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.

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”

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

 

Letter of Intent (1971) by Ursula Curtiss

Letter of Intent by Ursula Curtiss

(7/10 stars)

“You dreadful creature. You killed her, but I suppose you know that.”

A bride-to-be is happily preparing for her wedding, until she receives an anonymous letter. “I’ve been waiting for this,” it reads. “If you don’t call off the wedding, I will.” But this bride is tougher than the letter-writer imagines. She has only one night to discover the identity of her enemy, save her marriage…and possibly her life.

Continue reading “Letter of Intent (1971) by Ursula Curtiss”

The Abductor (1962) by Dolores Hitchens

The Abductor by Dolores Hitchens

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“She tried not to feel afraid for herself. He had made no real threat at all. But there was murder in the air.”

Miss Moynton can hardly believe her eyes. A man is standing in the bushes at the edge of the schoolyard. “Marion,” he calls out softly. “Marion.” Even after he runs away, her worry remains—one of her second-grade students is named Marion.

The principal doesn’t seem concerned, however, and neither does little Marion’s mother. Miss Moynton is a new young teacher. Maybe she’s imagining things. Maybe she’s overreacting. After all, it’s not as if anything really happened. At least, not yet.

The Abductor by Dolores HitchensThe Abductor begins with a suspenseful premise as it follows the troubled lives of three potential kidnapping targets. Over the next twenty-four hours, it develops into a more straightforward thriller centered around a harrowing moral dilemma. While interesting from an ethical perspective, I did not find this aspect of the story as compelling on a human level. The personal stories of the victims and bystanders (innocent and guilty) are what provide the real mystery: Why do people make the choices they do? How can we protect each other from danger when the biggest danger lies within ourselves?

The first possible victim is seven-year-old Marion Charles, who is often left alone by her hapless single mother, Betty. Miss Moynton’s report of the man in the bushes barely registers for Betty. Her fiancé sees no room in his life for another man’s child, so she has a big decision to make about Marion. It would be easy to despise Betty if she were not so terrified by her own inability to cope with life.

Even needing glasses the way she did, she could see how her hair was fading and how the shape of her face was almost imperceptibly not young anymore. Thirty-seven was a tough age for a woman. Forty was staring at you right around the corner…Office managers looked at you as if you were dead, if you had to admit to being over thirty-five.

Her existence feels like a dead end. Marriage to Tommy seems to be her only chance of securing a future. Betty ignores the fact that “actually she and Tommy didn’t have a lot to talk about except wasn’t it marvelous to be in love, and where should we eat.” Instead, she concentrates on the dream home he’s promised her, the house with everything except her daughter.

Marion’s classmate, Marilyn Trent, has two loving parents but they, too, are full of fear. As soon as she comes home from school, Carol and Bruce Trent question their daughter. Did anyone follow her home? Did anyone try to speak to her? Marilyn is wise to stranger danger (“we saw a movie in the auditorium”), but a young child can never be completely trusted to follow instructions out in the real world. Her parents don’t dare tell her about the real danger, the one that drove them to uproot their lives and move across the country.

The Abductor by Dolores HitchensThe final player in this deadly game is substitute teacher Marion Kennick, who has a secret life outside of the classroom.  Is Marion’s double life finally catching up with her?

All three possible victims lead precarious lives even without the threat of kidnapping—in the case of the children, their parents have exposed them to threats the little girls are not even aware of. No one takes any real action about it until the man in the bushes makes his appearance, a physical embodiment of the fears that have been swirling around these characters for far too long.

Even more depressingly, several adults perceive the danger of the situation, but their efforts are rather feeble. As the principal points out, though there is reason for concern, nothing actually has happened yet. There are no real crimes here. Trespassing, hang-up phone calls, a car parked outside the school that’s just a little too shabby for the neighborhood—these are nuisances, not serious charges. Police can’t arrest a shadow for a crime that has not yet been committed. And maybe there’s an innocent explanation, in which case they’ve embroiled the school and the families in a needless scandal.

The bystanders’ dilemma is almost reminiscent of Freeman Wills Crofts’ Antidote to Venom, in which a number of small actions, harmless in themselves, add up to a murder. Everyone has a piece of the puzzle, but no one can see the whole picture. Most of these people have very sensible reasons for acting as they do. Some of them have no reason at all. In the process, each is making their little contribution toward a potential tragedy.

“When I look back,” he said, his tone bitter and wondering, “I can’t see a single step that I might have changed, then. Eact act and each decision seemed right at the time…And yet in the end, somehow, it added up to what Witt Kennick said. We gave away our responsibility. Somewhere. We passed it on to others and they acted out our parts for us.”

