Brook Evans by Susan Glaspell (1928)

I was very taken with Susan Glaspell’s novel ‘Fidelity’ when I read it, a year or so ago, and because I knew that only that novel and one other were in print,  I thought that I should save that other for a little while, and enjoy the prospect of reading another work by a very fine author.

When the Persephone Readathon came around I decided that it was time to pick up my book, but until now life hasn’t allowed me time to write about books.

‘Brook Evans’ was published thirteen years after ‘Fidelity’, and it was interesting to see that some things had changed but some things had remained the same. The style felt familiar but the author’s voice had matured. She still had many of the same concerns, and she addressed them in a story that covers a much broader period of time; telling the story of Naomi Kellogg and her daughter Brook Evans from 1880s to the 1920s.

The first act of the story, set in farming country in northern Illinois, tells of the love affair of two young people: Naomi and Joe. They are deeply in love, they plan to marry, they believe that they will always be together, and so it seems quite natural to them to begin a sexual relationship.

The future that they both hoped for is not to be, and Naomi is devastated when Joe is killed in an accident She only finds comfort in the realisation that she is pregnant, that she will always be connected with Joe through their child, and that she will have a purpose in life raising that child.

She forgets that she is flying in the face of convention until Joe’s mother, instead of expressing joy at the prospect of a grandchild that she thought had been lost with her only child, calls Naomi a whore and angrily accuses her of trying to sully the memory of her son.

Naomi’s parents are overwhelmed by the coming disgrace and insist that Naomi accept the open proposal of Caleb Evans, an farmer and lay preacher who has courted her for a long time. He had plans to move to Colorado, he wanted to take her as his bride, he was even prepared to raise her child, and all those miles away nobody would know how long had passed between marriage and the birth of a first child ….

Naomi didn’t care for Caleb, she didn’t care for that plan at all, but she had nowhere else to go ….

I was captivated as this story played out. It was so very well written, each and every character lived and breathed, and I understood every emotion and every action. I saw that there could be no happy ending, not in those days and not in the days when Susan Glaspell wrote this book; and I saw that there were no heroes and villains, just real, fallible people.

The second act is set in Colorado some years later. Caleb was a good man, he worked hard to provide for his wife and her child, but he was a religious fundamentalist and his family’s life revolved around his church and its strictures. Naomi did her best to a proper wife to Caleb, but she could never feels any love for him, and all of her hopes for the future were vested in the daughter she had named Brook, for the little stream where she and Joe made love.

The endpapers of the Persephone Books edition of ‘Brook Evans’

Naomi wants Brook to experience the love and passion that she knew that she herself knew for such a short time, and to have the kind of life that she had only been able to live in her dreams. Sadly, her desperation to give Brook that future blinds her to the reality of her daughter’s feelings and situations, and she pushes too hard. Brook is torn between her first love and her fundamentalist belief and she is devastated when Naomi, believing she will make her daughter understand the importance of following her heart, shows her an old photograph of Joe, explains that he is her ‘real father’ and tells her the true circumstances of her birth.

Brook doesn’t see the romance of it all, but it gives her a new appreciation of the man who loved and raised her. In the heat of the moment she rejects her mother and the young man she supported, and she leaves home with the intention of going to the church and becoming a missionary ….

This really was a tragedy, and the story spoke profoundly about the conflict between love and duty. I wished that Naomi would act a little more prudently but I understood why she spoke and acted as she did and I felt such compassion for her. I felt for Brook too, I wished that she could understand both of her parents, but of course she couldn’t, she was far too young to have such maturity and wisdom.

Tragedy was inevitable.

The third act opens in Europe, many years later. Brook is a wealthy widow who hasn’t seen either of her parents since she left home, who has a son who is coming of age, and who has two suitors. The solid and very wealthy aristocrat friend of her late husband would be the sensible choice but she is more drawn to an ardent adventurer who wants to join him on his travels through the Himalayas.

