Fear by Night (1934) by Patricia Wentworth

Fear by Night by Patricia Wentworth

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“No one lives here, and no one comes here. The people who live round about, they wouldn’t come here if you paid them. And why wouldn’t they? Because, I’m telling you, it’s dangerous. It’s dangerous and it’s deep.”

All Ann Vernon wants is lunch, but her boyfriend Charles is late again. As she waits for him in the lobby of the Luxe Hotel, she can’t help overhearing a conversation nearby. “If he dies the whole thing will be in the papers. She must be got away at once before she knows,” says one man. “And then?” asks the other. A heavy silence is the only reply. As soon as Charles arrives, Ann forgets all about it. She has no idea these strangers are talking about her.

Fear by Night adds a few twists to the standard woman-in-jeopardy plot, though even the wonderfully strange ending is not enough to keep the second half from dragging. An heiress in danger, a lonely island, unscrupulous relations who will stop at nothing…these are classic elements, but an author also has to work pretty hard to make them surprising. To her credit, Patricia Wentworth doesn’t belabor this part of the plot. Refreshing as this is, it winds up leading to a different, much less mysterious, kind of story. It’s an easy read, often pleasurable, but just as often too drawn-out.

Fear by Night by Patricia WentworthThe early chapters maintain a good balance of revelation and mystery. Straight off, Ann’s great-uncle Elias Paulett does what so many prospective murder victims ought to do. He knows that his great-niece Hilda and his secretary Gale Anderson are plotting against him. Gleefully, Elias tells Gale that he has left his fortune to Hilda’s cousin Ann, whom none of them have ever met. With no inheritance to hope for, it is now in Hilda and Gale’s best interest to keep him alive. Elias doesn’t seem to care that he has purchased his own safety at the cost of Ann’s: if she dies before her uncle, Hilda will become the heiress.

Some time later in London, Ann is unemployed and hungry. The conversation she overhears in the hotel barely registers. She has problems of her own, like the fact that Charles keeps proposing to her and she’s afraid someday she’ll say yes. As deeply as she loves Charles, Ann knows that he needs a wife with money.

There’s nothing the least bit heart-smiting about being poor, you know. It’s very deteriorating because you have to keep on thinking about money all the time—horrid, sordid things like, “Will it run to a bus fare?” or “Can I have butter to-day?” Everyone ought to have so much money that they never have to think about it at all. You’ve no idea how nice I should be if I had a thousand a year.

When she is offered a job as a lady’s companion, she can’t afford to turn it down. Charles is suspicious, but how could an old woman like Mrs. Halliday be anything other than who she says she is? After all, “villains in films never make marrow jam.”

It was a scene of the deepest and dullest domesticity…How could you look at Mrs. Halliday’s cap, with its crisp net ruching and its little bunches of black and violet baby ribbon, and believe that you were in danger? […]

Quite suddenly she felt as if she couldn’t bear it any longer. It wrenched you too badly to live on both sides of that divisionto be dull, and safe, and Victorian, and respectable, and Mrs. Halliday’s companion, and at the same time to be someone who was being plotted againstsomeone who had to be got out of the way…someone who was to be murdered. You couldn’t be both these peopleyou simply couldn’t. And something kept forcing it upon you.

This early section of the book is full of intrigue, as the reader suspects, without quite knowing for sure, what is being planned for Ann. That job offer is strange (any position explicitly stating that orphans are preferred should be looked upon with skepticism). Yet Mrs. Halliday and her bootlegger son Jimmy are well-known figures in London. Jimmy is famously devoted to his mother; he would never involve her in anything shady. They’ve been visiting their holiday home on the Scottish island of Loch Dhu for years.

Fear by Night by Patricia WentworthJust as the reader is settling in, happily anticipating revelations to come, the whole scheme is suddenly laid out, leaching all the suspense out of the story. It isn’t long before Ann starts putting the pieces together as well. There are still a few chills to be wrung out of an intelligent (if sometimes misguided) heroine trying to get herself off an isolated island, and Wentworth wrings for dear life, but the action becomes repetitive and predictable.

