I adore reading classic mystery novels. The old “Agatha Christie” vintage ones. Some of my favorite mystery authors were the favorite authors of Agatha Christie herself.
Elizabeth Daly was one of Christie’s favorite authors, and her books hold up well. There is
the typical difficulty that many writers in the United States had with “the help”. Often these were devoted Black couples or butlers, unlike the UK which had the more Jeeves like friendly lower class servants.
Still, overlooking this, and just thinking “JEEVES” instead of “poor Black person” helps me get through most of these books. I don’t want to give up entirely on a mystery novel because of a minor character. I just rewrite it in my head. I’m not happy about it, but I’ll finish the book.
However, I’ve been working my way through recommended vintage authors and have come to Mignon Eberhart. Her books err on the side of “pathetic helpless female”, but are still good enough to fool me more than once. I enjoy the modern vintage author Carola Dunn, but have to admit I’m too much a mystery reader veteran to NOT guess the “killer” before the end of the book.
Eberhart’s work is being reissued. The Kindle versions aren’t inexpensive but the reissue price is closer to $10, than the $1 or $2 price of a used paperback.
One book mentioned in the Amazon reviews was the “Patient in Room 18”. It’s supposed
to be her “best work”. I found a copy at the library, and was ready to dig in with pleasure. The book was written in 1929, and the mystery starts with a gram of radium being stolen (and two murders). The radium was being used to treat patients in the hospital that is the main setting for the murders. I was enjoying the use of radium to treat very sick patients, and of course my modern knowledge that it would just make them much more ill. In fact, if the patients had not been murdered, the killer could have just waited a bit as the radium would have done them in.
Still, that’s the kind of vintage I like. No one today would write a book with stolen radium unless it were being used to make a terrorist bomb. This was just a casual use of radium, and no one was very upset it was missing.
But then I read the dialogue of the lead detective describing one of his suspects.
“By increasing the complexities of a personality that I must classify and index, you see,
Carole is a factor to be considered along with the rest of the possibilities. And this fact warns me that she likely has a streak of savagery back of those yellow eyes; that the beat of a tom toms would stir her, for instance. She is apt to be rather indolent, too, and to seek what she desires in unconventional ways. Such, as by the use of revolvers.”
It appears that one of the suspects is mulatto. In other words there is some Black blood in her that just mucks up the whole darn case. You can’t tell what someone with Black blood is going to do at any time, though of course the detective is glad to inflect every stereotype he can on Carole.
At this point, Mignon Eberhart’s most classic case or not, the case is closed as the book is closed. A main character detective that believes as fact that a suspect has “Black blood” in their lineage, and that makes them lazy enough to resort to murder rather than work for gain, is just too much for me to overlook. It’s a plot point not based on someone answering the door or cooking dinner, it’s a “factor” of importance to the lead detective. I don’t care at this point which suspect committed the murders and stole the radium, I just hope someone kills off the detective.
While many people will defend this book with “It’s what people believed back then.” I have read countless vintage mystery novels and this plot point has never been used. I’ve read three books with radium being involved. I’ve read many with minority characters that have been poorly conveyed by the writer. I’ve never had a lead detective take race into account in this way. “Bad blood” takes on a whole non Taylor Swift meaning in this novel.
So while I can highly recommend Elizabeth Daly and Patricia Wentworth (the Miss Silver mystery stories are a delight), to say nothing of the modern writer Carola Dunn – Mignon Eberhart’s finest work will remain unfinished reading. I may skip to the end to see “who done it.” Maybe the detective himself is the guilty party, but that would be too much to ask.
Some vintage mysteries should perhaps remain unread.