“But it was more than a ghost story that you promised us, surely? It was a murder story, and I’m rather a connoisseur in murder.”
On Halloween night, thirteen guests descend upon the Maryland estate of Lady’s Court. Eleven are members of the March Hares, a group of the maddest young people in pre-World War I Washington DC. There were originally twelve March Hares: ten years ago, just after their last gathering, nineteen-year-old Sunny Leighton died mysteriously.
The weekend quickly reignites old loves and old hatreds, between games of bobbing for apples and “hide in the dark.” It’s all fun and games until the lights come back on. Even March Hares can’t outrun death.
Hide in the Dark feels like it goes on forever—the more you read, the longer it gets. There are too many characters to keep straight and they’re all rather awful. Indeed, there are so many excess characters that even the stereotypes are duplicated. The cast includes two life-of-the-party types who think it terribly funny to burst out in racist dialect, and three sweetly dumb wives who keep saying things like, “I know I’m being an awful donkey, but what is everyone laughing at?” (Good question.)
Early chapters seem to suggest a definite structure for the book: dinner, then games, then murder. Everything gets stretched out endlessly, though. Every time they are about to sit down to dinner, someone suddenly demands coffee or dancing. Hostess Lindy tells the family ghost story, then her friends make her start all over again. The much-anticipated game of Hide in the Dark is about to begin when suddenly the men realize it isn’t midnight yet and decide to “waste an hour” playing poker, a game described in minute detail. Yes, it ends up being relevant to the crime, but by this point it was genuinely unclear whether a murder was going to be committed at all.
I’m certainly not opposed to a slow burn, or lots of character details, but they do need to be entertaining or revealing or something. The opening sequence is especially deadly, with the author lobbing names, ages, and occupations at us like some kind of demented math problem: If Tom Ross is 37 years old and Neil Sheridan is 38 years old and they both started together at the State Department in 1917 before their mysterious estrangement, then at what time did Train A pass Train B?
Since very few of these people seem to have ever met anyone else in their lives, it makes sense that the singletons of the group would try to pair off. The romances come to the point remarkably swiftly and take place back to back, one couple barely exiting the scene before another takes their place. These relationships manage to be both sickeningly cutesy and depressing simultaneously.
“What would you do without your doll, Lindy? Whom would you find to tell you fairy tales, and make you daisy chains, and sing you lullabies? Pirates lead such busy lives they haven’t time for little girls. When they aren’t plank walking, they’re playing with black flags, and dividing doubloons, and shaking dice for the Circassian slaves. They haven’t time for a good game of tag from one year’s end to another.”
She whispered, “You’re laughing at me—you think I’m just a scatterbrained little fool? Wait, wait and see. I love it when you laugh at me.”
And so on and so on. The “little girl” in question is 32 years old, incidentally.
The only thing that kept me reading was the hope that they might all be picked off, And Then There Were None-style. Sadly, that does not happen. Things do get better after the murder, however, because with the bridge out and phone lines down, the March Hares must carry out the investigation themselves. That’s well over 200 pages in, though. Any self-respecting GAD author would have committed about five murders, and probably solved them, by this point in the book.
The murder sequence itself is chilling. Hide in the Dark is another name for the game of sardines, a reverse hide-and-seek where one person hides, while everyone else searches. Whoever finds the hider joins them in the hiding place. Strangely enough, rather than draw out the scary possibilities of the game, this is where the author suddenly decides to pick up the pace. Still, this brief scene of horror shows what Hart could have accomplished in the rest of the book if she had focused less on tiresome hijinks and more on building a mood.
There are a few other good points scattered here and there. It’s just that the reader has to look pretty hard to find them. The tragedy of Sunny’s death is not as powerful as it should be, especially considering that her sister Jill is among the revelers, but a mystery from the past will always have some entertainment value. Several of the characters manage to stand out from the crowd in a good way, especially Trudi, who has her own unique take on most subjects. When a friend suffers a romantic disappointment, Trudi encourages her to look on the bright side: “He’s probably quite horrid when you get to know him; he looks to me like the kind of a man that wants to read you bits out of the papers and doesn’t believe that really nice people eat snails.” She explains her attraction to her husband Neil thus:
He told me before he asked me to marry him that he thought it was only fair to me to let me know that he couldn’t care for me the way he had for Sunny; and he actually had the insolence to keep me up for three hours one night reading me about four cubic feet of letters that he’d written to her and never sent, because he felt that he wasn’t good enough for her! He was keeping them for his grandchildren—or my grandchildren, if I decided that I wanted a burnt-out volcano as a consort. I hadn’t been particularly interested in him till them, but about the second cubic foot I decided that any human being that could write that amount of lunacy, and hang on to it, needed a keeper.
Another enjoyable character is business tycoon Gavin Dart, who is just along for the ride with his wife Hanna and is clearly barely tolerating these screeching jackasses. He is delighted to have the chance to use his true-crime expertise on a real, live murder—at least, until the investigation forces his own secrets into the light.
Only after the murder is Hide in the Dark consistently good, as the March Hares must finally get serious in order to solve the crime. Many of them are surprisingly tolerable when they are forced to drop their bright-young-thing mannerisms and act like human beings. To get to that point, however, the reader must wade through more than two hundred pages of tedious pacing, unfunny humor, casual racism, and cloying romance. Hide in the Dark is unfortunately more trick than treat.
While I didn’t particularly appreciate most of the involved chitchat at the beginning — the list of characters that was provided came in handy here — when the murder occurs, the novel became quite gripping. Forgive the slow beginning; it’s worth struggling through it for the rest of the book.
Hide In The Dark is beautifully written. Initially, I wondered if thirteen suspects might be a lot to get straight but soon found the author created clearly delineated characters. They are very believable of their period, it was easy to get to know them and care what happens.
Hide in the Dark is out of print in the US, but is available in other territories as an ebook from Black Heath Classic Crime.