As the characters go through their well-worn paces, they are aided by the authentically creepy setting of Loch Dhu. The Hallidays’ vacation home, with the facade of a modern villa disguising an ancient, maze-like interior, is Loch Dhu’s only inhabited building. The other cottages are crumbling to ruin; their owners fled to the mainland in fear. Ann, who has other things to be afraid of, loves to roam the island, hypnotized by its beauties and terrors.

Under the veiled half light she saw something that moved among the ripples—something without shape, a darkness in the water, a darkness that moved. The clouds above were denser, and the half light failed. She couldn’t see. She couldn’t see at all. She felt a cold and dreadful terror of the dark. And Mary had said, “Keep away from the water or it’ll get ye.” She couldn’t see, but she thought she could hear the wash of that dark, moving thing. The cold fear broke into panic, and she ran, scrambling and slipping, up the steep path to the house. Half way up she looked back and saw that the clouds had shifted. The water lay bare and open to the moon. There was nothing there.

Loch Dhu’s caves, cliffs, and bottomless lake are ominous, with hints of something primeval going on below the surface. Will these forces of nature help Ann, or doom her to destruction?

Fear by Night begins with great promise and concludes with an ending so bizarre that the author feels compelled to add an epilogue defending it. I kind of love the oddity of the conclusion, but cannot deny that there’s a certain once-out-of-the-pit quality to the execution. Part of the ending’s interest comes from the fact that it’s the first unexpected thing to happen in at least fifty pages. While Fear by Night does offer quite a few pleasures, the plot is ultimately just a little too thin.

Second Opinion

Todd Downing, Daily Oklahoman, March 4, 1934

Maybe it’s the restful familiarity of the formula; maybe it’s the writer’s real skill in narration; maybe it’s taste on our part for vicarious something or other. At any rate, we—and, it would seem, many others—like books like Fear by Night. Serious-minded fans can pass it by.

Availability

Fear by Night is available as an ebook from Open Road Media in the US and in ebook and paperback formats from Dean Street Press in the UK

Vanish in an Instant (1952) by Margaret Millar

Vanish in an Instant by Margaret Millar

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“We may never know the truth of what happened. Maybe there isn’t any whole truth about anything, just a lot of  versions, of different colors and different flavors, like ice cream, and you pick the most palatable.”

The holidays are a time to be with family, but Mrs. Hamilton never imagined she would be visiting hers in jail. Her daughter Virginia has been accused of an unspeakable crime, and she is a suspect that only a mother could love. Even Virginia’s own lawyer, Eric Meecham, dislikes his spoiled client and her overbearing mother. Little does he realize how complicated his first murder case is about to become. Continue reading “Vanish in an Instant (1952) by Margaret Millar”

Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing

Moss Rose by Joseph Shearing

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Christmas Day, thought Belle, and things going on just the same. People at the mortuary ready to bring round the hearse, doctors and policemen on duty, and all that crowd of idlers in the street, with nothing better to do than just stare at the house where a stupid woman, for whom nobody cared, was murdered last night.”

It’s Christmas Eve, and Belle Adair is about to cut her throat. Once a lady (more or less), Belle is now reduced to the most sordid poverty. Dancing in the pantomime when she’s lucky, walking the streets when she’s not, spending more and more of her meager funds on gin–it’s no kind of life, she decides. Due to a strange twist of fate, however, it isn’t Belle who is found with her throat cut on Christmas morning, but her neighbor Daisy. Belle is sure she knows more about the murder than Scotland Yard. If she plays her cards right, this could be the chance of a lifetime, but the slightest miscalculation could lead to Belle from the gutter to the grave. Continue reading “Moss Rose (1934) by Joseph Shearing”

Reprint of the Year Nomination 2: The Little Lie

The Little Lie by Jean Potts

Who among us has never told a lie? The power of domestic suspense comes from its ability to infuse the everyday with horror, even something as mundane as a little white lie. Few authors are more skilled than Jean Potts at tapping into these anxieties, and The Little Lie (reissued by Stark House) may be her masterpiece. Potts uses a single moment of dishonesty to prod at the many other secrets and lies hidden beneath the surface of small-town life, as one small sin escalates into shocking consequences. Continue reading “Reprint of the Year Nomination 2: The Little Lie”

Reprint of the Year Nomination 1: Beat Back the Tide

Footsteps in the Night and Beat Back the Tide by Dolores Hitchens

“It’s terrible when you fasten all your life to a mirage…The worst of it all is when you begin to see the truth—not the truth as the other might have revealed it, but finding it scrap by scrap, little by little. All the time you’re clinging to what you thought was there, and the change, the corruption, is eating it away, and finally there is nothing at all and you think it would be better to die.”

