, but someone or something seems to be lurking. A panicky Nan crashes her boat into an empty, yet suspiciously heavy, canoe. The next morning Celia’s body is found in the canoe. She’s been shot in the head. Her husband is nowhere to be found.

The Pattern takes place in a universe that is totally foreign to most modern readers: a resort on Lake Michigan where old-money families summer in elaborate “cottages” on private islands. Most of the characters don’t work at all and the few who do are easily able to take the whole summer off. These families literally exist in their own private worlds, never having to interact with anyone outside of their privileged bubble. The mainland is within sight, but it might as well be on the moon.

Although The Pattern does not follow the same plot formulas that Eberhart later Mignon G Eberhart The Pattern 3specialized in, the narrative is not without its, well, patterns. Nan whiles away the days staring at the water, obsessing about the chintz pattern she chose for her and Jerome’s future home…the home where his wife was murdered. (Yes, Celia not only stole Nan’s fiancé, she stole her chintz.) Every so often, her reverie is rudely interrupted by some mysterious happening. Items are stolen, poisonous spiders appear in her room. Her handbag vanishes, but “there was nothing in it,” working girl Nan assures her friend, “only forty or fifty dollars.” Oh, is that all? There is much amusing chatter and plenty of descriptions of everyone’s clothing and home décor, which I enjoyed, but which some may find excessive.

There’s no real attempt to solve the murder. In fact, everyone tries their hardest to pretend it didn’t happen. (We later learn that there’s been a good deal of police work going on this entire time, all of it hidden from the reader. Good luck playing along, though,  unless you have a crime lab in your pocket. A pretty miraculous crime lab at that.)

It seems that things could go on this way all summer, until an outsider intervenes.  Jacob Wait, a vacationing detective from Chicago, is initially reluctant to get involved. Nevertheless, his ominous presence hovers over the narrative. Nan believes he hates her—and it turns out he really does!

And Jacob Wait on the other hand was thinking: women. Beautiful women, for he supposed the girl—trim and graceful as a sailboat—was beautiful. Well, he’d known other women who were considered beautiful; one in particular. His dark, mournful eyes held suddenly two small candles. Not pleasant candles. It was as if he burned them to hatred, to pursuit, to vengeance. Yet he had never, really, felt a desire for vengeance. That had taken care of itself. But he couldn’t help feeling repulsion; hating jobs that were entangled and involved by women. They changed the content of a case so you had to look further and harder and deeper for motives. He hated emotions and what they did; he shrank from delving into the thing, sorting out the dark threads of those interwoven emotions. Hated it, as a man hates a contagion which has once gripped and agonized him—hates and fears it.

Wait is kind of a terrifying character. Is he maybe the actual killer? Will Nan get her chintz back? And when will those dreadful nouveau riche learn how gauche their motorboats are?

Second Opinion:

Curt Evans at Mystery*File

The Pattern is one of my favorite Eberhart’s, in part because the author dials down the emotional anxiety meter a bit, allowing the reader to just enjoy the story and think about whodunit.


Out of print, with many used copies available. This book was also published under the title Pattern of Murder.

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