Cottage Sinister (1931) by Q. Patrick

Cottage Sinister by Q Patrick

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“There’s something all wrong about this. God alone knows what it means.”

Lady’s Bower is the loveliest cottage in Somersetshire—more beautiful, even, than the nearby manor house Crosby Hall. Visitors are often surprised to find this choice property occupied by a servant, but Mrs. Lubbock deserves it after her years of service to the Crosby family. Mrs. Lubbock is enjoying a happy retirement, with her three daughters settled in life. Amy and Isabel are ladies’ maids in London. Lucy, a trained nurse, lives at home with her mother while working in the village hospital. It’s even rumored that Lucy has caught the eye of Dr. Christopher Crosby, the heir to Crosby Hall.

It seems impossible that anything bad could happen in such an idyllic setting. But the Lubbock family’s peaceful life is about to be shattered by violent death…not just once, but again and again.

Cottage Sinister is a deceptively gentle, amusing tale of rural mayhem that builds to an impressive body count. There’s not much hope of solving this one unless you’re a scientist (like coauthor Richard Webb, who worked with various writing partners under the names of Q. Patrick, Jonathan Stagge, and, most famously, Patrick Quentin). The solution is very clever but highly specialized. Still, Cottage Sinister offers all the charm of a traditional village mystery with a tart core that keeps things from getting too sentimental.

Cottage Sinister by Q PatrickIt all begins innocently enough, as a group of friends gather at Lady’s Bower to celebrate Amy and Isabel’s visit home. Amy is well-liked, and the crowd includes at least one hopeful suitor. Isabel’s sharp tongue makes her less popular than her sister. Mrs. Lubbock and Lucy are present, of course, along with Dr. Hoskins and several of Lucy’s colleagues from the hospital. Lady Crosby, her son Christopher, and their friend Vivien Darcy even drop by from Crosby Hall. Everyone eats and drinks the same refreshments, yet by morning, Amy will be dead of poison. More deaths will follow in the days to come, as suspects become murder victims themselves.

With the county constable laid up by gout, Scotland Yard sends one of their best men down to the village of Crosby-Stourton: Inspector Inge, known as the Archdeacon. The Archdeacon is presented to the reader as a Great Detective, and he certainly sees himself that way. He prides himself on his logical crime-solving methods. “He was an expert in psychological crimes because he never used his imagination—an adept at motiveless murder because he firmly believed that there was no such thing…he did not believe that anything could be really mysterious!” The Archdeacon revels in his catchy nickname, even affecting all-black garb and an ascetic demeanor in the hope that someone will mistake him for a clergyman so that he can dramatically reveal his true identity.

There is a hint of absurdity to this character, just enough that the reader is never quite sure how seriously to take his sleuthing. The Archdeacon is always painfully aware of himself as a detective. He daydreams of earning new nicknames like “the Society Detective” and sizes up his fellow train passengers in the manner of Sherlock Holmes (though with less success). Still, the village casts a spell over the Archdeacon. He finds himself constantly torn between his duties and the beauty of the countryside.

He was enjoying the case very much indeed. He had never been quite so comfortable in his life. He liked the village. The old cottages, with their crumbling stones, their mossy roofs and bright, cheerful gardens, gave him a sense of peace and repose. He took a quiet pleasure in the gentle, unobtrusive wisdom of the rustics. He liked the village and—above all—he liked his propinquity to the aristocracy. A twinge of conscience reminded him that he had no right to be enjoying himself in the midst of tragedy and death. And yet, in some innermost recess of his mind, he secretly wished that the case might not prove too easy—or, at least, that the solution might not present itself too quickly.

