The House on the Roof (1935) by Mignon G. Eberhart

The House on the Roof Mignon G Eberhart book cover

6 stars (6/10 stars)

Queer how few relatives were actually close. Queer how few friends one could actually go to and say: ‘I’ve just been involved in a murder.’ How few—why, there was no one! No one at all.”

Until today, Deborah never knew about the little house on the roof of her apartment building, accessible only by fire escape. Nor did she know about Mary Monroe, the reclusive former opera singer who lives there, surrounded by memories of the past. But a chance encounter with Mary leads to an invitation that will change both of their lives. The house on the roof is about to become a crime scene. Deborah has only seconds to decide: should she stay inside and be arrested for murder, or flee onto the roof where a killer still lurks in darkness?

The House on the Roof is an otherwise effective suspense novel hampered by a dull heroine. The opening chapter is wonderfully nightmarish, as the innocent Deborah is lured up through the night to Mary Monroe’s florid, overheated lair. One moment of high drama follows another. Mary strikes a pose before the velvet curtains, offering to sing for her guest. Deborah’s song choice startles Mary. “You see, the last time I sang it…Oh, well—I’ll sing it. I’m not afraid. I have always been a child of fate.”

Deborah began the prelude—taking it lentement. Immediately the scene became unreal: the hot, crowded little room, the blackness outside, and the loneliness and the wind surging against the windows and the door, the bright mimosa, the tall woman in red with the untidy black hair and the sagging chins, the heavy scent of tuberose—herself, Deborah Cavert in a plain tweed suit and a lemon blouse was the only sane and sensible thing in the room, and she wasn’t any too sure about that.

The House on the Roof by Mignon G EberhartA shot rings out, the telephone lines are cut—no possibility for suspense is missed. The ensuing narrative, though less intense overall, remains generously sprinkled with gothic moments, though they often have to fight their way past the prissy Deborah.

It says something about Deborah’s lack of natural curiosity that she’s never even bothered to look up at the building she lives in. Though Eberhart heroines are rarely distinctive, Deborah is truly an empty vessel. The Caverts lost their money in the stock market crash, destroying her father’s health. The family has managed to maintain some position in Chicago society due to the cleverness and determination of her aunt Juliet. Despite her relative poverty, Deborah doesn’t work or go to school. All she does is sit around her apartment wearing a series of simple yet expensive outfits, paid for “somehow” by Aunt Juliet. She seems to have no thoughts or feelings of her own, relying first on her aunt for guidance, and then on fellow suspect turned love interest Anthony Wyatt. “I can—oh, play a little on the piano,” she explains, “as I can speak a little French and drive a car adequately—that sort of thing.” Deborah does all the conventional things just well enough without really caring about anything.

The House on the Roof by Mignon G EberhartThat mostly includes the murders as well. When contemplating the wholesale slaughter of her neighbors, Deborah veers between indifference and total hysteria. “Were those shadows unmoving! Was there actually nothing alive—nothing moving in that hall? Did nothing watch from the elevator—from the door—from the shadows?” In any case, she does nothing.

While the apartment house itself is gratifyingly creepy, its residents are a colorless lot. One exception is Chloe Riddle, a slightly older married woman regretting the loss of her wild youth. Like Deborah, she’s come down in the world, as her bad-tempered husband Gibbs has failed to find success as a society portrait painter. Chloe is able to maintain a certain bohemian glamour even among the daily maelstrom of children, servants, and husband, but the strain is showing.

Eberhart specializes in evoking a very specific old-money atmosphere (which may or may not have any actual money behind it) and the strange entitlements and resentments it can breed. Although they have nothing in common, Deborah and Chloe are almost required to be friends because they “come from the same kind of family.” Chloe is actually closer to the leasing agent’s wife, Dolly Brocksley, a chorus dancer in the opera ballet. Still, due to class differences, these two can never form a real friendship.

They must have known each other rather well in a curiously intimate and yet impersonal way. Probably they had done much talking and much sharing of everyday affairs, of family, and trivial illnesses and worries about money—yet Chloe wouldn’t have thought of asking Dolly to one of her parties, and Dolly wouldn’t have thought of being asked, although she might have discussed the kind of sandwiches and cakes with Chloe for days before the affair took place.

Dolly and her husband live among their high-society tenants, but remain outside the golden circle they yearn to enter. Though Deborah and her neighbors view the Brocksleys as comic figures, are their aspirations really so funny? No one in the building has any real money, yet they believe they are entitled to automobiles, mink coats, or box seats at the opera simply because of their names. Aren’t the Brocksleys just like Deborah or the Riddles, pining after luxuries they can’t afford?

These questions never occur to Deborah, who ends the novel just as passively as she began it. The House on the Roof contains all the ominous touches one might expect from Eberhart. Even if the characterizations are not up to her usual standard, it’s still an enjoyable diversion.

Second Opinion

Mike Grost

Its best part is its opening chapter, depicting the heroine’s visit with a retired opera star. This grand dame and her music are vividly conveyed. Such opera singers are far more commonly found in Agatha Christie, than in HIBK writers, who tend to avoid the arts in favor of science, technology and politics. Eberhart made a mistake in not having this colorful lady appear after the opening chapter. The music, and the stifling heat and perfumes of the penthouse, do convey a different world of perception in the Eberhart tradition.


The House on the Roof is currently out of print, but used copies are easy to find due to a 1990s reprint.

6 thoughts on “The House on the Roof (1935) by Mignon G. Eberhart

  1. I’ve read exactly one Eberhart novel and seen one movie. While the Patient Slept ( the movie adaptation) I enjoyed only for Aline MacMahon’s performance as Sarah Keate, Eberhart’s sleuthing nurse. The rest of it is sort of forgettable and the plot is familiar and predictable. But the book I read, From This Dark Stairway, is effectively creepy and has a much better plot. Takes place in a hospital during a storm (is the weather ever good in an Eberhart mystery?). It has a quasi-impossible crime involving a patient on a gurney and the hospital elevator.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. The Keate novels are definitely more detection-oriented than the stand-alones. The interesting thing about Eberhart is that she comes up with some really twisted and complex crimes that her heroines could not be less interested in solving. So it all has to get filibustered out at the end by some police detective we’ve barely met. Still, no one is better at staging highly dramatic setpieces among the sinister rich.

      Aline MacMahon is perfect casting for Sarah Keate. TCM recently aired the film version of Eberhart’s The Patient in Room 18, with Keate played by Ann Sheridan, the Oomph Girl! The movie wasn’t terrible, but it was bizarre to see a young Sarah Keate flirting it up with Lance O’Leary.


  2. Also I wanted to say that this statement of Mike Grost’s: “Such opera singers are far more commonly found in Agatha Christie, than in HIBK writers, who tend to avoid the arts in favor of science, technology and politics.” makes no sense to me. I’ve read plenty of HIBK style books that include characters from either theater, fine arts or the music world. Mike Grost’s writing on the genre often suffers from specious research and broad generalizations.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, a bit of an odd statement from Grost. I do agree with him, however, that the theatrical atmosphere and the character of Mary, the opera diva, add a great deal to the early part of this novel.


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