It's taken me a while to get back to Nebraska-writer, Mignon Eberhart, but I knew I would enjoy the next book by her I picked up her, and I did. She has been called the American Agatha Christie (though I think that is a label that has been pinned on other writers as well). She was writing books at the same time as Christie, as a matter of fact I think she created her female sleuth, Nurse Keate, just before Christie's Miss Marple arrived on the scene. Apparently her standalone mystery, Death in the Fog which was published in 1933, is unlike her other books. But like The Mystery of Hunting's End which I read several years ago, it absolutely oozes with atmosphere. Atmosphere of the "it was a dark and stormy night" kind. The sort that was adapted onto the big screen in black and white with really 'moody' scenes. Really, the kind I think I like best. Chills from setting and suspense, not blatant and over the top violence. I love almost every type of mystery, but I'm especially fond of these vintage crime novels.
"Certain dank gardens cry aloud for a murder; certain old houses demand to be haunted; certain coasts are set apart for shipwreck."
Isn't that a great quote? It's by Robert Louis Stevenson and it appears right before the beginning of the novel. It should give you an idea of where Eberhart is going to take her reader. In this case, the setting is a cold, foggy afternoon. A real pea-souper of a day on Lake Michigan in Chicago. Katie Warren is returning home from a concert in her aunt's "heavy great car". She's not worried by the dense fog. She's a very capable driver. As a matter of fact she's a very capable young woman--until the Great Crash of '29 she was a successful stock broker. Now she lives with her aunt thanks to her good will and generosity. Had the invitation not been forthcoming, just where would she be?
The fog, however, makes it difficult for everyone--drivers and pedestrians alike. The fog is growing heavier, there is a hint of sleet on the windshields.
"Bits of automobiles loomed out of the fog here and there into confused, futuristic paths of lights; automobiles with their radiators or their rear fenders mysteriously gone. It was a kind of Cheshire-cat effect gone modern and very noisy."
As she stops for a red light she hears out of her window the oddest snatch of conversation. "'I won't,' it said simply, 'eat grape hair'. It paused and then added with plaintive earnestness: 'Nor yet glocks'." Slightly sinister it sounds, yet Katie is amused, knowing it will remain one of "life's little mysteries" as to who the speakers are. And a moment later shoulders and head looms out of the fog--a man, but someone she knows. Another relative of a friend of her aunt Mina's. Another guest at her aunt's house and so she offers him a ride home. Back to Mina's somber house, but a welcome haven for poor, penniless Katie.
What might have been formerly a haven in a storm will soon become almost a prison. As capable as Katie may be in her driving, the car loses control and begins a slide on the bridge connecting the main road to the lane leading up to her aunt's house. The slope, the icy bridge, the heavy car, Katie tries to control it all, but she cannot. It might not have been more than a simple slide and fender bender, but someone had just stepped out into the lane at that very moment. And Katie, unable to control the car, rolls over a body. Not a body yet, but her aunt Mina's companion. It was an accident. Katie has killed Charlotte Weinberg. If Katie is capable, Charlotte is formidable. Aunt Mina is a wealthy older woman who has been in ill health and Charlotte rules the house.
And now Charlotte is dead, Katie is shaken and unnerved and out of this horrible accident will roll a very twisty mystery. It was an accident, wasn't it? When the, in this story--quite odious--detective arrives, what might have been a "simple" yet tragic accident becomes a case of possible murder in cold blood. And Katie is, of course, the main suspect. And perhaps one with so much to gain. Charlotte was controlling of Mina and of everyone else in the household, and it is a full house--filled with relatives and servants.
With Charlotte out of the way, anything goes. It had been assumed that she would have inherited all. Now Mina is likely to change her will and there is going to be a line of relatives happy to take her place. Aunt Mina had failing health, but with Charlotte absent, she seems to rally, which throws in question just what Charlotte's motives had been. And everyone else's motives, too.
Death in the Fog is a wonderfully atmospheric puzzle. Not quite your typical detective story, since it is the main suspect you find yourself rooting for and quite put off by Mr. Crafft's smarminess. Like a good Christie mystery, all the clues are there if you can piece them together, though I tend to just enjoy sitting back and enjoying the ride and let the mystery-solving unroll while the fog closes in around the house. It makes for a claustrophobic, chilling sort of read. In the back of your mind you know that that 'grape hair' and those 'glocks' are somehow the key to the mystery, but how do you possibly make sense of it all.
I'll definitely read more by Mignon Eberhart--I think she was quite popular and fairly prolific, and to those who like vintage crime she is well worth searching out. I want to go back and begin with her Nurse Keate novels. I think there was at one time a whole genre of 'nurse novels' mysteries and romance alike. This was a perfect addition to my murder and mayhem summer mystery reading. I've been trying to read widely and still have several more books to finish before summer's end. I think I am only missing an international crime novel, something a little grittier perhaps. Of all the types of books I have had on the go of late, mysteries have been daily fare for me and I have had quite a satisfying run of them!