The Abductor is an examination of what people owe each other: parents and children, teachers and students, even total strangers. The crime, when it comes, creates a tremendous moral conflict for everyone involved, but it is only the climax of a number of smaller choices made along the way. This lends a welcome unpredictability to the plot. As in real life, it’s not always clear which people will turn out to be heroes, villains, or something in between—not even to themselves.

Second Opinion

Anthony Boucher, New York Times, April 1, 1962

Mrs. Hitchens combines strong cumulative suspense with neat and bitter sketches of the families involved in a forceful blend of irony and excitement.

Availability

The Abductor is out of print with only a few used copies available, though there is one inexpensive copy waiting to be snapped up.

The Small Hours of the Morning (1975) by Margaret Yorke

he Small Hours of the Morning by Margaret Yorke

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“What a lovely cake,” said Lorna. She felt tears pricking her eyes: all this love, this cake being made by a devoted trio, for someone who did not deserve it.

Lorna Gibson knows she isn’t like other people. She can’t stand to be touched or share her emotions with anyone. The dentist she works for is confused by Lorna: “She’s repressed, I suppose, but I thought no one was nowadays.”

Deep inside, Lorna wants the same things as anyone else—friends, a husband, children. The closest she can get is by watching her neighbors, living vicariously through glimpses of their lives. The Titmusses are her favorite family, the one she most longs to be a part of. When something happens to June Titmuss that could change her life forever, of course Lorna sees the whole thing. And of course Lorna would do anything to protect this family. Anything.

he Small Hours of the Morning by Margaret YorkeThe Small Hours of the Morning is an intense psychological crime novel that shows how seemingly unimportant moments in ordinary lives can build to an explosion. Every day, Lorna and her neighbors are making choices large and small that tie all of them together with invisible threads; none of them, absorbed in their own problems, notice the others until it is too late. Robbery, adultery, and murder are only a few of the consequences.

Perhaps the trouble all begins when a depositor is mugged outside the bank, a most unusual event for such a peaceful community. The fleeing robber knocks over elderly Mrs. Malmesbury and June Titmuss comes to the old lady’s aid. That’s how she meets Ted Jessop. June can’t help contrasting the handsome young hired-car driver with her husband Cecil, who spends his spare time building models of cathedrals out of matchsticks.

June married Cecil on the rebound; a decade on, she’s feeling stifled by the very security and predictability that was once so appealing. Not yet thirty, June whiles away her long days by entering contests, taking evening classes, and, when her husband permits it, working part-time at a florist’s shop. She is close to a breaking point, unnoticed by all but Lorna. Meanwhile, the robberies continue unabated, growing more and more violent.

he Small Hours of the Morning by Margaret YorkeIronically, it is when she begins crossing the line from fantasy to reality that new, healthier possibilities open up for Lorna. To carry out her plans, she must face her deepest fears, pushing herself to engage with others in a way she never dreamed she could. A visit to the injured Mrs. Malmesbury throws a scare into her, as she realizes that “the old lady had nothing to do but wait for death. And nor had she, at twenty-nine. Lorna Gibson, spinster, had no life of her own and no aim except to gaze from a window at the life of another, and wish herself part of it.” But there are other visits, growing easier each time, not only to Mrs. Malmesbury, but also to her coworker Nancy, local author Peter Guthrie, and, most daring of all, to Cecil and June Titmuss themselves. Lorna’s world is expanding, and she finds that she can function within it—if not brilliantly, at least adequately. Will Lorna be able to craft a new life for herself, or is it already too late to escape her obsession?

Lorna thinks of herself as a meticulous schemer when, in fact, she rarely plans more than one step ahead and is often too easily rattled to even carry that out. Her scenes are unbearably tense because, despite having access to her thoughts, it’s impossible to guess what she has in mind or what she’s capable of. The robber is a different matter. In some ways he is a photo negative of Lorna, acting out of greed rather than love, and easily able to hide his disturbed psyche beneath a superficial charm. His scenes are suspenseful because it’s perfectly clear what he is capable of: anything.

The strength of the book is how disturbingly easy it is for fantasies of stalking and violence to coexist alongside the more mundane, but often just as worrisome, problems of everyday life. These characters are full of contradictions. The treacherous June is also a genuinely nice person, who misbehaves out of boredom rather than malice. Her complacent husband Cecil is actually more perceptive than he appears.

Later, waiting for the traffic lights to change, he mused on the fact that you married because you wanted to share your life with a particular person; then you saw very little of them, for you shared most of your waking hours with those you worked among. You went home to eat, sleep, read the paper and follow your hobby; you could know less about how your family spent the day than about someone who meant nothing to you but happened to share the office…It was all so sad; no one could have a relationship with another person which touched at every point, however deeply committed; one could only make the most of every fleeting moment.