The Archdeacon is equally delighted and baffled by his contacts with the local gentry. Lady Crosby is no ordinary country gentlewoman. She has known for many years that her husband, Sir Howard, loves his land and his horses more than the wife whose money pays for it all. Instead, she turns her attention to other things, in particular her son Christopher and the education of her protégé Lucy Lubbock. Lady Crosby encourages Christopher to attend medical school against his father’s wishes. Their mutual interest in medicine is also bringing Christopher and Lucy closer, causing a local scandal. (“It all happened on the day when Doctor Hoskins was doing that op for multiple tumors three weeks ago. You know—I was doing the anesthetic and you were holding the instruments while he worked,” confides the lovelorn Christopher.)

Cottage Sinister offers all the pleasures of a typical village mystery with a mild vein of cynicism running throughout. Attractive though it may be, Crosby-Stourton is presented as insignificant even in its own region. “True, Wordsworth walked over one day from Nether-Stowey and wrote a rather poor sonnet in praise of its ‘historic stones and slumbrous living dead,’ but he soon passed on and wrote better sonnets elsewhere.” It is populated by eccentric characters whose opinions are easily swayed by gossip. Some are a little too eccentric, in particular the village constable who is addicted to misusing big words, but others are more entertaining.

Let it never for a moment be supposed that Mrs. Greene so much as breathed a word of what she had read in the telegrams. She listened very carefully to all that was told her and then went on her mute and mysterious way. And yet—somehow or other—her very silence, coupled with various noddings and shakings of the head and an attitude of “I could a tale unfold” was more pregnant of wild rumors than if she had disclosed the whole contents of Dr. Hoskins’ dispatches.

The murders at Lady’s Bower illustrate how old traditions are giving way to modernity, even in this isolated village. Local girls are no longer content to work as servants. Squires’ children want to marry for love, not money or social position. Modern medicine offers new treatments for age-old problems, as afflictions that ruined the lives of older generations can now be treated and discussed frankly. I was initially surprised by this book’s setting in an English village, having always associated Patrick/Quentin/Stagge with more sophisticated American milieus. Despite the seemingly quaint backdrop here, however, Cottage Sinister is fully on the side of youth, science, and progress. When Sir Howard advises Christopher against his friendship with Lucy, arguing that it is “tactless for a young man in your position to go around so ostentatiously with the daughter of a servant,” his son disagrees.

In my position…and what exactly is my position, sir? A young and indifferent medical student with his way to make and not even one major operation to his credit. In what respect am I superior to a fully trained and remarkably efficient young nurse?

Many young people of the village are cheerfully going their own way, to the astonishment of their elders. With change comes conflict, however, and this generation gap may have deadly consequences.

Cottage Sinister accomplishes a neat trick. It includes the atmosphere a reader might wish to find in a golden-age village mystery, while adding more modern and humorous touches that subvert the standard cliches. The solution includes several impressive twists that almost make up for the lack of fair play. There are some first-novel wobbles: it’s a little long, there’s a stretch in the middle where nothing much happens, and the rustic dialect adds nothing to the book. Still, maybe I’m just in the right mood for this sort of thing right now, for I found Cottage Sinister a thoroughly enjoyable place to spend time.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

It’s really everything that you want from this type of story wrapped up with a neat little bow.  Top that off with a solution that truly caught me off guard (and predates a similar known-but-not-exactly-famous twist) and I was left a bit stunned.  This is one of those books that you finish thinking “damn, that was good”, and then a week later you’re wanting to preach the gospel of.  Just to be clear, there’s nothing exceptionally brilliant about this one – don’t think you’ll walk away shell shocked or enamored by some clever jolt – but man, the pure GADness of this is astounding.

The Passing Tramp

Their first mystery, Cottage Sinister, has all the trappings of a classic English village mystery, but something about it just doesn’t work like it should, in my view.

Availability

Cottage Sinister is available as an ebook in the US from the Mysterious Press.