California is a place to reinvent yourself, but what happens when that doesn’t work? When you don’t find what you’re looking for and there’s nowhere left to go? That’s why California noir is the most hopeless. For the characters in Dolores Hitchens’ 1954 novel Beat Back the Tide, California is the end of the line. The gulf between its dazzling promises and what it actually delivers is profound. Everyone has a past they are trying to forget, but, like the tide, it just keeps roaring back.

Beat Back the Tide, reissued this year by Stark House, is a haunting meditation on identity and loss. All of its characters, except one, are trying to become someone else, desperate to escape the failures of other lives in other places. The exception is Francesca Warne, who returns to the scene of her greatest failure by coming to work as a nanny in the house where her husband was murdered several years ago. Francesca is the one person who is always herself, who never lies (though she does hold back a great deal). As a result, she appears contradictory and inscrutable to those around her. 

Under her words, under everything she had said since they had come outside, lay something else—something Glazer couldn’t put his finger on but which nonetheless made him faintly uneasy…Mrs. Warne, though she seemed to be saying quite simple things, had other meanings in her head. The thing she wasn’t saying peeped through the tones of her queer, breathless voice and looked from her eyes […] He wondered briefly, standing there near her, watching the black hair glitter in the sun, if the thing that was the matter with her could be fear.

Her boss Glazer (whose first name is never revealed) becomes suspicious of Francesca after several strange events shatter the peace of his house on the cliff. Glazer is introduced as a successful building contractor, a grieving widower who just wants to protect his child. He’s even managed to cultivate a garden in the sparse, sandy soil of the clifftop. However, as he becomes more and more obsessed with the mystery of Francesca’s past, it becomes clear that Glazer’s own past is much darker than his current lifestyle would suggest.

Beat Back the Tide by Dolores HitchensEven the sunny yellow flowers spilling merrily over the cliff take on a more sinister aspect. “It had been after Rheba’s death, and after he had begun to feel some disappointment about Jamie, that he had begun to put so much effort into the garden. And he had conquered here, he thought with a kind of shock, though his wife had escaped him by dying and Jamie evaded his guidance in a way he couldn’t analyze.” He often comes across as almost cruel to his son, Jamie. The boy’s sweet and timid nature hits him like a betrayal. Glazer has decorated Jamie’s room in a heavy, masculine Wild West theme, with pistols and snarling animals hanging on the wall, as if to harden the child to meet the demands of a tough world. Having reinvented himself, Glazer cannot be content with his son as he really is. He must reinvent Jamie as well. Glazer may be the protagonist of Beat Back the Tide, but he’s far from being a hero. The more of his character that is revealed, the more unsettling it is.

Glazer’s quest to solve Adam Warne’s murder is a way of understanding, and thereby controlling, Francesca. His investigation brings him into contact with people who are terrified he will discover the truth behind their carefully crafted new personas. Some of these secret identities seem harmless, like the drugstore clerk turned pampered housewife. Others are more dangerous. Dolores Hitchens conjures up these desperate lives with just a few telling details (“It was not a warm, experienced smile. Probably he did not smile often enough to quite get the hang of it”). Several of the secrets are pathetically small, but this only makes them seem more shameful under Glazer’s withering eye. Even the town of Seaview itself is not what it seems. The community masquerades as a picturesque artists’ colony, but it hasn’t really been that for many years. Instead, Seaview exploits its bohemian past to draw in the tourists and wealthy retirees its economy depends upon. It offers these rootless people the illusion of authenticity, the rough edges they still crave after having smoothed off their own.

