“John, could you take over this afternoon? I simply must get out and clear up this trouble. That insane girl is running around loose somewhere and my father’s body has disappeared.”
All Irene Hastings wants is a week’s vacation. Instead, she’s mistaken for an escaped lunatic and locked up in a hospital that’s so crowded she has to share a bedroom with a handsome young doctor. It soon becomes clear that crazy things are going on there. From the disappearing corpse to the missing will to the headless nurse, Irene finds this hospital hazardous to her health.
The Black Stocking is a typically zany outing for the Little sisters, Constance and Gwenyth. While the plot appears at first to be too simple to support all the wild goings-on, it turns out to be more complicated than it seems, and then gets even more complicated than that.
Irene is a resourceful heroine, and she will need all her ingenuity. Against her better judgment, she agrees to drive a colleague to visit her sister in the asylum, only to be caught up in an escape. Irene is mistaken for the insane sister, Doris, who has actually run off with the spoiled Clark Munster. To buy time for their getaway, Clark convinces his nephew Ross and friend John, two doctors who operate a private hospital, that Irene is the escaped Doris and they need to hold her until authorities come to pick her up.
They are shockingly easy to convince, and the description that Irene assumes will clear things up does nothing of the kind: “Light brown hair, yes—blue eyes, yes—medium height, slim figure, right…She’s Doris Miller, all right.” Irene is initially perturbed to find herself locked in Ross’s room, but soon adjusts to the situation and coolly phones down for room service. After all, she’s on vacation!
Her unflappable nature will come in handy over the next few days, as conditions at the hospital go from merely odd to homicidal. The dynamics of the Munster family are complicated. The hospital was founded by Horace, father of Ross and much older brother of Clark, who is now buried in the summerhouse. Years after Horace’s death, his partner John remains determined to keep Ross from gaining control of the hospital; this obsession has affected not only John’s own life, but that of his nurse and longtime girlfriend Myrtle, who has now given up any hope of marriage. Irene’s presence in the hospital upsets the delicate balance between these three, as does the headless nurse who is rumored to haunt the building.
Head nurse Myrtle is the most intriguing figure. It would be easy to portray her as a downtrodden victim of John, waiting all these years for a marriage that seems less and less likely. Instead, she is a pragmatic woman who has made her own decisions in life, though not without a few regrets now and then.
She went down to dinner wondering, as she had wondered a thousand times, why she had not trained to be a doctor. As for poor John—he was far better fitted to be a nurse than a doctor. It was all wrong, Myrtle thought wryly.
She also demonstrates a rather unique sensibility. When Ross complains that he has nowhere to sleep, since they’ve locked Irene in his room, Myrtle casually advises him to drug their new patient unconscious so that he can share the bedroom with her. She’s also prone to telling outrageous lies to spice things up around the hospital, which hardly needs it at this point.
At first I was not as charmed by Irene’s mother. Elise is less worried about her daughter’s wrongful imprisonment than she is about her marital status. She is given a lot of flashy character traits, including a chameleon-like ability to change her appearance, which is betrayed by her tendency to frequently exclaim “Mong Dew!”
“Elise has been to Paris several times,” Irene explained. “If a French expression creeps in every now and then, it’s no more than natural. If she insults you, I’ll let you know.”
“She doesn’t have to speak French to do that,” Myrtle said coldly. “I happen to know she can do it in English.”
At first, the Littles spend a lot of time telling the reader how comical Elise is, without actually demonstrating it. It’s never actually funny when Elise says “Mong Dew,” however many times we’re told it is. Fortunately, the authors soon relax and simply let Elise exist without calling attention to her eccentricities, and she quickly became my favorite character.
She began almost at once to tell Myrtle how the furniture should be rearranged and what was wrong with the drapes and bedspread. Myrtle replied stiffly that their tastes were no doubt different, but Elise brushed it away impatiently. There was a right way, and there were many wrong ways, of furnishing a room. Some latitude might be allowed in the matter of pattern, color, and material, but that was all. Myrtle’s room was wrong, and Elise could show her, quite simply, how to make it right […] People were so wrong-headed, she thought tolerantly—but what could you do? If they wished to pass their lives among antipathetic colors and haphazard, badly arranged furniture, in the face of superior and freely given knowledge, there was nothing to be done about it.
The hospital setting adds a welcome gallows humor, as patients and staff take a natural interest in Irene’s drama while bringing some of their own. (Even the much-married Elise is scandalized by Irene and Ross sharing a room: “She had always married, herself, and she had no patience with women who didn’t.”) But there is also the potential for danger, as there are always people moving around the building. A hospital offers plenty of weapons and hiding places for those with bad intentions—and there are plenty of those around.
With the help and hindrance of her new friends, Irene finds a body, gets her hair done, falls in love, and solves a murder, all without turning a hair. The ending is clever, though quite abrupt, unfurling at breakneck speed. The Black Stocking may offer bad medicine, but it’s a funny, madcap entertainment with a stronger mystery than the opening might suggest.
Pacing is well-tuned as always, as events only take place over three days. The plot may seem initially somewhat simplistic, but the Littles quickly unfurl a more elaborate narrative, with something much more sinister afoot than you first surmise. The solution is quite an intricate and complex one for these two authors, elements of which I think Carr or Christie would happily have used themselves.
The Black Stocking is out of print, though there are still new copies of the Rue Morgue reprint available.