The Glass Slipper (1938) by Mignon G Eberhart

The Glass Slipper by Mignon G Eberhart

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’m afraid. I’m afraid of this house. I’m afraid of every shadow and every sound. I’m afraid when the door opens; I think I’ll die during that split second when I see the door’s about to open and can’t see yet that it’s just a policeman. Or someone I know…”

From the outside, Rue’s life looks like a Cinderella story. The former nurse has married her boss, brilliant surgeon Brule Hatterick, after the death of his wife Crystal. But no one ever tells you what to do when the fairy tale goes wrong. Brule has married Rue out of convenience so that she can run his home and raise his teenage daughter in the same efficient way she runs the operating room. The household remains loyal to Crystal’s memory, however. Rue can’t seem to get a foothold with the servants and young Madge won’t even speak to her. Rue is painfully aware that she isn’t beautiful like Crystal. She doesn’t know her way around high society. And if her marriage to Brule is strictly business, how long is he going to keep her around if she can’t fulfill her side of the bargain?

Just when it seems her situation couldn’t get worse, Rue learns that police are investigating the death of Brule’s first wife. Rue was the nurse on duty when Crystal Hatterick died, and it would be very convenient for Crystal’s friends and family if an outsider were the killer. The clock is about to strike midnight. Rue’s happy ending is in danger…and so is her life.

The Glass Slipper by Mignon G EberhartThe Glass Slipper is an exercise in claustrophobia, as Rue finds the home and marriage she entered so hopefully closing in around her like a jail cell. The plot contains many of Mignon G. Eberhart’s trademarks: a heroine torn between two men, a clever older woman who may be friend or foe, all set against the background of Chicago’s upper crust. Eberhart does offer up some macabre surprises, however, including a series of poisonings that cause the victims’ hands to turn green. Despite the atmosphere of romantic suspense, there is also a whodunnit here, though solving it depends on two key facts that are not revealed until late in the book.

It isn’t until after Rue marries Brule, “her emperor,” that she discovers the other woman in his life. The beautiful and imposing Alicia Pelham was Crystal Hatterick’s best friend and is engaged to Crystal’s brother Steven. Now that Crystal is gone, Rue can’t help wondering whether Brule would have married her if Alicia had been free. Alicia certainly makes herself very much at home in the Hatterick mansion. “Her look said, You are the interloper here; you are the stranger; your time is short.”

As one murder follows upon another, Rue becomes the prime suspect. Police descend upon the house like locusts: the imposing Inspector Miller and his partner Funk, who shyly touches everything “with thin, not too clean hands, like little claws.” Through it all, Crystal’s memory is more suffocating than ever.

That drawing room, too, had been Crystal’s; she had decorated it. Its pastels, its French chairs, its gilded mirrors and crystal-hung lamps had been Crystal’s selection. Rue had never liked the room; now it seemed garish and full of grisly contrast. Crystal’s room; Crystal’s white hands touching and selecting these soft fabrics; and now the two men in the room had come, businesslike, to investigate Crystal’s murder.

Rue is offered help from the two men in her life, though she is unsure whether either can be trusted. Her husband Brule reminds her that they have come through other life and death situations together, “shoulder to shoulder.” But how can Rue believe him when she’s seen the way he looks at Alicia? Brule has made it clear throughout their marriage that “he wanted her to be gay and laughing and, though he didn’t say it, frivolous. A doll, pleased with the pretty things he gave her instead of love. A person who didn’t really matter and thus wouldn’t trouble his conscience.” By contrast, Brule’s assistant Andy Crittenden seems deeply in love with Rue. He is the first to warn of danger, even offering to help her escape the police. Still, Rue knows little of Andy’s life outside the hospital. Essentially, her choice is between someone she trusts who treats her badly, and someone who treats her well but leaves her feeling oddly suspicious. You know, just a typical romantic dilemma.

Though the characters spend much of their time trapped in the mansion, there are still some moments that vividly convey the book’s Chicago setting. Does the city still have the “dark days” Eberhart describes or are they, like London fogs, a thing of the past?