The late Adam Warne stirred up these people simply by being his own authentic self, awful as that self was. Since Adam denied himself no impulse, everyone he met knew at once exactly how he saw them. For some, he reflected themselves as they would like to be: talented, beloved. For others, he represented their worst fears. Hitchens is not unkind to her characters, not even the shiftless, alcoholic Adam, who is remembered fondly by a few friends.

If you’ve been talking to people here in town, you’ve got an impression he was lower than dirt […] But you can’t add up a man that way. You can’t just say he was like this and he was rotten, because none of us are just one thing or even one kind of human being. We’re a lot of creatures rolled into a skin and penned up, imprisoned, for the time we have to live. And Adam Warne was a man who never did find out which creature he was meant to be. He experimented. He tried to discover himself.

Beat Back the Tide ends on a disquieting note, with brief surveys of the human wreckage left behind. The astonishing thing is how resilient these characters are after all they have been through. One after another, they all insist that everything is going to work out now. It will be different this time. They will be different this time. And maybe they will. Maybe, for a few, their dreams of California really will come true.

I can attest that Beat Back the Tide is a worthy candidate for Reprint of the Year because I have been thinking about it throughout the entire year. I first read this book back in March, and it’s stayed with me ever since. Its painfully honest but optimistic tone makes this a book for 2020. One is left with the sense of having passed through an ordeal and come out the other side a little battered, but also a little stronger and maybe just a little wiser. Beat Back the Tide takes place in a ruined yet hopeful world where facing the truth, however harsh it may be, is the first step to living “a happy and useful life.” Maybe not the life you’ve always dreamed of, but the life that really belongs to you. “What did you want out of life?” Glazer asks himself, before providing his own answer. “It doesn’t matter. This is what you’ve got.”

Nominations for Reprint of the Year are posted at Crossexamining Crime

 

The White Priory Murders (1934) by Carter Dickson

The White Priory Murders by Carter Dickson

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“This is your own home, isn’t it? Nothing to be afraid of in your own home.”

Centuries ago, the king’s mistress would wait for him in the Queen’s Mirror, a white marble folly surrounded by water on the estate of White Priory. Now, movie queen Marcia Tait awaits her lover there on Christmas Eve. And it’s there that her body is found on Christmas morning, her beautiful face smashed in. But with only one set of footprints in the snow, how did her killer escape? Though murder is the last thing Sir Henry Merrivale wants for Christmas, he is the only one who can solve this impossible crime.

The White Priory Murders has one of the most brilliant and satisfying solutions I’ve ever read. Merrivale effortlessly bats away theories of the murder, some of them quite plausible, before dropping a bombshell so perfect he could have stopped after one sentence and still left the reader convinced. Nearly every fact established early on holds up, yet within that framework, John Dickson Carr (writing as Carter Dickson) is constantly adding new information that changes the meaning and significance of each piece of evidence. White Priory as a whole is not as perfect as its solution, with stodgy pacing and fractious suspects slowing the story down early on. However, these issues fade into insignificance next to the pure delight of the denouement.

The White Priory Murders by Carter DicksonBefore heading down to White Priory for the holidays, James Bennett consults his uncle Sir Henry Merrivale. (Sadly, after this brief appearance, Merrivale will disappear from the story for quite some time.) Bennett has fond memories of meeting Marcia Tait and her circle of admirers during their visit to the United States, but back in England, the dynamic has changed. Despite her Hollywood success, Marcia hasn’t forgotten the humiliation of an early theatrical flop. She is determined to conquer the West End no matter what. She has even convinced newspaper tycoon Lord Canifest to invest in the show, though his interest in Marcia is more personal than professional. Fledgling producer John Bohun is also in love with Marcia. He plans to star her in a play by his scholarly brother Maurice, much to the disgust of film executive Rainger, who is threatening to cancel Marcia’s contract. All of these people are invited to the Christmas festivities, along with John and Maurice’s niece Katherine and Lord Canifest’s emotionally unstable daughter Louise.

Bennett has already witnessed one attempt on Marcia’s life. He is worried that bringing this volatile group to the Bohuns’ ancestral home may lead to something even worse. “You can’t describe an atmosphere,” Bennett tells his uncle, “any more than you can describe a sultry day. And it’s atmosphere that Tait carries with her.” Marcia’s costar Jervis Willard is even more explicit: “She inspired devilishness wherever she went. If you didn’t love her, she was just as willing to have you–or anybody else–hate her.”

