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

Tread Softly (1937) by Brian Flynn

Tread Softly by Brian Flynn

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“This case is full of ‘ifs’ and ‘buts,’ Mr. Bathurst. I don’t like it because of that. Doubts about everything everywhere. No—I don’t like it.”

Everyone dreams, but what if your dream is one of murder? That is the case for Claude Merivale. The handsome actor walks into Scotland Yard one morning to turn himself in for the murder of his wife Vera. His extraordinary defense is that he killed her in his sleep, while dreaming that he was fending off an attack.

As Merivale’s trial draws near, Anthony Bathurst and Chief Inspector Andrew MacMorran have only three weeks to investigate his story. The stakes are high: if the dream defense is successful, “only about two and a half percent of married women will be safe o’nights.” Could Merivale be telling the truth? Or are his dreams even darker than he claims? Continue reading “Tread Softly (1937) by Brian Flynn”

The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton

The Night of Fear by Moray Dalton

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“He stopped when he had nearly reached the gates and looked back at the house. From that distance it was beautiful, shining like a pearl in the pale wintry sunshine against the russet and umber background of the leafless woods. Since last night a house with a secret. If walls could speak, what would they have to tell?”

It’s almost Christmas and countless creatures are stirring in the country home of George Tunbridge. His guests have scattered throughout the dark house for a game of hide and seek. Though blind World War I veteran Hugh Darrow isn’t really in the mood to play, he’s willing to go along with the group. That is, until a mysterious dripping sound reveals that he is sharing his hiding place with a bloody corpse. The mood is anything but festive as Superintendent Hugh Collier investigates a Yuletide murder. Continue reading “The Night of Fear (1931) by Moray Dalton”

Beggar’s Choice (1930) by Patricia Wentworth

Beggars Choice by Patricia Wentworth

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’m going to ask you whether you’ve got an an enemy. No, I’m not—I’m going to ask you who your enemy is. I don’t need to ask whether you’ve got one.”

The day a man’s boots wear out, he’s finally hit rock bottom. After three years of poverty, Car Fairfax has reached that point. If he doesn’t get work soon, he’ll starve, but his appearance is so shabby it seems impossible. A chance meeting with Isobel Tarrant, the love of his life, only depresses him further. What could he ever offer her?

He barely notices when a man shoves a handbill into his fist. In fact, he nearly throws the paper away—until its strange message catches his eye. “Do you want to make five hundred pounds? If you do and are willing to earn it, write to Box Z.10.” Car would do almost anything for five hundred pounds, but this job may cost more than he’s prepared to give. Continue reading “Beggar’s Choice (1930) by Patricia Wentworth”

The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye (1928) by Brian Flynn

The Mystery of the Peacock's Eye by Brian Flynn

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“The worst mistake any investigator can make is to let his brain run away and play mental Badminton with fanciful theories.”

The Westhampton Hunt Ball is in full swing, “represent[ing] all that was select, some of what was superior, and most of what was supercilious in the county of Westhamptonshire.” There is an extra charge in the air this year, because the local bank has narrowly escaped a scandal that would have financially destroyed many of the revelers. As if that weren’t enough excitement, it’s even rumored that royalty is attending in disguise.

More than a year later, an unidentified woman is found dead in the dentist’s chair at a seaside resort, supposedly a suicide. Who is she? And what really happened at the Westhampton Ball? Continue reading “The Mystery of the Peacock’s Eye (1928) by Brian Flynn”

The Crime Coast (1929) by Elizabeth Gill

The Crime Coast by Elizabeth Gill

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It would be discouraging on the eve of a summer holiday to have an unknown man fall into one’s rooms and die on one.”

This holiday in the south of France was supposed to be a big adventure for Paul Ashby and his friends, their last hurrah before settling down to jobs and adulthood. Now the others have cancelled, leaving Paul to make the trip alone. He’s afraid he’ll have a dull time of it. He needn’t have worried.

The night before his departure, a stranger collapses on his doorstep. Major Kent was also planning a trip to France, to find his missing son, but his heart attack makes that impossible. Paul offers to undertake the search himself. This impulsive gesture plunges him into a world of artists, thieves, and killers on the French Riviera, guided by the irrepressible painter Benvenuto Brown. If he’s not careful, however, Paul may find himself the next victim. Continue reading “The Crime Coast (1929) by Elizabeth Gill”

Death in the Cup (1932) by Moray Dalton

Death in the Cup by Moray Dalton

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“It really is a terrible family, Geoffrey. They’re simply awful. Those that aren’t mad are bad, and that’s about it.”

The Armours have been a scandalous family ever since their father married the governess when his wife was barely cold in the ground. No one could have predicted that oldest daughter Bertha, the most conventional Armour, would create the greatest sensation of all by becoming a murder victim. Unless, of course, poison turns out to run in the family. Continue reading “Death in the Cup (1932) by Moray Dalton”

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936) by Moray Dalton

The Strange Case of Harriet Hall by Moray Dalton 1936 book cover

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“It’s murder,” said the sergeant. “Murder. And you’ve started the machinery whose wheels will only cease running when the culprit has been brought to justice. You’ve been a bit slow, if you’ll excuse my saying so, to see all the implications, but the fact remains that you set the law in motion, Mr. Dene. You put the penny in the slot, in a manner of speaking. It’ll be something for you to remember.”

As far as she knows, Amy Steer is alone in the world, struggling to earn her own living in London. It seems like a miracle when she is offered a home by her previously unknown aunt, Harriet Hall. But why does the nice young man she meets on the train abandon Amy after learning who her aunt is? Why isn’t she met at the station? And why is there no sign of Mrs. Hall when Amy arrives at her lonely cottage? When Harriet Hall’s corpse turns up at the bottom of a well, Amy learns that her aunt was hiding some deadly secrets. Continue reading “The Strange Case of Harriet Hall (1936) by Moray Dalton”