The day darkened with afternoon, became all in a moment one of Chicago’s dark days. It is a curious thing, this sudden shifting of air currents (affected somehow but mysteriously by the lake), which combine themselves with a pall of smoke and fog and settle down like a blanket upon Chicago. Perhaps the extreme concentration of Chicago’s business area has something to do with it; perhaps Lake Michigan, stretching north and east into dull grays, enormous, incalculable, is the sole cause; however that may be, it is so accustomed an occurrence that Chicagoans accept it without comment, turn on lights and go about their business quite as if daylight instead of twilight mantles the streets.

Rue has a few moments of intelligence (not drinking from a glass left by someone who broke into her room at night) that are mostly counterbalanced by moments of idiocy (not locking the door of her room at night in the first place). Her tendency to go along with whoever happens to be around at the moment gets her into some muddles. Rue actually does manage to solve the crime herself, albeit at the last possible second, which puts her ahead of many HIBK heroines.

The Glass Slipper is an entertaining example of Mignon G. Eberhart’s usual type of florid suspense, with a few extra twists added. These new additions probably won’t be enough to win over skeptics, but fans of women in jeopardy will find much to enjoy.

Second Opinion

Mystery*File

It’s an enjoyable enough read, with a teasing bit of the bizarre that is something out of Ellery Queen or John Dickson Carr (the murder victims all have hands that have turned green).

But there’s really no way for the reader fairly to deduce the criminal (though s/he may guess it on GA mystery aesthetic principles), unlike with some of Eberhart’s earlier books.

Availability

The Glass Slipper is out of print, with used copies widely available.

The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) by Anthony Gilbert

The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony Gilbert

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

I write this in case of emergencies. I have reason to believe that I am in great danger and I cannot say how it will all end.”

The jury is in, and no one expects a surprise. Viola Ross is clearly guilty of murdering her husband Edward. She had the means, the opportunity, and certainly the motive—Edward Ross was suspicious of his younger wife’s relationship with his son Harry. Much to everyone’s shock, however, it’s a hung jury, with one juror refusing to convict.

The lone holdout on the jury is novelist Richard Arnold, who remains convinced of Viola’s innocence. He is determined to find the real killer before Viola’s retrial, even if it means risking his relationship, his reputation, and even his life.

The Clock in the Hatbox by Anthony GilbertThe Clock in the Hatbox has a spectacular ending. I mention this up-front because it was not until reaching that ending that I realized how good the book actually is. As an Anthony Gilbert super-fan, I expected to be blown away by this, her most widely and positively reviewed title. Instead, I found myself increasingly bored by the tiny circle of suspects and overly detailed narrative. Richard’s first-person narration feels rambling and colorless compared to Gilbert’s normally vivid prose style. Then I remembered another book of Gilbert’s that gave me this same restless, disconnected feeling early on. Sure enough, The Clock in the Hatbox ends with exactly the same twist as that book does, but executes it even better. Once that astonishing moment arrives, Gilbert suddenly begins working at full power, casually dropping one big twist after another for a truly stunning finish.

Everyone assumes that Richard is in love with Viola, but he swears that’s not the case. In fact, he’s already more or less engaged. His girlfriend Bunty is remarkably understanding as Richard’s investigation wreaks havoc on their lives. At first, all he learns is that Edward Ross was an unpleasant man. Though Ross was disliked by many, even Richard has to admit that there are only a few suspects who could get close enough to smother him in his bed and hide his alarm clock in a hatbox to delay discovery of the crime. One, of course, is Viola. She married for security, never anticipating how angry and controlling Ross could be. He even disowned his only son Harry for dropping out of university to become a journalist in London. It was Viola’s insistence on seeing Harry against her husband’s wishes that drove Edward to contemplate divorce—an action that would leave both Viola and Harry penniless. Edward’s secretary Irene was in love with him, but there is a thin line between love and hate. Most intriguingly, Richard finds that a local man may have seen someone entering the house that night. Who could this mysterious suspect be?

