“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.
The 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 division—to 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 against—someone who had to be got out of the way…someone who was to be murdered. You couldn’t be both these people—you 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.
Just 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.
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.