The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)

12_30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

How strange it was, Charles ruminated, that the useless and obstructive so often live on, while the valuable and progressive die early! Here was Andrew Crowther, a man whose existence was a misery to himself and a nuisance to all around him. Why should he be spared and others who perhaps were doing a great work in the world be cut off in their prime? It didn’t somehow seem right. For the sake of himself and everyone else it would be better if Andrew were to die.”

Even the irascible Andrew Crowther has to admit that flying is the only way to travel as he enjoys his first airplane ride. He’s in for some very unexpected turbulence, however. By the time the plane touches down in France, Andrew Crowther will be dead—not of the heart condition that’s troubled him for years, but of poison. How did a seemingly harmless elderly man meet his death 10,000 feet above the English Channel? His nephew Charles knows all about it. Now if only he can keep anyone else from finding out. Continue reading “The 12.30 from Croydon by Freeman Wills Crofts (1934)”

The Story of Ivy (1927) by Marie Belloc Lowndes

The Story of Ivy by Marie Belloc Lowndes

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“What had just happened filled her with a kind of awe. She had not known how easy and simple is the passage from life to death.”

Life has been full of difficulties for Ivy Lexton. Luckily, there are always gentlemen willing to help her over the rough spots. After her father died penniless, Jervis Lexton was happy to step in. But his fortune, which seemed so large when they married, quickly melted away. To keep herself in champagne and Paris frocks, Ivy must maintain a complicated network of benefactors and would-be lovers.

When fate presents Ivy with the chance to escape this makeshift existence, she knows exactly how to seize the opportunity, all thanks to a little jar of white powder…

The Story of Ivy is an interesting, if sometimes uneasy, mixture of roaring twenties inverted mystery and old-fashioned melodrama. Ivy is not exactly a standard femme fatale, which lends a freshness to the story. It’s always fun to watch Ivy hustle and impossible to predict what she’ll do next, since she so rarely knows it herself. Like an animal, she operates entirely by instinct. The book loses momentum when Ivy’s machinations are sidelined in favor of an utterly predictable courtroom drama, only reviving when Ivy is returned to her rightful place at the center of the action.

The Story of Ivy by Marie Belloc LowndesWhile Ivy herself is a modern creature, most at home in nightclubs, she is aware that her greatest advantage is the lingering sexism of the recent Edwardian period, which insists women cannot function without the protection of men. Her gentleman friends are attracted by her streamlined exterior, but it’s her sweetly helpless air that keeps them hooked. That’s how a poor orphan married the wealthy Jervis Lexton and helped squander his inheritance. And that’s how Ivy has managed to line up other benefactors now that her husband is broke and “she was condemned—she sincerely believed through no fault of her own—to lead an existence full of sordid shifts, and of expedients so ignoble that even she sometimes shrank from them, while always on her slender shoulders lay the dead weight of her husband, a completely idle, extravagant, and yes, well she knew it, very stupid young man.” It’s initially unclear how much Jervis is aware of her scheming, and how he might react if he did know.

Ivy pays a price for her little luxuries, which require a great deal of emotional labor to extract. As The Story of Ivy opens, she is down to her last pound after alienating one wealthy friend and unexpectedly losing another to marriage. These are only female friends, not so important. Ivy is more worried that her only remaining male asset is Roger Gretorex, a devoted but poorly-paid physician. It’s true that Roger can always be counted on for a “loan,” as long as it’s a small one, but his real value to Ivy is that he alone of her lovers makes no demands on her.

When everything was going well with Ivy Lexton, she felt bored, often even irritated, with Roger Gretorex and his great love for her. But the moment she was under the weather and worried, as she was again beginning to be, then she found it a comfort to be with a man who not only worshipped her, but who never wanted her to make any effort to amuse or flatter him, as did all the other men with whom she was now once more thrown in contact.

Women are of limited use to Ivy because they always see through her—most of them instantly, but all of them eventually. There’s nothing subtle about her ploys; in the opening scene, an acquaintance notes that Ivy rudely snubbed her until she learned of the woman’s recent inheritance. Then Ivy was all flattery. “When I was in America last year, they’d invented a name for that sort of young woman. She’s out, all the time, for what she can get. ‘A gold-digger’—that’s the slang American term for that kind of young person, Mary,” she warns. “If I were you I should give pretty Mrs. Lexton a very wide berth.” Ivy’s relationships with women are few. Most women she meets are not blinded by her physical attractions as men are. Her act only succeeds with lonely women who, like the men, enjoy being seen with a beautiful friend and adore being “pressed into her service, by that alluring quality which means so much more than beauty,” so they can be flattered and cajoled by Ivy in return.

