“There are only two men in the house, not counting the butler, footman, chauffeur, and two gardeners, I hardly anticipate difficulty in narrowing the hunt down to one.”
Imagine being paralyzed, except for one finger. Staring straight ahead, day after day, night after night, unable to move or speak. Even when you witness a murder, all you can do is lift a finger…
That is the tragic fate of Craig Porter. Once a wealthy young sportsman, Craig is paralyzed and catatonic following a plane crash in wartime France. His mother, sister Millicent, and cousin Hugh are grateful he’s alive, even if they aren’t sure whether he can understand what goes on around him. Life at their stately Virginia mansion revolves around his care.
Calamity seems to follow the Porters. On the night Millicent’s engagement to businessman Bruce Brainard is to be announced, the groom-to-be collapses after a fight with Millicent. Bruce is put to bed in the room next to Craig. Society girl-turned-nurse Vera Deane agrees to check on him throughout the night. There is even a transom window kept open between the two rooms so Vera can listen for any signs of distress.
A few hours later, she finds Bruce dead, his throat slit with a razor. Everything points to suicide, except for one thing: Bruce has never owned a razor.
They are forced to call in Dr. Beverly Thorne, whose family has been feuding with the Porters for a hundred years. They don’t like it when Beverly declares Bruce’s death a homicide, especially after he declares them all suspects, including Vera and her sister Dorothy. In his role as county justice of the peace, Beverly investigates alongside police detective Mitchell. But there are some awfully strange things happening on the Thorne estate as well. Could Beverly himself be the killer?
For the most part, The Moving Finger is harmless fluff. Occasionally there is even a genuinely affecting moment, as when Dorothy sees her old friend Craig for the first time since his accident.
Unfortunately, the book is marred by the portrayal of Beverly’s servant, Cato, a former slave who suffers from a serious case of dialect. “Illiterate, kindly, faithful, Cato epitomized the spirit of the old-style darkey, to whose watchful care Southern men had not feared to leave their wives and children when they went to fight with Robert Lee.” It’s hard to get back into a light-hearted spirit after all that.
And a light heart is required, because the emphasis here is decidedly on romance, with at least three different couples in play. Vera first loathes, then loves Beverly, who proposes to her the second time they meet, after watching her reenact the discovery of the murder victim. Love works in strange ways. Millicent doesn’t much care that her fiance was murdered (she actually seems very callous about it). Her concern is all for another man. And Hugh is desperately in love with Dorothy Deane. She returns his love, but refuses his proposal—why?
My favorite chapter involved Dorothy’s career as a society columnist on a Washington DC newspaper. Unlike standard portrayals of roving society reporters who dash from party to party, Dorothy’s job is done almost entirely by telephone.
“Do answer it for me,” she begged, sitting down at her typewriter. “Say I’m busy,” in frenzied desperation; “say I’m dead!” And paying no further attention to her companion she commenced her story about the charity ball. Tom Seaton’s voice interrupted her.
“The lady wants to know if she can give a dance on January 20th without butting in on a dozen parties that night,” he explained, hugging the receiver against his chest.
Dorothy hunted up the date in her assignment book, and slammed it shut with vigor.
“Tell her there are only seven dinners scheduled so far for that night,” she directed, and in the moment’s respite she copied off the names of the charity ball patronesses.
FYI, the Morning Tribune does not accept engagement announcements by telephone. Sorry!
The ending is ridiculous. Detective Mitchell mostly just hangs out with Beverly, then shows up to solve the crime on the basis of…I don’t know. Bruce’s room must have been like Grand Central Station, with suspects popping in and out all night. There are more solutions than The Poisoned Chocolates Case, with the final choice of killer seeming completely arbitrary.
New York Times, April 28, 1918:
Miss Lincoln has written a fascinating book. Not once does the suspense slacken; there is not a dreary page. Each incident is startlingly vivid. Surely, if the author lives up to the promise of The Moving Finger, she may, some day, find her name with that of Arsene Lupin and Conan Doyle—masters of their craft. [spoiler alert: she didn’t]