“When this thing is over,” she said, “we’ll have to start getting an entirely new set of servants.”
The wedding went off without a hitch. Dorcas Whipple was resigned to the forced ending of her relationship with Ronald Drew and the hurried marriage of convenience to a suitable family friend. The guests know all about that. Most of them have seen this morning’s headlines, screaming of Ronald’s suicide on the eve of his beloved’s wedding. But none of them, not even her groom Jevan Locke, know that Dorcas was in Ronald’s apartment last night.
The bride allows herself a grim relief as the car pulls away from the church. Then, her new husband takes her in his arms. “I know you killed him,” he whispers.
Hasty Wedding is an archetypal Mignon G. Eberhart novel, with a bit more of a detective element than usual. We have a passive heroine, torn between two men, who finds herself married to a stranger and suspected of murder. Though the young lady suffers, her wardrobe never does. After most of her family has been murdered, the police detective turns up having solved the entire mystery behind the scenes. (Because who would want to watch a detective solve a murder when we can talk about clothes instead, am I right, ladies?) Luckily, there’s always one guy left for her to marry—and sometimes it’s even the same one she started out with! Complaining about Eberhart’s formula would be like getting angry at a sonnet for always having fourteen lines. It’s the variations within the framework that are interesting, and while this early work establishes elements of the formula, it also departs from it in several intriguing ways.
The first third of the story follows Dorcas through a series of nightmarishly effective setpieces: the fitting of her wedding gown as she reflects upon the loveless marriage to come; the surreal hour in Ronald’s Art Deco apartment, all angles and mirrors, where nothing is quite as it appears; the hysterical leadup to the wedding, culminating in her confrontation with Jevan. The individual scenes are both compelling and frustrating, as they underscore Dorcas’s maddening passivity. Dominated first by her hyper-competent aunt and invalid mother, then by her inscrutable husband, Dorcas rarely makes a decision for herself. Only after the wedding does she begin to awaken from her daze, and it’s pretty far into the book by then.
Though several more nervewracking episodes occur, the overall tone becomes lighter from that point, with the sophisticated wit that Eberhart rarely gets much credit for. Dorcas’s friends and family team up to basically subvert justice, in the form of Chicago PD detective Jacob Wait. Wait, with his glowing ruby eyes, plays a large role in the tense and satisfying denouement. His other appearances in the story are brief, but demonstrate a certain flair.
“Who was the woman with him?”
“I don’t—I tell you, I wasn’t there.”
“You’re lying,” said Wait and, as appeared to be his customary manner of departure, went away without another word.
Dorcas smartens up a lot in the back half, realizing the likelihood that one of her devoted champions is actually the killer. They are protecting themselves, not her. The other characters, who earlier seemed rather flat, also grow more complicated, especially the husband she married in such haste.
Jevan was there in the house, in the study which seemed to become his own. How immediately the household had adopted him; how immediately and automatically he had become the head of the house! “It’s good,” Mamie had said, “to have a man in the house.” Her husband. And what did she know of him? What did she know of this marriage she had made except that already she knew that it was not the thing she had expected it to be! For it was different; the calm, smooth, untroubled sea she had expected her marriage to Jevan to float quietly upon was full of hidden, unplumbed depths and sweeping currents.
Until the wedding, Jevan remains a hazy figure on the horizon, the blank-faced groom on the wedding cake. Good old Jevan, who could give her a privileged and peaceful life, if not romance. Jevan would take care of her and manage her fortune, currently in the hands of a trustee. But he soon proves to have a ruthless side, literally forcing Dorcas into her wedding dress when she balks at the last minute. He remains an ambiguous figure throughout, demanding her unquestioning obedience in some matters while encouraging her independence in others.
The most subversive aspect of Eberhart’s work is its cynicism about marriage, which is given free reign here. Marriage is far from sacred in any of her books; the character who remains loyal to a husband or fiance invariably lives to regret it. Husbands lie, husbands cheat, husbands even kill, to a degree that is extreme even for the romantic-suspense genre.
“And tomorrow Dorcas Whipple would be Dorcas Locke,” our lovely bride realizes, “a different woman. It was like losing her own identity.” Dorcas goes to visit Ronald because she realizes it may be the last independent action she ever takes. Most of Dorcas’s troubles come from her inability to trust her own instincts. She eventually comes to realize that she’s just as capable of making decisions as her mother, her trustee, or even her husband. If she’s going to suffer for a mistake, she’d rather it be her own rather than a mistake she allowed someone else to make for her.
Dorcas refers to her family as “the average American bourgeois household” (you know, with just your average American bourgeois mansion and trust fund). This also neatly describes the target audience for Mignon G. Eberhart’s romantic suspense. For much of the twentieth century, their values would have included marriage as a woman’s career and source of security. Yet it’s rarely been that simple in any era. It’s likely that many female readers found catharsis in watching Eberhart’s heroines extricate themselves from abusive marriages or work through dysfunctional relationships to find a second chance at happiness. If a woman’s place is in the home, Hasty Wedding suggests that home is the most dangerous place a woman can be.
Good reading, as are all of her stories, and a better yarn than detective puzzle. Another “whodunit” that is not hard to solve.
Hasty Wedding is available as an ebook from Open Road Media.