Just when Ivy is most exhausted by it all, she meets Miles. He is that rarest of specimens, a morally incorruptible millionaire, and he puts Ivy on a pedestal. If he discovers her true nature, the consequences will be severe. Seeing a golden future in the distance, visible yet impossible to grasp, she is annoyed by both her husband’s benign neglect and Roger’s naïve sentimentality.

“I dreamt that you were free, and that we were married, you and I——”

She made no answer to that remark, only shook her head, a little pettishly. For one thing, she always felt a trifle cross, as well as bored, when Gretorex talked in what she called to herself a sloppy, sentimental way. Could he seriously suppose that, if she had the good fortune to be what he called “free,” she would marry a poverty-stricken doctor who was forced to live and work in a slum? He evidently did suppose that; and the fact that he did so made her feel uncomfortable.

Ironically, it is Roger himself who will provide Ivy with the answer she seeks, pointing out the bottle of arsenic in his dispensary. Ivy is transfixed: “How strange and exciting to know that Death was in that jar—prisoned, but ready to escape and become the servant of any quick-witted, determined human being.” It seems inevitable that Ivy’s happiness will be obtained at the cost of a human life. The question is, whose?

As a writer whose career began at the turn of the century, Marie Belloc Lowndes was well placed to tell this kind of story. Lowndes recognizes that the outer trappings of society change much more quickly than individual attitudes do. This what allows Ivy to be so successful—she is wrapping a very old ideal in a modern package. Men, even young ones, may find flappers and free love titillating, but they don’t really want the social order to change. Ivy’s clinging-vine act allows them to pretend it doesn’t have to.

Lowndes’ prose style is sometimes overwrought, and she makes it perfectly clear that Ivy is bad while everyone else is good. As individuals, however, the characters are far from black and white. The “good” characters all have moments of selfishness, rigidity, and especially stupidity. Ivy is certainly amoral, but she is also intelligent and appealing. Her impulses are just as likely to be good as bad (though admittedly there is a large gulf between impulsively buying someone a gift and impulsively trying to poison them). Though she has no real conscience, Ivy is highly emotional and often feels a kind of remorse for the consequences of her actions. It’s just that her tears dry quickly in the light of day.

The Story of Ivy is the story of a woman who is terribly disturbed and also an awful lot of fun. The “selfish, feather-headed, and extravagant; but good-natured and easy-going” Ivy is a delight to follow as she schemes her way up the ladder, certainly much more enjoyable than the stodgy legal proceedings that so rudely interrupt her adventures. One can’t help wishing that The Story of Ivy had been able to remain as wonderfully demented as its heroine all the way through.

Availability

The Story of Ivy is in the public domain in Canada, with free ebook versions available at Project Gutenberg Canada and Faded Page.

It was filmed as Ivy in 1947. The film version takes place during the Edwardian era and stars Joan Fontaine as the title character.

Straw Man (1951) by Doris Miles Disney

Straw Man by Doris Miles Disney

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“As for his having been framed—well, who was this unknown man? Who had ever seen him, who had ever heard of him? He was a man of straw.”

Not long ago, Lincoln Hunter was a man who had everything: a big inheritance, a lovely new wife, and a $100,000 life insurance policy from Commonwealth Assurance of Boston.

This isn’t the first time claims adjuster Jeff DiMarco has been tapped to investigate a murder relating to an insurance client. But this time the policyholder isn’t the victim—he’s the suspected killer. Lincoln Hunter has been convicted of murdering his pregnant ex-girlfriend, and sentenced to death. When he’s executed, Commonwealth will be on the hook for a big payout…unless Jeff can prove that someone else committed the crime. Continue reading “Straw Man (1951) by Doris Miles Disney”

Friday Market (1938) by Catherine Meadows

Friday Market by Catherine Meadows

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“It dawned upon him what an extremely simple thing it was to get an undesirable person out of the way.”

Nobody in the cathedral town of Clench appreciates Alfred Bealby. Not his shy, awkward daughter Dolly. Not his legal clients, who are defecting to Stephen Traill, the new young lawyer in town. And especially not his wife Millicent, who is so determined to keep him away from her inheritance.

They all underestimate Alfred. What none of them realize is how far he will go to in order to secure the position that should be rightfully his. None of them know about the little packets of white powder locked in his desk. They’ll soon find out. Continue reading “Friday Market (1938) by Catherine Meadows”

The Forbidden Garden (1962) by Ursula Curtiss

The Forbidden Garden by Ursula Curtiss

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“Wanted: Mature companion to older woman in North Valley. Pleasant surroundings. Cooking, no housework.”

