I have my grandmother to thank for my large Mignon G. Eberhart collection, as most of them were hers. For an author frequently billed as “America’s Agatha Christie,” she seems to fly under the radar of most today, but I still really enjoy her romantic suspense/mystery novels. Most of my favorites date from the first half of her career, like The Dark Garden and Wings of Fear and Enemy in the House, and Unidentified Woman is also from that era. I wouldn’t call it a favorite, but still a suspenseful and intriguing read.
When Henry Frame was found drowned on their property several months ago, Victoria Stearne and the rest of the household went through the hell of a public investigation. Vicky herself was the main target of suspicion for John Campbell, the Ponte Verde State’s Attorney, because Frame had a tight grip on the purse strings and wouldn’t allow her full participation in the Stearne Mills she inherited from her father. Finally, however, the death was ruled a suicide and the family began to move on. Thalia Frame still remained with them indefinitely, and Vicky became engaged to Michael Bayne from a different Mill office. Her cousin Hollis continued to train with the army at the newly constructed camp under the direction of their family friend, Colonel Galant. Aunt Bessie is busy planning the upcoming nuptials. The weekend before, however, another dead body is found floating in the water. The unidentified young woman is wearing a dress belonging to the long-time housekeeper Clistie, who has now disappeared. Vicky is most upset, as she alone had heard a scream that night and she and her cousin Agnew had allowed Clistie to go investigate. That’s not the end of her troubles, however. Soon incriminating evidence shows up linking Vicky to the crime, and the zealous investigator Mr. Beasley is determined to see her convicted for both murders.
I think the aspect that kept me from outright loving this book is that Vicky doesn’t always seem to be the brightest crayon in the box. Granted, being suspected of murder (twice) might make you behave a little desperately, but she is still surprisingly naive this second time round. Anytime someone pushes for marriage after a crime, my first thought is that spouses can’t testify against each other (not that Vicky was actually guilty, of course). She also returns to the scene of the crime alone with Agnew, something that can only lead to being hurt, incriminated, or both. Maybe I’m just naturally suspicious from having read too many mysteries. I can’t guarantee that I would make good choices myself in the panicked heat of the moment.
It also was not the cleanest of plots. Mignon Eberhart liberally sprinkled in red herrings, not all of which seemed satisfactorily resolved. I’m still not sure whether one character who at times seemed untrustworthy was actually involved in the murder plot, though I don’t think so. It also seemed like the resolution came out of left field a bit. (To be fair, I was sick when I finished the book, so I may not have picked up on everything I should have.)
I do have to give her credit for the characters of Beasley and Agnew, however. Beasley has Vicky in his crosshairs from the moment he takes over the investigation. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he believes her guilty, and his constant pointed accusatory remarks are designed to pick her apart. However, even Vicky must admit that he is honest, and still follows leads that are contrary to his suspicions. As a reader I hated him, but he was far from the bumbling fool that incorrect inspectors often are. Agnew, on the other hand, was probably my favorite character. He has all the cavalier innocence of an eighteen-year-old, fascinated by the investigation but not quite sure he has the stomach when it hits this close to home. He and Vicky are five years apart but have grown closer lately, and he is more than willing to act as her partner in–well, anti-crime, I guess. I’ve read enough gothics that it’s really refreshing when cousins can just be good friends, like in The Street of Small Steps.
Though published in 1943, the book is actually set in March of 1941. The army camp is merely for training at this point, but everyone views the US entrance into the war as eventually inevitable. The small town of Ponte Verde is trying to deal with an influx of soldiers, and the fledgling camp is trying to deal with security when construction is still ongoing. I wonder if Mignon Eberhart began writing the book before Pearl Harbor, or if she decided to change the time so that the male characters at camp would still be around.
She also provides an interesting perspective on genre conventions. At the beginning of the book, Vicky is seriously doubting her impending marriage. She isn’t sure whether she actually loves Michael, or only accepted his proposal because it seemed like the obvious thing to do after he came to her aid so nobly during the turmoil of the first investigation.
She would scarcely have known him if it hadn’t been for Henry’s death. He would have stayed a few days at the house and left. They wouldn’t have been plunged together into horror–into anxiety and apprehension, yes, as fear; they wouldn’t have been thrown into each other’s arms, seeking each other’s support in time of need. He wouldn’t have acted, really, a hero’s role, with herself a heroine. Thus the whole circumstance of their engagement was artificial, fictional, unreal; marriage needed something real for a basis.
She’s totally right. I’m a hopeless romantic and like the idea that love can blossom amidst the escapades of a suspense book, but sometimes that relationship can be as contrived as the result of a season of the bachelor. Just because people are thrown together doesn’t mean they belong together, or are meant to be anything more than friends. Minon Eberhart actually plays with this idea throughout the course of the book. It’s a different perspective, but makes sense in this context.
The young lovers are one of Patricia Wentworth’s greatest strengths, but are never a main plotline in the likes of Rex Stout. How much of a place do you think they have in mystery novels? (I think romance is pretty much a given in gothic or suspense, so we’ll let those slide.)