I felt suddenly exhausted, as if I were trying to hunt my way out of a thicket, with the thorns tripping up on every side. I wished desperately that the whole thing were over, Viola Ross free, and myself safely married to Bunty. I was beginning to be afraid, and I knew that that was fatal.

As Richard is such a bland presence, it’s fortunate that he seeks advice from the flamboyant attorney Arthur Crook. Crook is attracted by Viola as a potential client (“I like a bold sinner. I can’t stand your timid muddlers who give you a little push when the train’s coming in”), though he’s less keen on Richard’s rather clumsy efforts at detection.

Ever heard of Through the Looking-Glass? Yes. Then you’ll remember that the immortal prig who was the heroine of that story only reached her objective by walking away from it. That’s how the best detective work is done. Once you let this fellow see that you suspect him, it’s like a burglar breaking into a room, complete with facemask and jimmy, and making for the lady wearing the handsomest pearls. What you want to do is get into a boiled shirt and look so like a gentleman that nobody spots the difference.

Instead, Richard’s efforts only draw further attention, putting both himself and Bunty in danger. As the investigation progresses, however, he grows more and more obsessed, going so far in pursuit of his preferred suspect that it starts to seem like entrapment. “You’re ready to do anything to get Viola off,” Harry tells him. “It’s become an obsession with you. I suppose you can’t stand the thought that you might fail […] You don’t care who hangs as long as it isn’t your candidate. It’s the worst case of pride complex I’ve ever come across. I don’t believe you even mind if she did kill him.” The stranger the case becomes, the less anyone is willing to listen to his theories—including, after a while, me.

The Clock in the Hatbox has an intriguing premise, a long, verbose middle, and an ending that makes up for all the rest. In fairness to Richard, his solution is much more focused and engaging than his account of the investigation, and, as surprising as that solution is, all of the evidence is present in his story. These last chapters are so wonderfully executed that I wish the rest of the book had been as lively. In particular, the reader never gets to spend much time with Viola, which is a real loss to the story. The ending is truly splendid, however, and it’s worth enduring a little irritation along the way if it results in such an enthralling final coup de grace.

Second Opinions

Beneath the Stains of Time

All in all, The Clock in the Hatbox is a classic textbook example of what it is that attracts me to these cunningly cut gems from the genre’s Golden Era. I went in with expectations that were, perhaps too high, but began to get slightly disappointed as the explanation appeared to be obvious in spite of the author’s to cover it up as inconspicuously as possible – only to learn at the end that I was supposed to think that all along! The Clock in the Hatbox is without question one of Gilbert’s best detective novels and deserves to better known.

Clothes in Books

This is a very unusual and cleverly structured murder story, and quite an unnerving book. You keep thinking you have got a handle on it, that you know what kind of crime book it is, then it subverts itself one more time.

Crossexamining Crime

Well first of all I did not hate this book. Phew! However to be completely honest I feel like I could write many a sentence beginning with, ‘I enjoyed X about the plot,’ yet there would always be a but following after it. In some ways there is a lot of brilliant material in this book, but I think it was not fully exploited.

The Grandest Game in the World

This is first-rate.  It’s surprisingly dark, with menacing atmosphere and untrustworrthy characters.  The misdirection is titanic, playing on the reader’s knowledge of the genre, and one of its classics.

A Hot Cup of Pleasure

A cracker of a mystery. Recommended whole-heartedly.

Pretty Sinister

I could go on to mention that this is rather a landmark mystery novel that for some reason is NEVER mentioned in the many studies of the detective novel. I thought Death Knocks Three Times (1949) was a tour de force, but The Clock in the Hatbox (1939) is also worthy of that laudatory label. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this novel is just plain ballsy. Lucy Malleson had nerve when she wrote this one and she pulls it off rather well. 

Availability

The Clock in the Hatbox is out of print in the US with few used copies available. Happily, it has been reissued in the UK by the Murder Room, in paperback and ebook formats.

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”