“Your future is before you. Or, if you choose, it is already behind you.”
There’s no reason for Marny to feel so uneasy about this trip. After all, her boss, airline owner Tim Wales, has invited her to his family’s vacation home in Miami many times. She gets along well with his daughter Winnie and his much younger second wife Judith. It’s foolish to worry, but she does.
Maybe the reason has something to do with Andre Durant. The handsome stranger appeared in Marny’s life only a week ago, but she is strangely drawn to him. When they arrive in Miami, however, she starts to wonder just how much she knows about Andre. She’ll have even more cause to wonder when a dead body turns up on the Wales estate, the body of a woman with ties to Andre. But Marny’s nightmare is only beginning, for the description of the killer matches only one person—Marny herself.
The White Dress is an enjoyable but fairly basic example of Mignon G. Eberhart’s brand of romantic suspense. This particular entry offers up murder in a swanky Florida mansion ringed by balconies that always seem to be teeming with aspiring murderers. Perhaps it goes without saying that Marny confronts the killer during a hurricane, in a genuinely hair-raising scene. Sadly, the fact that our protagonist shows any intelligence at all during that sequence is the most surprising part. Despite being an ambitious business executive in line for a vice-presidency, Marny is astonishingly witless. Everyone keeps telling her, “You may be smart in business, but not in your personal life.” The latter is definitely true, but sadly we see no evidence of the former.
One thing Eberhart always delivers is a glamorous setting. We know Marny’s sense of foreboding is serious, because even the sight of beautiful Shadow Island cannot dispel it.
Something was wrong with her, something that the tropic twilight, the lush greens, the bright scarlets, the sweet, humid air had sharpened, rather than lulled. It was like a bud, that small hidden sense of uneasiness, forced by the tropical air into swift, full—and rather sinister—bloom.
There are the usual two suitors for Marny to choose from: Andre, who may not be as shady as he looks (but then again, he might be!) and Commander Bill Cameron, who literally pops up out of the shrubbery to tell Marny that Winston Churchill has sent him to Miami to prevent World War III. Neither of these men seem like great options, to be frank.
Marny tries to quell her fears by making out with Andre in front of a hibiscus bush, but she’s distracted by the very real possibility that Bill might still be lurking in the foliage. This is a legitimate concern, as shrubbery seems to be Bill’s natural habitat. A confused Marny stumbles up to her room only to be greeted by Cecily. The fragile young woman says she won’t give Andre up, to Marny or anyone, and she flashes a gun to prove it. Before Marny has time to process this new information, Cecily is found dead: shot, according to a passing pilot, by a woman in a white dress.
Not only is Marny the only woman in the house who owns a white evening dress, all of her dresses are white. How can she possibly prove her innocence, especially with the other potential suspects being so wealthy and influential?
The investigation unfolds with no particular urgency, perhaps due to the impending hurricane. Eberhart nails that sense of restless expectancy when you just know a disaster like a major storm or statewide lockdown is on its way, you just don’t know exactly when it’s going to strike. Marny whiles away these hours eyeing one of her beaux suspiciously.
He looked no different. There was only a curious blankness about his face. As if he had not put on his usual mask of charm, of gaiety, of humanity. He drew nearer. His eyes were blank, too, and curiously opaque. It was the look of a creature from another and unknown world, something alien, something walled and untouchable by its own choice and being—and something evil.
Meanwhile, she follows the other man around adoringly while he tells her what to do. Only rarely does it occur to her that she knows both of these men equally well—which is to say, not at all.
The biggest drawback of the book is that only a few characters in addition to Marny are singled out for more nuanced portrayals, most of them men. This lends a slightly monotonous quality to the middle passages, where Marny drifts around in a haze, interacting mostly with her love interests. It’s hard to evaluate other suspects when we never spend much time with them. The interplay between women is always the most intriguing aspect of Eberhart’s work, and that is sorely missed here.
Thankfully, the hurricane and a mysterious phantom snap Marny out of her romantic reverie, at least for a little while. The ending of The White Dress works psychologically, even if the logistics are iffy. Sometimes with an unlikely solution, it’s best to just power through and try to get it done as quickly as possible, before the reader has time to think about it too much. This conclusion is actually one that could have seemed much more plausible if given a little more time to play out. Marny’s romantic choices, on the other hand, will never seem plausible no matter what.
Haute couture in a good blend of romanticized mystery detection with psychological highlights.
The White Dress is out of print, with many affordable used copies available.