Stark House, 2021
According to the Stark House website, this new two-in-one volume from prolific but still somewhat neglected writer Dolores Hitchens is scheduled to be released sometime this month. I am beyond grateful to Stark House for my copy; these people are the best!
The two novels offered here are The Abductor, from 1962 and The Bank With the Bamboo Door, from 1965. Let me just say that Hitchens doesn't mess around in either of these books -- at gadetection we're told that Hitchens "wrote a large number of lightweight mysteries, mostly in the cozy tradition," but that's certainly not what's going on here. Not at all.
The Abductor begins as young teacher Miss Moynton is out on the playground at the end of the school day, and notices a "patch of darkness" that she takes to be a shadow near some shrubbery at the edge of the school. Thinking it might be some errant child, she walks toward it; as she gets closer she hears someone calling a name: "Marion ... Marion ... Marion!" When she asks who's there, a man takes off running. Concerned that he had been calling out to one of the students, Marion Charles, she brings the matter to the attention of the principal, Mr. Dobbs, whose first thought is that they don't want to cause panic at the school. She also visits Marion's mother to find out if she had asked someone to pick up her daughter at school, but Mrs. Charles is neither curious nor alarmed by Miss Moynton's story and thinks perhaps that her elderly uncle had "escaped from his nursing home," but assures the young teacher that Uncle Eddie is harmless and "timid." Reporting her findings to the principal the next day, Dobbs is convinced that "there was no longer any need to worry," and the school day goes on. Miss Moynton is assigned to give a demonstration, so a substitute, Marion Kennick, has been called in. Out on the playground late in the day, as the students are playing at sports, Mrs. Kennick is convinced she hears her name being called, and looks up to see one of Miss Moynton's pupils out walking alone near the shrubbery. What happens next makes it clear that Mr. Dobbs' assessment may have been somewhat premature, since, as the blurb notes, "Marion Kennick is kidnapped with one of her students."
|original 1962 cover, from Goodreads|
I have to admit that I don't particularly care for novels involving child abduction, so I was a bit iffy at this juncture. What I discovered however is that what happens next is anything but your standard kidnapping story, as Hitchens delves into the lives of the main players here, setting up a high level of suspense and asking serious questions about moral choices and responsibility along the way. As the story winds down it definitely becomes an edge-of-your-seat reading experience that lasts until the very end of this very twisty, taut story.
|original 1965 cover, from Amazon|
On to the The Bank With The Bamboo Door, which is set in a "town full of secrets," the exposure of which for the people in this book would be devastating. In Marlie Renick's case, she stands to lose much more than the beautiful house she now lives in with her wealthy husband Warren, especially if the prestigious neighborhood's "Old Hens" find out. Doctor Roland Ferrie also has a lot on the line as he finds himself "in a damned spot" that he blames on his own foolishness; his wife Janie also hides a life-altering secret that she's not quite ready to disclose to anyone. Then there's James Griffin, whose interest in Karen Evans and the gardening store she runs with her friend Lisa Kim conceals far more than his need for fixing up his weed-filled back yard. As more than one person reveals in this story, their woes can be traced back to a single source, without whom their lives would be far better off.
Reading this book is like being a spectator at a plate-spinning act, wondering how in the world someone manages to keep them all going at the same time without at least one crashing down. I would think that it's difficult to juggle so many storylines, but from the very few books I've read by Dolores Hitchens, I've noticed that one of her strengths as a writer is in her ability to begin with several different elements of plot and keep them under control individually even as they begin to merge together. Here not only does everyone have secrets but there's also the matter of the "bank with the bamboo door," where a robbery took place in the past; word has it that not all of the money was found and that what was left might just still be there behind that bamboo door. And then, of course, there's a murder that absolutely no one is sorry about.
In both books in this volume however, it is really her focus on small-town people that makes all the difference, and there she is a master. I tend to focus more on human nature than on plot when reading crime, so she's a great fit for me. It wasn't until after I'd finished this volume though that I understood why she is so very good at what she does, discussed in the informative introduction by Curtis Evans. After a brief look at Hitchens' life while growing up and then as an adult, he makes a great case for her "tangled family life" making its way into her novels. He especially notes the "myriad dillemas" faced by the women in The Bank With The Bamboo Door as well as the relationship between young Marion Charles and her mother in The Abductor. Both books go far beyond just straight plot, so that you get caught up in the lives of the characters before you. While I liked both of them very much, I will admit to being a bit more caught up in the suspense of The Abductor, and more focused on the outcomes of the people than the plot in The Bank With The Bamboo Door, but both are, as Evans notes about "Hitchens' crime concoctions," most certainly "criminally addictive." One caveat: it was often cringeworthy reading references to Chinese people in the second book, so beware.
I hope Stark House is planning to publish more of Hitchens' novels in the future. They won't be for everyone, but I love them. Absolutely.