“You’ve been living in a house with a murderer. And you’re not even very curious to know who the murderer is.”
The chipmunk and the bird. That’s all Tilly can think of when she sees cousin Sybil and her husband Howard lying unconscious in Sybil’s bedroom. Earlier that day, Tilly’s young son Robert was frightened by a “big boy” who dropped poison into the mouths of a chipmunk and a bird. Tilly thought his story was a figment of his imagination—until Robert showed her the dead animals, laid out side by side. Just like Sibyl and Howard.
The “arrogant and domineering” Sibyl has never been easy to please. As a widow with a small income, Tilly appreciates her cousin’s invitation to spend the summer, but it’s sometimes difficult to accept her role as a poor relation. After Sibyl is killed, however, Tilly discovers herself in a new, and even worse position: murder suspect.
Widow’s Mite is an amiable but undercooked effort from the usually excellent Elisabeth Sanxay Holding. It’s not menacing enough to be a suspense novel, not deep enough to be a psychological study, and not baffling enough to be a detective story. While it’s pleasant enough to read, there’s no real purpose to it.
Tilly is a born people-pleaser, though lately her efforts don’t seem to please anyone. Early on, she is so cowed by Sybil that Tilly gives in to the other woman’s demand for sleeping pills even though she has been drinking heavily. When she later notices that her cousin may be sleeping too deeply, she doesn’t even try to wake her up for fear of Sybil’s wrath. Needless to say, Tilly feels awful when it turns out Sybil really has died. But how can she reveal to police that Sybil could have been poisoned earlier than they believe without also revealing that she herself may have been the one to administer the poison?
After Sybil’s death, Tilly transfers her obedience to Sam Osborne, a total stranger. Osborne seems reasonable at first, complaining about detective stories “with those fool girls in them.”
“Those dim-wits,” he said. “The ones that always keep something back from the police or the famous detective The girls that see a man coming out of the summer-house where the body is found later, and never tell. The girls that see the good-for-nothing nephew sneaking something into Auntie’s tea but never say a word when Auntie drops dead […] It’s all damn nonsense,” said Osborne, “and it never works. If anyone’s in any way mixed up in a police case, the only thing to do is to tell the truth about what you know, and tell it quick.”
Almost immediately, however, he has a radical change of heart and encourages Tilly to do all kinds of suspicious things. Though Osborne accuses Tilly of being too “innocent” and “artless,” he’s more than happy to take advantage of her trusting nature. She sees nothing to worry about, even as his advice gets her into more and more trouble. There’s nothing romantic about the way Osborne takes charge of Tilly’s life, and the only suspense is wondering how he’ll manage to top his previous bad ideas (which he always does).
The other suspects are also quick to impose upon Tilly’s meek nature. What should be a house of mourning soon becomes a madhouse. Sybil’s husband Howard survives the attempt on his life, but vacillates about whether he’s going to let Tilly and her son stay now that Sybil is gone. The high-strung Howard is barely able to handle the aftermath of Sybil’s murder but, as Osborne reminds Tilly, Howard didn’t find life with Sybil very restful, either.
“Howard’s a good egg, after his fashion. But he’s got what you might call a low breaking-point. And he’s had to stand all the things a stuffed shirt can’t stand. Disorder, confusion, crazy extravagances, crazy quarrels with the neighbors. One time when they were having a dinner-party, all the oyster forks had disappeared, at the last moment. He was absolutely sunk.”
“I can’t think that’s very tragic,” said Tilly.
“It was—for him. It was a humiliation he never got over, to see their guests eating oysters with big forks.”
While all teenagers say they hate their parents, Sybil’s son Taylor, fresh from a school for disturbed children, really seems to mean it. Their neighbor, emotionally unstable divorcee Carola Dexter, claims that Sybil was her best friend and often complained to her about Tilly’s grasping ways. But would a best friend try to steal Carola’s boyfriend Dick Cantrell, as rumor suggests? Maybe a best friend who thought Carola was after her own husband. Soon Tilly’s head is swimming from all the unasked-for gossip her fellow suspects insist on sharing.
Tilly’s lifestyle is an old-fashioned one that is likely to irritate many readers. Why doesn’t she get a job instead of becoming a professional houseguest? Her late husband Ian’s modest life insurance is due to run out very soon. This worries Tilly, yet she has no plan in place. As Tilly herself reminds us, though, not everyone is capable of rising to meet extraordinary circumstances. Most of us are very ordinary indeed, muddling along as best we can and making plenty of mistakes along the way.
Me? I’m nobody. Nothing. I’ve never had a job or earned a penny in my life. I’m not able to support my own child. I’m not a really good housekeeper or cook, I can’t sew. I’ve got friends, and I love them, girls I went to school with, but they’re not important, dazzling people. Just dear and nice. I’ve had beaus, the average number, but never anyone like Ian. Never anyone with such charm and wit; never anyone so handsome and debonair. Only that little, little time together—and now I haven’t anything. I’m nobody.
No! That’s disgusting. That’s shocking. I am somebody. I’m Robert’s mother, and I was Ian’s wife, and I made him happy. I made my parents happy. I’m not mean or cruel or dishonest, and I’m not stupid.
A strong, intrepid heroine is always appreciated, but most people are not strong or intrepid. Tilly certainly is not. She is, however, a good person who has never hurt anyone and doesn’t deserve the ordeal she’s going through.
There’s still no excuse for Sam Osborne, though. That’s an ordeal she brought upon herself.
Widow’s Mite is less a mystery than a series of random events. The ending is one of those solutions that seems to happen simply because the author feels the book has gone on long enough and she had better put a stop to it. The novel is otherwise well-paced, with a nicely understated sense of humor. It’s adequate light entertainment. To experience Elisabeth Sanxay Holding at the height of her powers, however, check out The Blank Wall or The Innocent Mrs. Duff instead. Widow’s Mite is too meager a portion.
Widow’s Mite is available in paperback and ebook from Stark House as part of a double volume with Who’s Afraid.