For my final blog read of the year, I decided to return to two authors who have become firm favourites. Whilst there are some crossover elements between their works, such as a working woman protagonist, the Littles have plenty of ingenuity up their sleeves and I must say today’s read is quite a different novel from them.
It all begins with an awkward road trip. Irene Hastings is taking her co-worker, Ann Miller, to Tilton, but detouring to go to the mental hospital so she can see her sister first. Irene fears this will hold them up and she definitely hopes she doesn’t have to share her hotel room with her. Ann is convinced her sister, Doris, should be released and that she was incarcerated unfairly to begin with, based on fabrications made by Doris’ nursing colleagues. Yet when Irene drives them away from the hospital she quickly realises that the other woman in the car is not Ann, but Doris! She decides to drop Doris off at the rendezvous point anyways, but boy is that mistake! Clark, Doris’ friend quickly claims to his nephew Dr Ross Munster, who has found out about the escape, that Irene is Doris, the escaped patient, which leaves the real Doris and Clark free, but with Irene trapped at Munster’s private hospital. Normally such a plot device would stretch for the entire novel, but the Littles are not so predictable, with the narrative resolving and re-branching out in a different direction. Be prepared for moving corpses, a headless nurse and even a platinum blonde nurse; a hidden will, a larger than life mother and of course sinister goings on in the middle of the night…
I am glad to say I ended my year of reading on the blog on a high note. It is hard to not have fun when reading a Little mystery, as they’re always such great adventures. The private hospital milieu added a note of novelty and Irene is an intriguing protagonist. Her approach to romance is ambiguous, neither nor wholly hard headed. Despite the mishaps which befall her she does not give into panic or self-pity and makes a number of sensible decisions. I think this character choice helps the book avoid becoming a Mary Roberts Rinehart type novel. Gothic infused hysterics are not pandered to. The Littles I think after all do not want to instil fear into their readers, but laughter, which thankfully they do rather well. There is much fun to be had over the varying and changing explanations for why Irene and her mother are at the hospital, in order to keep staff on side and patients in beds. The matchmaking/romantic comedy element is also underplayed, which I for one thought was a sound idea. Elsie, Irene’s mother, is a brilliant character and is in fact quite a “character,” indulging in loud fashion choices and also keen to be at the centre of all the action. Some elements of the plot stretch credulity a little too far, but they are done in such a way that you don’t really mind.
Pacing is well-tuned as always, as events only take place over three days. The plot may seem initially somewhat simplistic, but the Littles quickly unfurl a more elaborate narrative, with something much more sinister afoot than you first surmise. The solution is quite an intricate and complex one for these two authors, elements of which I think Carr or Christie would happily have used themselves. The evidence for this ending is somewhat hurried but having read a number of novels by the Littles, I have come to the conclusion that they are terrors for truncating the endings of their stories. Not sure they knew you could write a story longer than 190 odd pages…
This issue aside I enjoyed this read and it certainly had me turning the pages at a rapid rate of knots to find out what would happen next. Whilst the Rue Morgue Press did reprint a number of the Littles’ novels, it is a shame that their work is still somewhat hard and expensive to track down, as they certainly knew how to write an entertaining mystery and I think they would be a popular fixture in any publishers’ catalogue.
P.S. Just a thought on the early part of the plot, i.e. the issue of being wrongfully mistaken as an asylum patient. Such a plot trope crops up a fair number of times in fiction, not just in mystery novels, but even in earlier Victorian tales such as The Woman in White. It has me wondering whether the repetition of this device denotes it as a cultural anxiety which was prevalent at these times. Was it that easy to be erroneously admitted into a psychiatric department? Or was this fear unsubstantiated? Equally I am left wondering whether this theme still remains as a feature of modern fiction as well? Or has that anxiety been quelled?