Bennett’s premonition is correct. Following a drunken and exhausted pre-dawn drive to White Priory, he arrives just as John Bohun discovers Marcia’s body in the Queen’s Mirror. The silent white house is completely surrounded by “thin ice and unbroken snow.” The only footsteps visible are the ones John has just made. Police determine that Marcia was killed after the snowfall. What they can’t explain is how this was done without leaving tracks behind. Scotland Yard Inspector Humphrey Masters is on hand to play Santa Claus for the local children, but the group of hung-over, argumentative suspects at White Priory all wind up on his naughty list.

In desperation, he summons Sir Henry Merrivale. This is what readers have been waiting for, especially as it comes rather late in the book. Thanks to “his weird, childlike, deadly brain,” Merrivale has “an unholy reputation of being able to see through a brick wall.” Before his trip overseas, Bennett’s father warns him what to expect from his legendary uncle.

“Don’t, under any circumstances, use any ceremony with him. He wouldn’t understand it. He has frequently got into trouble at political meetings by making speeches in which he absent-mindedly refers to their Home Secretary as Boko and their Premier as Horse face. You will probably find him asleep, although he will pretend he is very busy. His favorite delusion is that he is being persecuted, and that nobody appreciates him. His baronetcy is two or three hundred years old, and he is also a fighting Socialist. He is a qualified barrister and physician, and he speaks the world’s most slovenly grammar. His mind is scurrilous; he shocks lady typists, wears white socks, and appears in public without his necktie. Don’t be deceived by his looks; he likes to think he is as expressionless as a Buddha and as sour-faced as Scrooge. I might add,” said the elder Bennett, “that at criminal investigation he is a good deal of a genius.”

Carr often uses his characters to expound on philosophies of detection. Here, Merrivale is delighted to have a real impossible crime to sink his teeth into. He describes the three possible reasons for staging such a crime. The first two, a false suicide and a “ghost-fake” with supernatural elements, are obviously not applicable in the Tait murder. The third option is the most intriguing, that of an accidental impossible crime, “the murderer who creates an impossible situation despite himself, without wantin’ to.” Merrivale uses his observations of both victim and suspects to reconstruct the psychology behind the crime. If the impossible circumstances are not the premeditated plot of a criminal mastermind, then there must be some other reason why the murder turned out this way.

This is a slight problem because the suspects are reluctant to expose themselves to either Merrivale or the reader. Despite Bennett’s lengthy explanations of all the relationships, once the murder actually takes place, it’s difficult to keep everyone straight. In part, this is because a surprising number of suspects manage to avoid engaging with Masters or Merrivale in the first place due to illness, inebriation, or just plain orneriness. One major suspect never even appears at White Priory, another belatedly turns up after we’d forgotten their existence, yet another takes to their room and refuses to emerge until the end. The ones who do deign to be questioned don’t actually want to answer questions themselves; they only wish to share their own theories of the crime. Even Bennett hides information from his uncle because he’s sweet on one of the suspects. Merrivale is surprisingly tolerant of all this bad behavior, but it doesn’t make things easy for the reader.

The White Priory Murders is not a perfect novel, but it does have a perfect ending. This isn’t a cozy country-house mystery. It’s a bleak and cold one, with characters who are too wrapped up in their own concerns to worry about the murder. For a long time, it sort of plods along, feeling like no progress is being made with the case at all. It’s not until Merrivale makes his full entrance halfway in that the story picks up, leading to a spectacularly eerie finish that fits exactly with the personalities of the victim and the killer. There’s nothing better than being fooled by a master. In The White Priory Murders John Dickson Carr pulls off some truly astonishing sleight of hand, all of it in plain sight.

Second Opinions

ahsweetmysteryblog

I’ll admit to feeling a bit disappointed with this one. But even if The Bowstring Murders was a snappier read, White Priory feels richer, both in its set-up and its mystery. You can feel all of Dickson’s cylinders clicking with this one.

Crossexamining Crime

Overall, I think the material in this book had a lot of potential but was not fully developed or utilised, in particular the characters and their relationship dynamics at the White Priory.

