Many a time I've thought to myself (and probably mentioned it here) I could happily exist on a reading diet of detective fiction (or mysteries in general). So when I discovered the Classics Circuit was devoting its next tour to The Golden Age of Detective Fiction, it had my name written all over it. Welcome if you are following the the tour, it's always nice to have a new reader drop by, and regular faces are always appreciated. Of course I agonized over just which author and which book to choose, but for something a little different I thought I would try an author who might be unknown to many of you, and one I've wanted to read for ages.
Most people probably think of British authors such as Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers or Ngaio Marsh (to name only a few) as the biggies when it comes to mysteries from the 1920s and 1930s, but there were a few practitioners of the genre on this side of the Atlantic as well. Fellow Nebraskan Mignon Eberhart was known as the American Agatha Christie (a label she didn't like) and according to the introduction in my book:
"By 1940 she was arguably the leading woman mystery writer in America and, after (Mary Roberts) Rinehart and Agatha Christie, the highest paid anywhere."
Eberhart was born in Lincoln, Nebraska in 1899, and educated at Nebraska Wesleyan University. She later settled for a time in Valentine with her husband who was an engineer before moving on to bigger and more exciting places. Her career lasted some six decades. She wrote more than sixty novels for which she won an assortment of awards, including A $5000 Scotland Yard Prize for The Mystery at Hunting's End (published in 1930) the book I chose to read for the tour.
The Mystery at Hunting's End is Eberhart's third mystery featuring nurse Sarah Keate, a plucky woman of middle years with a "tart tongue". According to the Wikipedia Eberhart favored female sleuths, which was an unusual twist for the time. After her first mystery was published in 1929, Agatha Christie followed up by introducing her own very famous Miss Jane Marple. Sarah Keate may get involved in murder but she doesn't necessarily seek it out and knows enough to be scared at the right times. Having served in the Great War in 1918 as a nurse she knows what she's about. If you're curious about her character, here's a little insight. When offered a cigarette--"I refused, having been brought up in the days when silk stockings were doubtful, rouge suspicious, and cigarettes conclusive." (I had a good chuckle out of that).
Nurse Keate accepts an offer to join a party traveling to Hunting's End, a lodge out in the lonely Sand Hills (very reminiscent of those Eberhart would have seen while living in Valentine). Matil Kingery has asked her to act as private nurse to her wheelchair-bound aunt Lucy Kingery at the request of Detective Lance O'Leary. Sarah and Lance have had run ins before, and knowing her adventurous heart O'Leary trusts her observant eye will come in handy on his latest assignment. The group they're joining were guests at the lodge five years earlier when Matil's father died in mysterious circumstances. She's sure it was murder and hopes that by bringing the suspects together one more time O'Leary can discover just who is the culprit.
The Mystery at Hunting's End is very much a traditional cozy mystery in the vein of Agatha Christie. Eberhart gives the reader all the clues, including a map of the lodge with each guest's room clearly marked. If you follow the twists and turns, avoid the red herrings and logic things out, you might just figure out whodunit. I didn't, but I wasn't keeping very good track of the clues. Matil's guests are a well-heeled crowd that dress for dinner, even when yet another murder is committed, but things become claustrophobic when no one can leave the lodge after a few snowflakes turn into an outright blizzard.
"And I must say I have never seen the like of that snow in all my life. It was not an honest, out-and-out snowstorm which comes down cheerfully and rapidly and is over with. There was something unbelievably sinister about the relentless, smothering fall of snow and the swirling of wind and the bitter cold. It surrounded us, threatened us, held us helpless and immovable in its menacing, stifling white folds. As early twilight finally came on and there was no letting up of that merciless onslaught I began to feel that existence itself was merely a matter of waiting and waiting in bewildered, numb suspension in a dizzy white fog."
Eberhart was known for her atmospheric settings. The lodge's lighting consists of pewter lamps. It's cold. It's dark. And after three days straight of nothing but whiteout conditions you can imagine the guests start climbing the walls as no one can leave the lodge and no one can get to it. A dead body sits in the same room where Matil's father died and then the food starts running out. Nerves run high. Even the reader begins feeling a little jittery. What's worse is the murder has been committed in what appears to be a locked room--one of the lodge's bedrooms. One of the guests is a murderer, yet seemingly none of them could have been in that locked room with the victim.
I really enjoyed this, and if you like Agatha Christie mysteries you might as well. In a strange way it's a gentle sort of read, despite all the dead bodies popping up. Her characters are interesting, though you don't necessarily get a great sense of them. I need to go back and read the first two Sarah Keate mysteries to get a better feel for Sarah and Lance, who enjoy a playful sort of relationship. What Eberhart excels at is creating a perfect environment for murder and then puzzling it out. Apparently Eberhart wrote only a handful of Sarah Keate mysteries opting instead to create a younger heroine open to more dangerous and romantic situations. Her novels seem to have veered off the traditional path to stories of romantic suspense. In any case I'll be seeing what else Nurse Sarah Keate has been up to.
The Golden Age of Detective Fiction on Tour lasts from May 17-June 11. Check here for a complete list of books and blog stops.