Monday, February 12, 2024

double feature: Poor Harriet/The Silent Cousin, by Elizabeth Fenwick

Stark House Press, 2024
217 pp


Released just recently, this two-books-in-one edition from Stark House features the work of a woman whose work may not be a household name among mystery readers, but deserves to be brought back into the light.  Elizabeth Fenwick (1916-1996), aka E.P. Fenwick, wrote her first novel just after high school.  It was rejected upon submission, and she moved on to other things, including French translations.  Evidently she wasn't one to give up -- in 1943 Farrar and Rinehart published her An Inconvenient Corpse and two more crime novels under the E.P. Fenwick pseudonym in 1944 and 1945.  She would return to crime fiction again in 1957 with Poor Harriet, but she hadn't sat idle in between, having written three non-crime books (and evidently a very busy life, according to Curtis Evans' introduction to this volume) before returning to the genre.  Wikipedia offers a list of her published works; I am fortunate enough to have picked up three of her crime novels published by Stark House some time ago: Two Names for Death (as E.P. Fenwick, 1945; part of their fabulous Black Gat series), and another two-for-one containing The Make-Believe Man from 1963 and A Friend of Mary Rose (1961), both written as Elizabeth Fenwick.  

In Poor Harriet, Marianne Hinkley does the books for Bryce Builders in Connecticut,  taking all of the financial woes of the company upon her own shoulders since Mr. Bryce's attitude is one of "To hell with what the books say!"  Money is tight, and the situation is not helped by Mrs. Irma Bryce, whose shopping bills are paid from company funds and who seems to be, as she puts it, "living out of the cash drawer."  On the day this novel opens, Irma is in the office, needing a thousand dollars, which Marianne assures her won't be happening.  Mrs. B has a plan in hand, though, taking out a diamond bracelet and telling Marianne that if she would go to a certain man in New York City, he would "buy this in a minute" and afterward, Mrs. Bryce would give Marianne a percentage of anything over the price Irma wants if she can sell it for more.   She can't go herself, she says, because word might get out; to sweeten the deal, she also promises Marianne that she won't ask for any more money until the new development the company has built has sold out.  That is an offer that Marianne can't refuse;  Irma makes the appointment and Marianne later makes her way to a particular address to make the sale.   The contact, a Mr. Moran, doesn't have the thousand but offers to set Marianne up with someone who does.  She is to wait there with Mrs. Moran, an older English woman named Harriet, while he makes arrangements.  Before Marianne goes with Harriet for tea in her room, however, she decides that she's done with these people and doesn't want to go somewhere else to make the deal, so she calls Irma to let her know it's off.   She makes arrangements to meet at Grand Central, where Marianne will wait for her until midnight.  She's set to go, but as a kindness decides to stay for one cup with Harriet before she leaves.  It's a decision that leaves serious repercussions in its wake, not least of which is murder.   This scenario could be the setup for any number of crime novels, but alongside the murder mystery, there is also a dark depiction of a woman tyrannized mentally and physically by an abusive spouse.  When I'd finished this novel,  I read the introduction, which led me to the excellent and informative introduction by Curtis Evans to The Make-Believe Man/A Friend of Mary Rose, where I discovered that Fenwick had sadly herself lived through this sort of situation, making the aftermath of my reading even more poignant.  

original cover of Poor Harriet, 1957. From Capitol Hill Books

The Silent Cousin also has its share of darkness, although this story is a bit more complicated in the reading than its predecessor and definitely more gothic in tone.    First things first: as Curtis Evans says in his intro, make yourself some sort of family tree or at least a list of who's who in this novel.  I didn't read the introduction until after I'd finished the entire book so I missed that advice, but as luck would have it, I ended up doing it anyway once I got tired of flipping back and forth through the pages.  Trust me, it is a lifesaver and will keep the reading flow going at a good pace with no interruption to the buildup of suspense going on here. 

The Onderdonk estate was established back before the turn of the twentieth century with the building of a grand house named Long Acre.  On the estate are three other dwellings:  the Hall, currently the home of Humphrey and Cora Onderdonk and their older daughters Louisa and Millie, a farmhouse where the estate manager MacDonald now lives, and a cottage originally called The Study in the Woods, which  Millicent Onderdonk (now deceased and daughter of the original Onderdonk) had refitted for her husband, a certain Dr. Potter.   All of the present-day Onderdonks live on the estate with the exception of the family of John Onderdonk, who had left for Chicago and whose grandson John Watson is the current heir.   To make a very long story short, the estate is tied up in trust in terms of both land and money; any requests pertaining to funds go through MacDonald.    

After spending his childhood with the Onderdonk cousins, as an adult, Dr. Potter's son Paul (affectionately known as "Polly") has returned each year (minus one) to spend his summers at the cottage.  While he has no legal claim to the place because Millicent was his stepmother, it is a fine retreat for him and he is welcomed back by the family each time, especially now that he is separated from his wife.  The remainder of the year he is a professor of history, although he had once been on track to becoming a doctor, going to medical school but giving it up due to an issue with a  "tricky memory."  However, he still has his own syringe, with which he administers prescribed drugs in cases where the doctor cannot get to the estate quickly.   As the novel opens, he is awaiting the arrival of his young daughter  when he is summoned by estate manager MacDonald to the farmhouse to help with  MacDonald's very ill wife.  The doctor had relayed that Potter should give Mrs. MacDonald an injection immediately, since the wife had been found "wandering" when she should have been in bed.   Found dead on the floor, Mrs. MacDonald won't be needing Potter's help, Too late to be of any help, he makes his way to the Hall to break the news.  Her death had been a bit of a surprise, because she had seemed to be "mending," and Aunt Cora makes her way to the farmhouse where she knows she'll be needed.  Another death is on the horizon though when poor Uncle Humphrey is found drowned in his fish pond.  It seems that his death happened not too long after Paul, Millicent and Louisa had had a serious discussion about the two women's futures as relating to the estate and the trust.   But there is another surprise yet to come for the Onderdonk family:  young John Watson has made his way to Long Acre with plans of his own.  As the blurb for this novel states, it seems that "Change is in the air," and this change "brings with it -- death." 