The Green Capsule

I don’t know whether everyone will experience this sudden click, but I have to think so.  Merrivale, of course, goes on to explain exactly what happened in depth, but I suspect that most readers will comprehend the core solution in reading that one perfect sentence.  That moment alone seals this story as one of Carr’s greatest accomplishments.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

Now this is how you plot a mystery – there are a multitude of clues littering the story, some of which, when you examine them in hindsight are really obvious – but I’d be impressed with anyone who spots the murderer. The killer is remarkably, but fairly, well hidden but you’ll be kicking yourself that you didn’t spot who it was. None of the clues are particularly obscure (except for the one that needs a page reference – points off for that!) which is the charm. You feel after reading this one that you’ve been hoodwinked by a master.

The Reader Is Warned

It felt to me that each scene made sense being there, characters or dialogue didn’t seem superfluous, and even with the extended page count, each piece fitted together in a gorgeous plot with simple but shocking turns over the chapters that it kept me going at high pace. 

Availability

The White Priory Murders is out of print, with used copies available. It was reprinted in the early 1990s by International Polygonics.

 

Epitaph for a Nurse (1958) by Anne Hocking

Epitaph for a Nurse by Anne Hocking

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It’s a terrible thought. To murder anyone. You must have to hate them intensely, and there’s someone going round hating like that. It frightens me.

Nurse Jessica Biggs is the backbone of the small rural hospital where she works. Her colleagues value her skill and efficiency as a nurse, yet her harsh manner has won her no friends either inside or outside the hospital. Plain, poorly educated, and aging, Sister Biggs knows that she cannot rely on anyone else to secure her future. Her position offers her access to sensitive information, things that her patients would not want anyone else to know. Sister Biggs knows how to keep a secret…for a price. Continue reading “Epitaph for a Nurse (1958) by Anne Hocking”

Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout

Fer de Lance by Rex Stout

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Be seated,” Wolfe said. “You must pardon me; for engineering reasons I arise only for emergencies.”

“This is an emergency,” she said.

Maria Maffei is worried about her brother Carlo, who has vanished after accepting a mysterious new job. When police don’t take her concerns seriously, Maria turns to the famed private detective Nero Wolfe, who is larger than life in more ways than one.

Wolfe discovers that Carlo Maffei was taking an unusual interest in the death of university president Peter Oliver Barstow. What is the connection between the seemingly natural death of a blue-blooded academic and the disappearance of an immigrant metalworker? Wolfe and his legman Archie Goodwin are about to learn that the two men are bound by a secret more sinister than they could have imagined. Continue reading “Fer-de-Lance (1934) by Rex Stout”

Crossed Skis (1952) by Carol Carnac

Crossed Skis by Carol Carnac

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“We all set out feeling supremely confident. Everybody liked everybody else. We didn’t all know one another, but everybody was vouched for by somebody. So and so’s friend, he’s O.K. Now we feel we’ve got a snake in the grass and we don’t know who the snake is.”

As assorted Londoners stumble through a dark and cloudy New Year’s Day, some of them have reason to be grateful they are about to depart on a ski holiday to Austria. Sunny skies and bright, clean snow await them. Others are not so fortunate. Inspector Rivers and Sergeant Lancing are stuck back in London, investigating a fatal house fire. The cheerful skiing party seems a thousand miles away from a murder in London, but as the investigation progresses, Rivers wonders just how far murder can reach. Continue reading “Crossed Skis (1952) by Carol Carnac”

The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen

The Siamese Twin Mystery by Ellery Queen

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“The case,” he said slowly, “far from being solved, has just begun.”

Racing up Arrow Mountain in a desperate attempt to escape the forest fire that has cut off the road behind them, Inspector Richard Queen and his son Ellery are relieved to discover a house at the top of the mountain. Their refuge is short-lived, however. Something strange is going on at the Xavier mansion, a situation that can only end in murder. As the flames creep higher and higher up the mountain, the entire group is facing certain death. What they don’t know is how that death will come—from the fire, or at the hands of a human killer. Continue reading “The Siamese Twin Mystery (1933) by Ellery Queen”