Ashes to Ashes (1919) by Isabel Ostrander

Book cover of Ashes to Ashes by Isabel Ostrander (1919)
courtesy of Paris Bibliotheques

6 stars (6/10 stars)

From these ashes would spring the phoenix, not of love, but of murder; of hatred, vengeance and the lust to kill! What had he not loosed upon the world!

One afternoon in downtown New York, Norman Storm sees a beautiful woman emerging from an office building, a chance encounter that will change his life. For the woman is his wife, Leila. Thirty-six hours later, he will beat her to death.

Ashes to Ashes is an inverted mystery, following the thoughts of Norman Storm as he suspects his beloved wife of infidelity, impulsively kills her, then conceives an elaborate plan to cover up the murder. In the swirl of events that follow, Storm finds that his greatest danger comes, not from the police, but from his well-meaning friends.

The most amazing mystery is that Storm has any friends at all. The spoiled son of a Wall Street broker, he has already burned through most of his inheritance by “investing” in get-rich-quick schemes. He constantly threatens to quit his cushy job, which he owes entirely to nepotism. All of Storm’s thoughts, and most of his words, are cruel, deluded, and egotistical. His life is one constant frustration, surrounded by stupid, dull people who unaccountably fail to appreciate his superiority.

In short, the reader cannot wait to see this guy get his comeuppance. Sometimes you feel sympathy for the main character in an inverted mystery, but there’s no danger of that here. The sociopathic Storm barely conceals his contempt for humanity beneath the guise of an affable clubman. Storm views his wife as a “soft, pliant, docile thing of pink and white flesh…This creature whom he had honored had dragged, was dragging his name in the dust, setting him aside as an unimportant factor.” He is baffled, not so much at the thought of Leila having an affair, as by her having any kind of independent existence, outraged that her life does not revolve entirely around him. Similarly, Storm chooses his friends on the basis of their usefulness to him; he feels no true affection for anyone. An old friend he hopes to make use of

had bored and slightly repelled him until he displayed his treasure. Even then he had not become a personality, but merely a wall of flesh and blood which stood between Storm and that which became in a twinkling of an eye imperative to his whole future existence.

Ashes to Ashes is one of the earliest inverted mysteries and its prose is often old-fashioned, even rather purple. (How many exclamation marks had to die that this book might live?) Yet the plot and characterizations are sharply modern, and the plot goes in an unexpected direction. As Storm devises and carries out his schemes, the writing becomes more lean, reflecting the way his normally puddinglike brain can focus like a laser when crime beckons, only to revert back again when the task is done. Ostrander is also skilled at subtly communicating to the reader when other characters are not reacting to Storm in precisely the way he thinks, without making him aware enough to perceive this himself.

“What an easy thing it was to take a life,” Storm muses, “and to evade the consequences, if only one used a modicum of courage and caution! Murder was nothing more, after all, than the twang of a pea shooter at a bird, the tape of a butcher’s hammer.” Norman Storm has seemingly committed the perfect crime. However, he reckons without those ties of love and loyalty that make murder important to others. Norman’s undoing may be the one thing he doesn’t understand and therefore did not plan for: human emotion.

Second Opinions:

Dorothy L. Sayers, 1928:

…a very excellent piece of work which, in the hands of a writer of a little more distinction, might have been a powerful masterpiece.

Pretty Sinister (commenting on Crossexamining Crime)

Ashes to Ashes (1917) by Isabel Ostrander, a crime novel with detective elements told from the viewpoint of the killer. It predates the entire “Francis Iles school” of crime novel. Although not a strongly literate writer the fact that Ostrander wrote such a controversial novel and made it commercial (it was first serialized in a pulp magazine) ought to stand for something. Her ideas and plotting can sometimes dazzle for pre-1920s era mystery fiction.

Availability:

Isabel Ostrander’s works are in the public domain and many are available online. Ashes to Ashes can be read at the Internet Archive.

 


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