1966 cover, from Between the Covers (with some editing) 

I absolutely loved Poor Harriet, which, although written over sixty years ago, still sadly has great relevance to our own time with its frank depiction of domestic abuse/violence against women and the tragedy of mental illness, made even more heartbreaking because in this particular case there is no help in sight.   The core mystery is nicely done as well; I eventually figured out the who but not until very close to the end.  Unlike most of the time when I guess the culprit, I didn't care about that  -- what captured me most was the depth of humanity Fenwick managed to infuse into the character of  "Poor Harriet."  Mysteries come and go but Harriet (and this book) I won't soon forget.   The Silent Cousin is also quite good; Like Poor Harriet, this novel  also has an intense, psychological depth to it, in this case examining the effects of the burdens people silently carry for those they love, even in situations that are destined to end in failure.   It also has a chilling ending and a reveal that I never saw coming.  

These books are two examples of the type of crime I love to read, with the author's intense psychological scrutiny of her characters at work in and around the mysteries that are there to be solved.  Fenwick was a wonderful writer, and I'll look forward to reading the three I have now, plus any of her work published in the future.   Do not let the publication dates of these novels deter you -- her subject matter is still highly relevant and she can weave a hell of a tale together, keeping you hanging until the last page is turned.  Recommended for mystery/crime readers of the period, as well as to readers who appreciate some truly good writing.  

My many thanks to Stark House for my advanced reading copy!!

Monday, February 5, 2024

PPL#1: Fear Stalks the Village, by Ethel Lina White

"The moral is, padre, that human nature remains the same, everywhere, and dark places exist in every mind." 

British Library, 2024
originally published 1932
292 pp


Ahhhhh.  My reading has once again returned me to the tranquil English village of the interwar years, one of my favorite settings for British crime fiction.  This book features another personal favorite,  the dreaded poison pen letter.   In this case, it's not just one -- as the back-cover blurb info notes, there is a veritable "spate" of them going around the village.  

Prior to the circulation of these not-so-nice missives, the village, as the Rector notes, is a place where "There's no immorality ... and "no class hatred or modern unrest ... "  Those who live here "reflect the general tone of kindness and good breeding," and he has never known a place with so little scandal," which was as much a rarity "as a unicorn."   We are told that from an airplane it "resembled a black-and-white plaster model of a Tudor village, under a glass case," with no train station, no "floating population," with birth rates remaining "stagnant" and since "the natives resented the mere idea of dying in such a delightful place," Death did not visit very often.  "Everyone has a pedigree and a private income," while tennis and garden parties are part and parcel of the social life.   It is a place where "only the walls heard" what was going on behind the closed blinds, "and they kept their secret."  
But when the letters begin to intrude and to make their way through this idyllic setting, they slowly release their own form of poison, shattering the quiet village life and  throwing it more than a bit out of whack.   Fear, which is personified here in male form, makes its entry and begins to "stalk the village," as it becomes obvious that these letters are not coming from outside of this small haven. Some people start to silently ask about their neighbors "Is it you?" while others tragically turn to drastic measures to avoid the worst and most feared possibility of the exposure of  secrets they carry.  The letters (which some people deny even receiving although we know they did) are bad enough, yet the Squire's wife would prefer not to call in the police.  The Rector has the perfect solution in the form of a good friend by the name of Ignatius Brown who "rather fancies himself as Sherlock Holmes."  It will be up to him to try to root out the person who has caused all of this upheaval and the "death and disaster" that follows in the wake of "shadow and shame."  

Original cover, from Wikipedia (it looks like via Facsimile Dust Jackets)

What makes Fear Stalks the Village work well is in the way the author lays the foundation of  the harmony and more importantly,  the equilibrium defining this village prior to the introduction of both poison pen letters and Fear (the word capitalized throughout the novel).  Once things begin to happen, it is that highly-important baseline that directs reader focus to the threat of loss of this long-established order as it begins to crumble.    The core mystery is good, but it's the psychological aspects of this story that kept me turning pages, both individual and societal.  And then, of course, who couldn't love a dog by the name of Charles Dickens?  

Given the time in which this novel was written, it may seem a bit on the slow side as the author sets forth the atmosphere of the village (down to the flowers) and introduces us to the characters,  but once again, it's a matter of patient reading that will get you to the point of being completely wrapped up in things long before the end is in sight.   While this isn't my favorite novel of those I've read by Ethel Lina White (that one is her Wax from 1935), it's pretty darn good.  It's also a book I can definitely recommend for Golden Age mystery fans and readers who enjoy their crime set in an English village, as well as to those people (like myself) who are studious collectors of the British Library Crime Classics.  

Well done.