Various townspeople cycle in and out of the action, and part of the fun is trying to guess how different characters will come together. A particular source of comic relief is Peter Guthrie, the mild-mannered author of macho historical novels who aspires to be more like his hero Gadsby. No one ever seems to react to this local celebrity in quite the way he would wish.

“That Gadsby of yours doesn’t like [women] very much,” said Ted.

“He does! He’s always involved with some woman or other,” said Guthrie, amused at this criticism.

“Oh, he likes what they’re for, to his way of thinking,” Ted allowed. “But it’s all one-way, isn’t it? Gadsby’s only thinking of himself and what he’ll get out of it. He never thinks about the bird and what’s in it for her.”

“Well—no, I suppose he doesn’t,” said Guthrie. “But does any man?”

In The Small Hours of the Morning, almost everyone is out for themselves. The tragedy is that their desires are so modest. Most of the citizens of this pleasant, prosperous town are leading lives of quiet desperation, much of it self-inflicted. Only a few are willing to act upon that desperation to seize what they want. Only a few realize that their perfect town is built of matchsticks, ready to burst into flames at any moment.

Second Opinion

Cleopatra Loves Books

I really enjoyed the almost gentle unfolding of what is an exploration of the psyche of a number of characters as their actions reveal to the reader what they have managed to keep hidden from their nearest and dearest. This is a book that has a slow burn, as I got wrapped up in the characters lives.

Availability

The Small Hours of the Morning is out of print in the US, and is available as an ebook in the UK from Little, Brown.

The White Dress (1946) by Mignon G. Eberhart

The White Dress by Mignon G Eberhart

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Your future is before you. Or, if you choose, it is already behind you.”

There’s no reason for Marny to feel so uneasy about this trip. After all, her boss, airline owner Tim Wales, has invited her to his family’s vacation home in Miami many times. She gets along well with his daughter Winnie and his much younger second wife Judith. It’s foolish to worry, but she does.

Maybe the reason has something to do with Andre Durant. The handsome stranger appeared in Marny’s life only a week ago, but she is strangely drawn to him. When they arrive in Miami, however, she starts to wonder just how much she knows about Andre. She’ll have even more cause to wonder when a dead body turns up on the Wales estate, the body of a woman with ties to Andre. But Marny’s nightmare is only beginning, for the description of the killer matches only one person—Marny herself.

The White Dress is an enjoyable but fairly basic example of Mignon G. Eberhart’s brand of romantic suspense. This particular entry offers up murder in a swanky Florida mansion ringed by balconies that always seem to be teeming with aspiring murderers. Perhaps it goes without saying that Marny confronts the killer during a hurricane, in a genuinely hair-raising scene. Sadly, the fact that our protagonist shows any intelligence at all during that sequence is the most surprising part. Despite being an ambitious business executive in line for a vice-presidency, Marny is astonishingly witless. Everyone keeps telling her, “You may be smart in business, but not in your personal life.” The latter is definitely true, but sadly we see no evidence of the former.

One thing Eberhart always delivers is a glamorous setting. We know Marny’s sense of foreboding is serious, because even the sight of beautiful Shadow Island cannot dispel it.

Something was wrong with her, something that the tropic twilight, the lush greens, the bright scarlets, the sweet, humid air had sharpened, rather than lulled. It was like a bud, that small hidden sense of uneasiness, forced by the tropical air into swift, full—and rather sinister—bloom.

There are the usual two suitors for Marny to choose from: Andre, who may not be as shady as he looks (but then again, he might be!) and Commander Bill Cameron, who literally pops up out of the shrubbery to tell Marny that Winston Churchill has sent him to Miami to prevent World War III. Neither of these men seem like great options, to be frank.

The White Dress by Mignon G EberhartMarny tries to quell her fears by making out with Andre in front of a hibiscus bush, but she’s distracted by the very real possibility that Bill might still be lurking in the foliage. This is a legitimate concern, as shrubbery seems to be Bill’s natural habitat. A confused Marny stumbles up to her room only to be greeted by Cecily. The fragile young woman says she won’t give Andre up, to Marny or anyone, and she flashes a gun to prove it. Before Marny has time to process this new information, Cecily is found dead: shot, according to a passing pilot, by a woman in a white dress.

Not only is Marny the only woman in the house who owns a white evening dress, all of her dresses are white. How can she possibly prove her innocence, especially with the other potential suspects being so wealthy and influential?

