“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.
19 thoughts on “Hide in the Dark (1929) by Frances Noyes Hart”
You’ve certainly taken a seasonal bullet for us all with this book. I have only read one book by this author, called The Bellamy Trial. This too suffers from slowness (I don’t think Hart can write out of first gear) and this book also has a rather doe-eyed female reporter who gets somewhat over emotional and nearly faints/goes into hysterics. The middle bit is the best when the prosecution and defence are fighting things out, but the beginning and the final third are slogs and the ending is somewhat lack lustre and rather deflating, It could have done with having 80 pages chopped off easily. Given your views on this one I think it has been a wise choice to not re-try this author.
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Sorry to hear The Bellamy Trial has these issues as well, as it’s supposed to be a bit of a classic. Sounds like mystery is not where Hart’s strengths lie (though neither is comedy, drama, or romance, so I’m not sure where that leaves her).
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I know! I was quite surprised to see TBT getting a reprint this year and equally baffled as to what made it a classic. But hey maybe it’s just me! I think Hart ought to have been born earlier as I feel she would have been comfortable with the three decker formula of the 19th century.
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I think the classic status comes from its being an early legal drama, and maybe spotlighting the role of the media in trials. Of course, the first isn’t always the best. I might still try The Bellamy Trial at some point because I’m interested in the real-life case it’s based on, but with lower expectations.
Despite the advice given by the reviewer from Mystery*File I could not forgive the beginning. As you say it is deadly dull and I threw in the towel and put aside the book never to finish it. Someone who has similar tastes to mine said this is one of favorite forgotten books and I eagerly went hunting for a copy. But having read only a portion of this dud I now question her taste in everything she recommends.
RELATED TO THIS: There is another book about a deadly hide and seek game, not taking place at Halloween, that’s much more engaging and original. It’s called Death on Tiptoe by R.C. Ashby. You might want to seek it out. It was reprinted in 2009 by Grey Ladies, a POD outfit based in the UK that oddly only prints a limited amount of copies and when they’re all sold that’s it. They tend not to print on demand based on my experience. You can visit their website and inquire about getting a copy, but they don’t list it in their catalog anymore. In fact all of the Ruby Ferguson books including those she wrote as R.C. Ashby have been removed from their website. Strange. But asking never hurts. You might also find a copy in a library. There are a handful of copies available from online dealers but only one (from Half Price Books in Texas) is priced affordably — and sensibly. Act quickly!
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Oh, hey, on a hide-and-seek theme there’s also One Thrilling Night (1937) by Norman Berrow…which, alas, does not live up to its billing. Maybe something about hiding in darkened houses is difficult to communicate — I suppose there’s something to be said for not having to describe darkness over and over again…
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Come to think of it, Margery Allingham’s The Crime at Black Dudley also has a kind of hot-potato game in the dark, and that one’s not so thrilling, either. You may be onto something. That’s three bad hide-and-seek mysteries versus one good one–pretty poor odds.
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And The Black Dark Murders by Robert O. Saber, which takes a semi-impossible shooting in pitch blackness and renders it positively stultifying.
Oh, and Death in the Dark by Stacey Bishop. Yup, I think we’re onto something here… 😂
Yeah, it’s a bit disingenuous of the reviewer to warn against a slow “beginning” that takes up more than fifty percent of the book’s length. I wanted to give it a fair chance, so I kept reading until the murder, but that happens so far in that I’d already invested too much time to quit at that point. Even then, there’s a lot of faffing about before the investigation begins, so it’s only about the last quarter of the book that’s actually good. Not worth slogging through the rest of it to get to that point in my opinion. It’s nice that some people have enjoyed it, however. I guess every book really does have its reader.
Thanks for recommending Ashby (though my wallet isn’t so happy about it). I’ve read one of the non-mystery Ruby Ferguson books and quite enjoyed it, but I didn’t realize she was the same person as R. C. Ashby.
I had forgotten about the Ashby novel, but I definitely remember enjoying it and yes the hide and seek element certainly has a chilling outcome. Really need to get around to reading more by Ashby.
There’s something very enjoyable about being able to get a bad book off your chest, isn’t there? When we love something, we’re always trying to preserve the enjoyment of it for others, but when given the free-rein to cut loose and simply dig into the flaws in a book/story/whatever we had hopes for…man, it does feel good.
I very much enjoyed reading this review, and I’m sad to hear that The Bellamy Trial might be similarly moribund — there’s a new edition out soon, and I’ve been looking for a copy for yeeeeeeears>. Still, if it is as bad as this, I might have a great time writing the review, I suppose 🙂
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I had high hopes for this one, knowing of The Bellamy Trial’s landmark reputation, so the result was certainly disappointing. But you’re right that it was cathartic to be able to really let loose on this. The last bad book I read was Postern of Fate, and that one just made me sad so I wasn’t in the mood to tear it to shreds.
Well, hey, we all know that “landmark” doesn’t necessarily mean “good”, and that plenty of authors wrote one great novel and surrounded, followed, or preceded it with a bunch of fluff. But that it wasn’t so, just think of all the masterpieces we’d have to put up with 🤣
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So true! The Bellamy Trial at least suggests that it will be more focused on the crime itself due to the courtroom framework, so it might be better than this one. We can only hope.
Feel free to wait for my review if you’re unwilling to dive in any time soon; of course, given my TBR management strategies, you’ll be waiting a while…
You’re welcome to borrow my copy of TBT. I can always post it down or bring it to the next Bodies.
I appreciate the offer, Kate, but since I’ve been known to display an unexpected patience where alleged tedium is concerned — hello, Crofts — I reckon I’ll buy the new edition and give it a punt. Who knows, maybe I’ll love it…
You’ve been overly generous by giving this one three stars. A boring, excruciating slog of a read with no payoff worth the time or patience of the reader and wish I had followed John’s example. Sometimes, it still feels like I’m reading the damn book!
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Tell us how you really feel! It does seem to go on forever; sometimes I can’t believe I’m really free of this book at last. Hart was obviously interested in providing more than “just” a mystery, but unfortunately those other elements are much less effective, while taking up far more space in the narrative. There’s about a short story’s worth of good material here.