All the neighbors are dying to know what makes Mrs. Marrable’s poplars grow so well in the desert. That’s just one of Claire Marrable’s secrets. After the death of her husband, she decides she would rather be a wealthy widow than a poor one. The only thing holding her back is money, but that’s easily remedied. Rich old ladies are expected to hire companions, and hired companions are often alone in the world with their savings. Mrs. Marrable’s had five companions now, and there are five poplar trees lined up in her garden, all in a row.

But the sixth companion is different. Has Mrs. Marrable finally met her match? Continue reading “The Forbidden Garden (1962) by Ursula Curtiss”

Follow, As the Night by Patricia McGerr (1950)

Follow as the Night by Pat McGerr

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“One ex-wife. One wife. One mistress. One fiancée. And no age limits. Cradle to the grave, that’s the Rock’s policy.”

Professionally, Larry Rock is on top of the world. A successful newspaper columnist, he’s just published his first book, with TV and radio deals on the horizon. It’s his personal life that’s in chaos. Larry invites the four women in his life to a party, intending that one of them will not survive the night—but which one? Continue reading “Follow, As the Night by Patricia McGerr (1950)”

Strictly a Loser (1965) by Edna Sherry

Strictly a Loser by Edna Sherry

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“The dream could be summed up in two words: beautiful things. A home filled with richly tinted rugs, with authentic period pieces, with exquisite pie-crust tables and Duncan Phyfe chairs, with one or two fine paintings and shelves of Spode china and Steuben glass. The dream did not concern itself with electric marvels of kitchen efficiency, such as most housewives hanker for, and took little notice of clothes or cars. It concerned itself only with something she could love.”

Susan Wells has a dream, of a gracious home full of lovely furniture, all her own. Things can’t hurt her, the way her irresponsible father did. And once she has her dream house, she’ll never feel poor or shabby again. Susan isn’t beautiful, or charismatic, or even especially smart. But when she meets Harry Caldwell, her employer’s ne’er-do-well son, she sees a way to make her dream come true. Yes, Harry will give Susan her dream house…one way or another. Continue reading “Strictly a Loser (1965) by Edna Sherry”

Lady-Killer (1951) by Anthony Gilbert

Lady Killer by Anthony Gilbert 1951 book cover

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“As one man becomes an engineer and another a doctor, so Henry became a husband. It was his living. The knocking off of his various wives when they had served their purpose was part of the routine, and involved no personal dislike or revenge…It was all perfectly simple, and his conscience never gave him a twinge.”

Some men balk at marriage, but not Henry. He’s always been an eager bridegroom. First to Greta…then Beryl…then Flora.

No one is likely to notice the commonplace deaths of insignificant middle-aged women—no one except  lawyer Arthur Crook, who collects potential murders. When Sarah enters Henry’s life, it’s up to Crook to prove the truth about Henry’s career of widowhood before it’s too late. Continue reading “Lady-Killer (1951) by Anthony Gilbert”

No Walls of Jasper (1930) by Joanna Cannan

No Walls of Jasper by Joanna Cannan 1930 book cover

8 Stars (8/10 stars)

“All along Canberry Gardens, in the lighted dolls’ houses, children’s voices called good night. Julian too, setting out to murder his father, felt perfectly ordinary.”

Some would say that Julian Prebble has everything. A nice home, attractive wife, two boys, and a promising career. But Julian can’t help feeling that he doesn’t have quite enough. He shouldn’t have to live in a semi-detached house, with his wife stretching the joint to last two days. Other men of forty are farther along in life, all because their fathers died and left them the money to make a proper start. Meanwhile, his invalid father lives on and on, wasting more money every minute he’s alive.

It’s not that Julian wants his father to die. Still…wouldn’t it be convenient if he did? Continue reading “No Walls of Jasper (1930) by Joanna Cannan”

Ashes to Ashes (1919) by Isabel Ostrander

Book cover of Ashes to Ashes by Isabel Ostrander (1919)
courtesy of Paris Bibliotheques

6 stars (6/10 stars)

From these ashes would spring the phoenix, not of love, but of murder; of hatred, vengeance and the lust to kill! What had he not loosed upon the world!

One afternoon in downtown New York, Norman Storm sees a beautiful woman emerging from an office building, a chance encounter that will change his life. For the woman is his wife, Leila. Thirty-six hours later, he will beat her to death.

Ashes to Ashes is an inverted mystery, following the thoughts of Norman Storm as he suspects his beloved wife of infidelity, impulsively kills her, then conceives an elaborate plan to cover up the murder. In the swirl of events that follow, Storm finds that his greatest danger comes, not from the police, but from his well-meaning friends.

Continue reading “Ashes to Ashes (1919) by Isabel Ostrander”