The investigation unfolds with no particular urgency, perhaps due to the impending hurricane. Eberhart nails that sense of restless expectancy when you just know a disaster like a major storm or statewide lockdown is on its way, you just don’t know exactly when it’s going to strike. Marny whiles away these hours eyeing one of her beaux suspiciously.

He looked no different. There was only a curious blankness about his face. As if he had not put on his usual mask of charm, of gaiety, of humanity. He drew nearer. His eyes were blank, too, and curiously opaque. It was the look of a creature from another and unknown world, something alien, something walled and untouchable by its own choice and being—and something evil.

Meanwhile, she follows the other man around adoringly while he tells her what to do. Only rarely does it occur to her that she knows both of these men equally well—which is to say, not at all.

The White Dress by Mignon G EberhartThe biggest drawback of the book is that only a few characters in addition to Marny are singled out for more nuanced portrayals, most of them men. This lends a slightly monotonous quality to the middle passages, where Marny drifts around in a haze, interacting mostly with her love interests. It’s hard to evaluate other suspects when we never spend much time with them. The interplay between women is always the most intriguing aspect of Eberhart’s work, and that is sorely missed here.

Thankfully, the hurricane and a mysterious phantom snap Marny out of her romantic reverie, at least for a little while. The ending of The White Dress works psychologically, even if the logistics are iffy. Sometimes with an unlikely solution, it’s best to just power through and try to get it done as quickly as possible, before the reader has time to think about it too much. This conclusion is actually one that could have seemed much more plausible if given a little more time to play out. Marny’s romantic choices, on the other hand, will never seem plausible no matter what.

Second Opinion

Kirkus, 1945

Haute couture in a good blend of romanticized mystery detection with psychological highlights.

Availability

The White Dress is out of print, with many affordable used copies available.

 

The Little Lie (1968) by Jean Potts

The Little Lie by Jean Potts

9 Stars (9/10 stars)

“Doesn’t it occur to you that somebody is—well, not telling the truth?”

“Lying,” she specified. “Somebody’s lying.”

It all starts with a white lie. When her boyfriend Chad breaks up with her, Dee Morris is humiliated. To save face, she tells her family and neighbors that he is out of town for a job interview. She assumes the story will eventually peter out on its own. But when outside forces intervene, Dee’s little lie becomes a very big one. How far will she go to protect her reputation? And what will happen when Chad returns?

The Little Lie is a stunning work of suspense that builds slowly, almost imperceptibly, toward a shattering climax. The final chapter is a masterpiece—utterly shocking and merciless, but the only way this story could possibly end.

For a while, the plot seems deceptively low-key. It is primarily a character study of Dee, her brother Oliver, sister-in-law Erna, and their lodger Mr. Fly, all of them disappointed middle-aged people clinging to their illusions. Even within the context of this dysfunctional group, however, it soon becomes clear that something is off about Dee. There are hints of a troubled past, especially in her relationships with men. This includes Oliver. No sooner has Chad left, than Oliver starts talking about leaving town as well, beginning a new life somewhere else. Dee doesn’t want that. She wants her brother all to herself. And if Oliver’s wife Erna stands in the way, Dee will just have to do something about that.

Jean Potts takes a deep dive into the psychology of these characters and the small-town New England atmosphere, to the exclusion of almost everything else. Aside from the high drama at the beginning and end of the book, Dee’s lie serves largely as an entry point into her world; while others are certainly interested or suspicious, the one who is most obsessed with Dee’s lie is Dee herself. For a long time, the violence is emotional, consisting of tiny, devastating incidents that wound all the more deeply because the perpetrator uses their intimate knowledge of the victim to determine the most effective target.

Dee kills through kindness, and for half their lives her main target has been her sister-in-law Erna. Oliver and Erna met and married in her southern hometown, but relocated to his native Rushford to deal with a temporary family crisis. Eighteen years later, they’re still there, much to Erna’s dismay. Dee has been wonderful to Oliver and Erna, maybe a little too wonderful. After she went to so much trouble to set up an apartment for them in the family home, it would have been ungrateful to get their own house, even if that’s what Erna really wanted. Dee is always doing chores for them, tidying up the apartment. It leaves Erna with nothing to do all day—not a problem, since the icebox is always stocked with beer.

There was no forgetting the kindnesses; they weighed like a yoke on Erna’s shoulders.

So did the loneliness, the friendless, discontented years of feeling like an exile. But was any of that Dee’s fault? Of course not; if anybody was to blame, it must be Erna herself. Something blind and stubborn had risen up in her, a resistance against Rushford and everybody in it. Something cold, the bone-deep, bone-hard chill that had crept over her when she walked in and saw Dee for the first time, huddled in that little sewing chair, rocking back and forth.

