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

The Dutch Shoe Mystery (1931) by Ellery Queen

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery Queen

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“For every hundred open-and-shut cases there’s one that requires a mind trained in a dozen universities, including the university of crime.”

Ellery Queen has a secret: the great detective is actually terribly squeamish. He’s happy to receive a private tour of Dutch Memorial Hospital, until he learns that it includes observing an operation. And this is no ordinary surgery. The patient is Abigail Doorn, the founder of the hospital, whose unexpected fall earlier that day has left her in a diabetic coma with a ruptured gallbladder. As the unconscious Abigail is wheeled into surgery, doctors make a shocking discovery. Abigail is dead, strangled before she even hit the operating table.

Ellery and his father, Inspector Richard Queen, discover that Abigail Doorn’s talent for making money was equaled only by her knack for making enemies. Any one of them could have killed her. As Ellery ruefully observes, “Mrs. Doorn was strangled while she was unconscious and waiting to be operated on; somebody seems to have impersonated the operating surgeon; nobody can identify the impostor; and we’re generally up a tree. It’s been a bad morning.”

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery QueenWith The Dutch Shoe Mystery, Ellery Queen takes one step forward and two steps back. From a technical standpoint, Dutch Shoe is an improvement on its two predecessors. The narrative is more streamlined, the suspect list is manageable, and the investigation is competent—there are no big clangers like the one that nearly derails the solution of The Roman Hat Mystery. While this third book lacks some of the frustrations of the other two, however, it’s also missing the joie de vivre that made it worthwhile to look past those issues. The Dutch Shoe Mystery is solid and workmanlike, but not much fun.

This is a shame because the circumstances of the murder are fascinating. Abigail’s injury requires emergency surgery, but her diabetes complicates matters. Since doctors cannot operate until her blood sugar naturally lowers itself into a safer range she is kept in an anteroom under the watch of nurse Lucille Price for several hours. (The description of how dangerous diabetes was during this period is sobering. Medical staff are actually relieved that Abigail is in a coma and will not need ether because administering anesthesia to a diabetic could so easily turn deadly.) The room in which Abigail slumbers adjoins two operating theaters, an elevator, and a supply area, not to mention the main corridor of the hospital. Murder seems impossible with doctors, nurses, and orderlies constantly bustling through the crime scene.

To add to the confusion, Nurse Price and other witnesses swear that Dr. Francis Janney, the irascible chief surgeon, spent considerable time in the anesthesia room. Though Janney was Abigail’s pet, she was threatening to cut off the research he has been conducting with Austrian émigré Moritz Kneisel. Janney claims he has an alibi witness but refuses to identify the man. As Ellery notes, Janney has a distinctive limp that would make him easy to imitate.

More importantly, however, the entire hospital staff dresses alike in their white uniforms. Add a surgeon’s cap and mask, and any killer could pass unnoticed. Indeed, the clue that most fascinates Ellery is a discarded uniform that includes a pair of white canvas shoes, one of which has a broken lace mended with adhesive tape.

The Dutch Shoe Mystery by Ellery QueenEven a patient or family member could slip in, and there are plenty of those around. The outside world viewed Abigail as “the voice of virtue. To her dependents and retainers she was the breath of evil.” Abigail’s brother Hendrik, plump and middle-aged, makes for an unlikely playboy. Nonetheless, his love of the ponies and the ladies has gotten him into trouble. All of Hendrik’s dialogue is rendered in a thick “Dutch” accent: “I play at cardts, horses. I am—what you call—a spordtsman. My luck has been badt—wery badt. So! This man—he lendts me the money.” Abigail’s daughter Hulda is in love with the family lawyer, Philip Morehouse, who destroyed documents immediately after his client’s death. Housekeeper Sarah Fuller has remained in service with the Doorns for decades despite the mutual hatred between her and Abigail. What kept these two women together for all those years?

Inspector Queen is especially intrigued by “Big Mike” Cudahy, a notorious gangster who just happens to be hospitalized at Dutch Memorial. Big Mike has the best possible alibi—he was being sliced open by surgeons at the time of the murder—but the same cannot be said for his criminal associates. The Cudahy-Doorn connection is definitely worth examining.

This should be a colorful cast of characters, but aside from the gloomy, scripture-quoting Sarah, none of these individuals make much of an impression. The Dutch Shoe Mystery lacks the spark that animated the previous two Queen novels and made the reader eager to clamber over the rough spots. Here, there are far fewer rough patches, but also much less passion. The most striking scene is the lead-up to Abigail’s surgery, which captures both the strange beauty and terrifying impersonality of a modern, scientific hospital.

The orchestra of the Amphitheater had settled down now to a hushed expectancy. Ellery thought it very like the moment in a legitimate theater just before the rise of the curtain, when the audience holds its breath and absolute quiet descends on the house…Under a triple brace of electric globes of immense size, emitting a cold, steady and brilliant light, stood an operating-table. It was denuded, pitiless in its lack of color.

This scene is all the more pleasing because it’s clear that this perfect temple of science is about to be invaded by the very human problem of murder. It is when Queen grapples with this dilemma, leaning into the unique nature of the hospital setting, that The Dutch Shoe Mystery is most compelling. However much they may wish to, these scientists cannot leave their emotions at the door of the hospital. It doesn’t matter how clean and white the operating room may be, how much glass and chrome glitters beneath the lights—bodies are fundamentally messy. Hearts and brains cannot be tidied away into little drawers.

If Queen had been willing to explore these themes more deeply, it might have breathed some life into the story. As it is, The Dutch Shoe Mystery is a neat but listless puzzle. Although a major piece of information is withheld to create a dramatic ending, the solution is easy to guess even without it. The clues all fit together nicely; it’s just hard to be invested in the outcome. The Dutch Shoe Mystery is an efficient machine that could use a little more bedside manner.

Second Opinions

The Green Capsule

As you may suspect by now, this isn’t a book that I’ll be recommending.  It does sport a nice Carr-ian twist, but that isn’t enough to make up for a flat story.

Mysteries Ahoy!

While the previous two books were a grind at times, I was at least interested in following them through to the end and finding out exactly how the crimes were committed. The Dutch Shoe Mystery tested my patience and I was found wanting.

In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel

So, another well put together exercise in logic, with added character thrown in. Just don’t think too carefully about the fact that one character clearly must know who the murderer is and I’m pretty sure a bunch of New York cops from the 1930’s could have got the info out of him before the second murder.

My Reader’s Block

I agree with Ben over at The Green Capsule that there is way too much mulling, interviewing, and reviewing the evidence going on in between murders and solution. If the point was fair play to the reader–waving evidence under our noses repeatedly–then it doesn’t come off (see previous paragraph). In actuality, this 305 page book could have been cut to maybe 250 (251, if we add in a portion to at least hint a bit better at the crucial piece of evidence). Still, it was a good plot with a nice bit of misdirection.

Crossexamining Crime

So despite that short catalogue of negatives this was actually a better Queen experience than many of the others I have had. 

Availability

The Dutch Shoe Mystery is available as an ebook and audiobook from the Mysterious Press and in hardcover and paperback from American Mystery Classics.

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”