Brook begins to think of her mother, who had died some years early; and she comes to understand what Naomi had been trying to give her, and to realise that she had judged her so very harshly. Then she receives news that Caleb was gravely ill and near the end of his life. She knew that she ought to go to see him for one last time, but that left her under pressure to make a difficult decision.

She knew that she had the choice that had been taken away from Naomi ….

The exploration of family relationships is beautifully done, and I loved the way that themes echoed through the story and across generations, but I found that I was not as engaged with the latter part of the story as I had been with what went before. Because I couldn’t reconcile the woman Brook was with the girl she had been; too many years had passed and too little was shown or explained.

That was a flaw, but not a fatal flaw.

The story continued to speak to my head and to my heart; and it felt so real that I can believe that it played out, all those years ago.

The Draycott Murder Mystery: A Golden Age Mystery by Molly Thynne (1928)

The first of Molly Thynne’s six detectives novels – which have just been sent out into the world again, after being lost for many years  – opens with a wonderfully painted scene.

On a stormy night in late winter a young gentleman farmer arrived home, after a wasted journey, to find his front door swinging wide open. When he goes through that doorway he finds a young woman he has never set eyes on before, dressed in evening wear, sitting at his writing desk, and shot dead in the act of writing a letter.

All of his neighbours believe that scene played out exactly as he said it did, but the police are think otherwise.

He is arrested, and tried for murder.

Because the murder weapon was the shotgun that he kept in his bedside table. Because he had no alibi, and his account of how he had spent his time that day seemed rather improbable. And because it was very easy to build a scenario that had him in the role of murderer.

The evidence was circumstantial but it was compelling.

31812958It was fortunate that there were people who believed that the man on trial was innocent, and were willing to do whatever they could to help his cause. There washis fiancée, a lovely girl, who had complete faith in him; there was a local lawyer who was ready to act, even though his beloved wife was in poor very health; and there was a gentleman who had just returned from colonial service and was ready to take the lead in an investigation of their own.

They found new suspects. The victim had a very proper sister who disapproved of her behaviour. The local doctor’s unusual reaction when he was called to the scene did not pass unnoticed. And a tramp who was sheltering near the farm might have seem something or might have done something.

Where would they find the answers they sought? In the past? In the dead woman’s character?

Why did she go to the farm? How did she get there, in evening slippers on a stormy night?

What really happened?

Could the answer be found – and could the case be made – in time?

This plot plays out beautifully. It was cleverly structured, it was well paced, and it really was intriguing. My suspicions kept shifting, and I never could quite make up my mind

There are familiar elements to the mystery, but as a whole it feels original; it is firmly rooted in the golden age but I saw the influence of an earlier generation of sensation novelists at play as well as the influence of more famous crime writers who were Molly Thynne’s peers.

Some of those peers may have written more complex, more sophisticated, mysteries; but I can’t think of one who wrote a more engaging human drama.

The characters involved in this story were so real, so natural, so believable, that I couldn’t help being drawn in and their concerns became mine.

That took time, and in the early chapters of this book I didn’t think I would like this book as much as I did.

It isn’t that it’s perfect. There were some startling coincidences. There were some points that could have been made with a little more subtlety. And there was a clear lack of understanding of medical science.

But I have to say that this was an engaging story and that it was very well told.

I had a lovely time forming theories. Some were underpinned by the facts that were emerging and some were inspired by my wishes for particular characters.

The conclusion caught me by surprise. I think that it was right, I think that it was inevitable, but it broke my heart in a way that few golden age crime novels ever have.

An afterword tied up the loose ends.

And left me eager to read the rest of Molly Thynne’s work.

The Man with the Dark Beard by Annie Haynes (1928)

I picked up ‘The Man with the Dark Beard’ because I loved the title, and because I was intrigued by the promise of a story that brought together elements of the sensation novel and elements of the modern (for the 1920s) mystery story.