What makes the situation so maddening is that Erna cannot deny Dee really has been a lifesaver in the past. Their relationship is a toxic stew of gratitude and resentment. Only in the aftermath of Chad’s departure is Erna able to find a crack in Dee’s iron self-control. Rather than frightening her, it exhilarates and empowers her. “Poor Dee, she thought—and realized, to her shame, that there was something exciting, even a little pleasurable, about feeling sorry for someone like Dee…The difference between being pitied and pitying…Erna had never seen it until today; how great the difference was, how much more blessed to give pity than to receive it.”

The Little Lie by Jean Potts Each of the major characters is refreshingly complex, their behavior relatable and infuriating by turns. The lodger Mr. Fly is always poking his nose into other people’s business. It eventually becomes clear, however, that Mr. Fly is facing serious difficulties and throws himself into his neighbor’s problems so that he doesn’t have to think about his own. Oliver’s passivity is annoying, but it is also understandable. He loves both his wife and his sister. Since it is impossible for any action of his to please both, it’s easier not to act.

Dee is the most complicated of all, constantly wavering between victim and tormentor. Love is her weapon, but it is also the agent of her own suffering, a need so great it can never be fulfilled. It’s hard not to empathize with her sheer panic upon realizing how deeply she is trapped in the lie, which leaves her feeling “cold and hollow. If only she had not had to lie to Oliver too! She could not back out now. She could not stand still, either. She had no choice but to go on.” Even Dee is sometimes startled by how easily the lie becomes a part of her life.

There was no rush. Chad wasn’t going to call, tonight or any other night. It wasn’t true. She had made it all up…Yet the urgency of the past three quarters of an hour had not been feigned. Not at all. The itch of impatience had been as genuine as if it were based on absolute reality.

At first, Dee embraces the lie because it gives her the illusion of control. Even if she can’t get Chad back in reality, she can live in a world of her own making, managing everyone else’s perceptions. As the border between fantasy and reality becomes shakier, however, Dee may no longer recognize the difference.

Dee is hypervigilant in her interactions with the other townspeople. Even the most innocuous comment can send her into a spiral of paranoia—though Potts also uses these moments to show that everyone has at least some kind of a dark side. It’s very easy to let a well-placed barb slip, whether through carelessness or the result of a moment’s cruelty. Sometimes the consequences are small, as when Erna tries to puzzle out whether an acquaintance was really complimenting her homemade dress, or insulting it. Other times, a chance remark may lead to far more dire results. Like Dee’s little lie, one small comment can start a chain reaction.

By the end, The Little Lie has gone from the simple story of a small-town scandal to something more like grand opera or Greek tragedy. The irony is that Dee’s lie about Chad is only one of many deceits she has built her life around. She is willing to take drastic action to avoid facing the truth, preferring to smash the mirror rather than see herself as she really is. For Dee and the other characters in The Little Lie, the biggest lie is the one they tell themselves.

Second Opinions

Pretty Sinister

The Little Lie is perhaps Jean Potts’ finest contribution to genuine domestic suspense. In Dee Morris Potts has created one of her most unnerving and deeply disturbed characters. The story hits all the right notes, focuses on the lives of women and their husbands (or in the case of Dee, her intended husband) with the perceptive plot gimmick, a seemingly innocuous lie, serving as the catalyst for all that follows. The final pages are fraught with tension, a neatly noirish touch in the revelation of Dee’s most creepy secret, which leads to a near operatic mad scene. Like the best of noir we know everything was leading to this explosion, that Dee was doomed when she uttered that little lie. 

Crossexamining Crime

Potts’ work is a testament to the truth that you can plunge the darker areas of the human psyche in an engaging way without recourse to extremely graphic descriptions. You can’t help but keep reading this tale, keenly wanting to know how ‘a seemingly innocuous lie’ will end and what carnage will follow in its wake.

Availability

The Little Lie is available in paperback and ebook formats from Stark House Press, in a double volume with Home Is the Prisoner.

Never Say Die (1950) by Ione Sandberg Shriber

Never Say Die by Ione Sandberg Shriber

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“One murder has already been committed and they will not stop at another.”

At the last minute, Kyra Brake changes her mind about driving into town with her mother. “Tell Mother to go without me,” she tells the chauffeur. Kyra’s words come true, in the worst way imaginable. The car crashes only minutes later; Helen Brake will not survive her injuries.

Her mother’s death leaves Kyra overwhelmed by guilt and grief. It also leaves her very wealthy, and very alone. Maybe Kyra won’t have to live much longer without her mother after all. Continue reading “Never Say Die (1950) by Ione Sandberg Shriber”