“So this was murder. This was murder, and it happened to people one knew, and it did indescribable and horrible things to them. Frightened them first, perhaps. Fear of murder itself came first—simple, primitive fear of the unleashing of the beast. And then on its heels came more civilized fear, and that was fear of the law, and a scramble for safety.”
The Cases of Susan Dare collects the adventures of a young author who writes “murders…lovely, grisly ones with sensible solutions,” but doesn’t see why her fictional sleuths should have all the fun. Aside from her series detective, Nurse Sarah Keate, Mignon G. Eberhart’s work usually focuses more on romantic suspense than crime-solving, so it’s a nice change of pace to see both elements combined in these stories.
Over the course of the stories, Susan develops from a reluctant amateur, to an aspiring detective learning confidence in her skills, to a serious professional investigator. It is a clear through-line, yet Eberhart seems uncomfortable presenting a young woman as a competent detective.
Susan has a gift for spotting things that don’t quite fit and looking for connections between them. Her methods are supremely logical—even if she instinctively suspects a particular individual, she will not act in the absence of physical evidence. At the same time, she is quick to downplay her own abilities. It’s frustrating because no matter how intelligent she is and how skilled at crime-solving, there is always some little moment that undercuts her success, trying to make her smaller and softer. Her boyfriend Jim compares one of her solutions to an algebra problem, for example, only for a horrified Susan to interject that it’s actually like a patchwork quilt: not intellectual work, but domestic and unthreatening. The moment a case heats up, Susan runs off to make tremulous phone calls begging Jim for help, and at the conclusion of a successful investigation, it is happily noted that “the woman was home where she belonged.” It’s especially irritating because Susan doesn’t need Jim’s help to solve her cases. He only provides moral support, but she acts as if she can’t do anything without him. The stories themselves are otherwise enjoyable, and several are even quite superior, so it’s a bit depressing to see a smart, independent career woman being undermined in this way.
Introducing Susan Dare (6/10)
Susan has been enjoying her visit with Christabel Frame, until Christabel’s brother Randy turns up. Randy is spending far too much time with fellow houseguest Michela Bromfel, and her husband Joe is taking notice. Everyone can see that Randy and Michela are asking for trouble. But when trouble comes, it is more horrible than anyone could have expected. Susan feels helpless, until newspaper reporter Jim Byrne makes a fateful suggestion: “Now, here’s your chance to try a real murder mystery.”
After a long time Susan moved to the writing table and drew a sheet of yellow manuscript paper toward her, and a pencil, and wrote: Characters; possible motives; clues; queries.
It was strange, she thought, not how different real life was to its written imitation, but how like. How terribly like!
Lots of unusual clues and a good introduction to Susan and Jim, but the solution is not exactly fair play unless you have expertise in a certain field.
“You can’t just be afraid,” insists Susan. “You’ve got to be afraid of something.” But that’s what Caroline Wray is. She’s just afraid. At Jim Byrne’s suggestion, Caroline invites Susan to the Wrays’ gloomy Chicago residence to get to the bottom of it. Susan soon learns what Caroline is afraid of: her forbidding cousin Jessica, her nephew David, and, most of all, her sister Marie.
It must be Marie Wray—the older sister; the adopted Wray who was more like old Ephineas Wray than any of them. Her face was in shadow with the light beyond it, so Susan could see only a blunt, fleshy white profile and a tight knot of shining black hair above a massive black silk bosom. She did not, apparently, know of Susan’s presence, for she did not turn. There was a kind of patience about that massive, relaxed figure; a waiting. An enormous black female spider waiting in a web of shadows. But waiting for what?
A wonderfully sinister tale of family menace in a creepy Victorian mansion—and there’s a monkey.
Easter Devil (5/10)
Susan Dare is in search of devils as she investigates the murder of a servant at the country estate of Gladstone Denisty. Working undercover, “Nurse Dare” finds many strange clues, like her patient Felicia’s obsession with broken glass, and the ominous Easter Island statue that is believed to be a harbinger of death. There’s plenty of spooky atmosphere here also, but the mystery doesn’t come together as well. This is one where Susan holds back for a long time due to lack of evidence, and the evidence never really does coalesce.
The Claret Stick (6/10)
They say a bad dress rehearsal means a good opening night. If that’s the case, than the Kittiwake community theater’s next show should be a smash hit, as leading man Brock Cholster is bludgeoned to death during the rehearsal. With the theater doors locked, the only people who could have killed him are his fellow cast members. They include his wife Jane, his sister Adelaide, and their next-door neighbor Tom Remy, not to mention the show’s director Dickenson. An intricate closed-circle mystery with a well portrayed theatrical setting.
The Man Who Was Missing (5/10)
It’s news to Susan that Chicago has a French Quarter, but that is where her latest case has taken her. School friend Mariette Berne, a French immigrant who has fallen on hard times, needs Susan’s help. Her boyfriend André vanished from his locked room during the night. The moment Susan arrives at Madame Tousea’s boarding house, she knows that Mariette’s suspicions are correct—there is something wrong about this house. But does the sense of unease come from Madame herself, or one of the other boarders? As usual, Eberhart nails the atmosphere, in this case the hot, stifling feel of a run-down boarding house in the dead of summer. The solution is less convincing, however; in fact, it’s completely ridiculous.
The Calico Dog (8/10)
Twenty years ago, little Derek Lasher was kidnapped. His mother Idabelle has never given up hope that her son was alive, and her prayers have been answered twice over—two men have come forward claiming to be Derek. Both claimants, Dixon and Duane, seem like such nice young men, but they have a great incentive to lie: the real Derek is heir to a thirty-million-dollar fortune. The bewildered Idabelle turns to Susan Dare for help in determining which one is her missing son.
Until their identities are confirmed, both men are living in the Lasher mansion. Susan thinks this is “an invitation to murder,” and she’s right. One family’s private tragedy results in a public murder, right in the middle of a crowded charity ball. Despite dozens of witnesses, no one can identify the killer. An irresistible premise and good clueing make up for Susan holding back a significant fact from the reader.
Susan Dare is not an unappealing character, and taken one at a time these stories are probably fine, if a little unlikely, but grouped together like this it is impossible to miss their formulaic quality.
The Cases of Susan Dare is available as an ebook from the Mysterious Press.