It starts with Dr. John Bastow asking for advice from his oldest friend, Sir Felix Skrine:

‘Suppose that in the course of a man’s professional career he found that a crime had been committed, had never been discovered, never even suspected, what would you say such a man ought to do?’

Sir Felix, a King’s Counsel, advises his friend to speak to the police, but something makes his friend hesitant. He decides to think about it and maybe talk it over again.

Later that day the doctor is found dead in his study, shot through the head.

Detective Inspector William Stoddart was called in to investigate. He found a half-written letter to Sir Felix; he learned that the Chinese box that held the proofs of the crime that the doctor uncovered was missing;  and he found a scrap of paper on which it seemed that the doctor had written:


Now the solution might seem obvious. Find the crime that Dr. Barstow had discovered and find his killer!

But maybe it wasn’t quite that simple.

  • Basil Wilton, the doctor’s assistant, had fallen in love with his daughter, Hilary, and the two of them wanted to marry. Her father was opposed to the match, and angry that his assistant had courted his daughter behind his back.
  • The parlour maid to the Barstows, Mary Ann Taylor, had been suspected as not quite who she held herself out to be. Not long after the murder she dressed in her best clothes, told the policeman at the door that she was a friend of Hilary’s who had  called to condole with her, and then left the house and disappeared without trace.
  • When concerns about her future were raised, Miss Houlton, the doctor’s secretary, said that she had come into a substantial that very day and would not need to find a new position.
  • Doctor Morris, a close friend and colleague of John Barstow, and the only person in his immediate circle with a beard, couldn’t quite account for his time on the day of the murder. And he attended the inquest clean shaven.

Was any of this significant?

The story was set up nicely, and I found much to enjoy. The characters and their relationships were very well drawn, sensational stories of the past informed the story, and so did the changing times of the 1920s and the future possibilities that must have seem so tantalising then.

26866478Nowhere is that better encapsulated than in Miss Lavinia Priestly, aunt of Hilary and her crippled brother Fee. She  was described as ‘a spinster of eccentric habits’; she was a world traveller; she loved her niece and nephew dearly; she had very firm opinions, some modern and some traditional, and she was always ready to call a spade a spade.

I loved her, and I had a strong suspicion that she was the author’s alter-ego.

As executor of John Bastow’s will, Sir Felix told Hilary that he would respect her father’s wishes and separate her from Basil Wilton. He explained that whoever bought her father’s medical practice would also want the family home that stood alongside it, and so he would give her and her brother a new home;  a cottage just outside his country estate.

Sir Felix laid flowers on his late wife’s grave every day; but it soon became clear that he was positioning Hilary to become his second wife.

Aunt Lavinia thought that if would be a wonderful marriage for Hilary; but Hilary loved Basil and she was not going to give him up.

But back in London Basil Wilton was having all kinds of problems. He became entangled with Miss Houlton, she nursed him through a mysterious illness, and when there was a second murder it appeared that he was the only person with means, motive and opportunity for both crimes.

Inspector Stoddart and his colleague, Alfred Harbord, were thorough, capable, and very professional as they went about their business. I appreciated that they were detectives without gimmicks, and that they dealt so well with all of the people affected by the murders.

The way that the story played out wasn’t too surprising. I had my suspect, their motive, and most of how they did it worked out at a very early stage. I was happy to keep reading though, because Annie Haynes was such a good story-teller, because I was involved with the characters and their concerns, and because I wanted to establish one or two details.

The plot is well constructed, but there are one or too loose ends. And I was disappointed in the ending of Aunt Lavinia’s story.

So the verdict is not quite perfect, but a very enjoyable book nonetheless.

The pull between tradition and modernity was particularly interesting.

And though there is much that is familiar in this book; when considered as a whole it is distinctive and not quite like anybody else I can remember reading.

I’ll happily read more of Annie Haynes’ work, and I’ll be glad to meet her detectives again.