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

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 House Above the River (1959) by Josephine Bell

The House Above the River by Josephine Bell

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“Something was going on there that he did not understand, and had no wish to take part in. Something dangerous, some evil, beginning to show itself, suddenly, startlingly […] And there was a certainty, at least, of something planned, an organized wickedness. It had come to the surface in a seething moment of horror, and sunk back, leaving only a question, an uneasy dread. Giles was sure the lid would come off again, but when and where and how and against whom directed, he had no idea at all.”

This wasn’t Giles Armitage’s plan for his French sailing holiday, to be trapped by fog in a small village in Brittany. He’s itching to move on to the next destination, though his companions, Tony and Phillipa, are happy to explore the village. They even make friends with the English inhabitants of the local chateau.

Giles is shocked to meet the owner’s wife—his ex-fiancée Miriam, who broke his heart long ago. And Miriam is afraid. There is something terribly wrong at the chateau. Whatever is taking place between Miriam and her husband Henry Davenport, Giles wants nothing to do with it. As the fog closes in, however, he may no longer have a choice. Continue reading “The House Above the River (1959) by Josephine Bell”

The 17th Letter (1945) by Dorothy Cameron Disney

The 17th Letter by Dorothy Cameron Disney

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“One of the hazards of the hunted, Paul reflected, was the psychology of the hunted. It was hard to fight against the idea that every casual stranger was an enemy, that secret unknown watchers ringed one in.”

In the old rolltop desk, Mary Strong has sixteen letters. They are from her husband’s best friend Max, who also became Mary’s best friend when she married Paul. A war correspondent on assignment in the North Atlantic, Max promised to write to his friends every two weeks, and he’s kept his promise. The sixteenth letter should have been the last. Max is finally coming home.

When the plane from Reykjavik lands, however, Max is not aboard. Then Mary and Paul receive their seventeenth, and final, letter from their friend. Instead of a letter, the envelope marked “17” contains only blank pages and an old theater program. Mary and Paul are convinced that Max has sent them the clue to a serious crime. To prove it, they must navigate wartime secrecy and travel restrictions to plunge straight into a nest of saboteurs. With both Mounties and German spies on their trail, the Strongs are in for the adventure of their lives. Continue reading “The 17th Letter (1945) by Dorothy Cameron Disney”

Destination Unknown (1954) by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie Destination Unknown book cover 1954

7 Stars (7/10 stars)

“Has it got to be sleeping pills? […] I’m suggesting another method. Rather a sporting method, really. There’s some excitement in it, too. I’ll be fair with you. There’s just a hundred to one chance that you mightn’t die. But I don’t believe under the circumstances, that you’d really object by that time.”

At the height of the Cold War, famous scientists are disappearing all over the world. Thomas Betterton is only the latest. Government agents are convinced the researchers have been recruited by Communists. Betterton’s wife, Olive, insists she knows nothing of his whereabouts, but Jessop of the Secret Service believes she does. He thinks she will lead them straight to her husband. All they have to do is wait.

Hilary Craven has also lost her husband, under rather different circumstances. He left her for another woman, just before the death of their only child. The holiday that was meant to cheer her up has only reminded her how little she has to live for. On the verge of suicide, she is offered a surprising opportunity. The lives of Hilary Craven and Olive Betterton are about to intersect, and the fate of the free world may depend upon it. Continue reading “Destination Unknown (1954) by Agatha Christie”

Mystery Mile (1930) by Margery Allingham

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham 1930 book cover

4 Stars (4/10 stars)

“First his secretary, seated in his master’s chair, was shot,” he said slowly. “Then his butler, who was apparently after his master’s Scotch, got poisoned. Then his chauffeur met with a very mysterious accident, and finally a man walking with him down the street got a coping stone on his head.” He sat back and regarded his companion almost triumphantly. “What do you say to that?” he demanded.

“Shocking,” said the young man. “Very bad taste on someone’s part. Rotten marksmanship, too,” he added, after some consideration.

The passengers of the SS Elephantine are in for a treat; a famous magician is also on board, and willing to perform his disappearing act in the ship’s talent show. Judge Crowdy Lobbett eagerly volunteers, until he is pushed aside by a rude young man who insists on making his pet mouse disappear. Lucky for them, as the mouse is electrocuted before their eyes.

It would seem to be nothing more than a careless accident, except that Judge Lobbett has been the target of too many accidents since beginning his pursuit of the Simister gang. Finally it appears fortune is on his side, for the young man with the mouse is none other than Albert Campion. But the judge’s unknown enemy may be too strong for even the ingenious Campion. Continue reading “Mystery Mile (1930) by Margery Allingham”

The Hardway Diamonds Mystery (1930) by Miles Burton

Book cover of The Hardway Diamonds Mystery by Miles Burton (1930)

5 Stars (5/10 stars)

“Well if you’d like it in tabloid form, I am suspected by one Inspector Pollard of the C.I.D. of pinching the Maharajah’s rubies.”

It’s the perfect night for a jewel robbery. Passing unseen through the thick fog, Mr. Herridge easily breaks into the Hardway mansion and slips out again with the family’s famous diamond necklace. He is just congratulating himself on a job well done when handcuffs emerge from the darkness to close around his wrists.

But it’s no police officer who confiscates the diamonds. Scotland Yard detectives believe the Hardway diamonds are now in possession of a master criminal, a man of infinite ruthlessness and cunning. Lady Hardway’s brother Dick Penhampton descends into London’s underworld in search of the man known to police as the Funny Toff. His goal is to recover the diamonds. Soon enough he is fighting for his freedom and his life. Continue reading “The Hardway Diamonds Mystery (1930) by Miles Burton”

Weekend at Thrackley (1934) by Alan Melville

Book cover of Weekend at Thrackley by Alan Melville (1934)

6 stars (6/10 stars)

“I’ve a sickening sensation that this is going to be one of the world’s worst weekends.”

Aspiring writer Jim Henderson can’t afford to turn down a free meal, let alone an entire weekend at the stately home of Thrackley. Admittedly, he can’t remember ever meeting his host Edwin Carson, who claims to have known his late father in South Africa. Still, once he manages to scrounge a set of evening clothes, Jim anticipates a pleasant house party.

It soon becomes clear that something very strange is going on at Thrackley. For one thing, none of the wealthy and prominent guests seem to know their host. And why is Carson’s daughter Mary so afraid of him? Wisecracking Jim and his slightly dim pal Freddie Usher are woefully unprepared for the conspiracy they’ve stumbled into.

Continue reading “Weekend at Thrackley (1934) by Alan Melville”