It has been quite a few months since I have read a screwball comedy mystery by this writing duo, so it felt timely to renew my acquaintance with their work.
The Littles only wrote stand-alone novels, and the majority of these are narrated by a spunky can-do female protagonist. The Black Eye does not deviate from this norm as we have Eugenia Gates as our narrator and at the start of the book, she is arriving at her friend Mary Fredon’s apartment, which is staying at for her 2-week holiday. Mary is away at her country cottage, apparently getting over the fact that her husband, Homer, has left her, quite literally, for the woman next door, Betty Emerson. She soon makes the acquaintance of Betty’s philandering husband, John and his mother in law. She also has further people thrust upon her as Mary also agreed to let Sergeant Kendall Smith stay at her apartment for his leave. Naturally Mary thinks a chaperon is needed, so Lucy Davis is also coming to stay.
However, it is not long before doubts are raised as to whether Homer and Betty really did elope, despite the postcard they received. Eugenia is also left puzzling when she keeps hearing John refer to the mysterious ‘black eye.’ A big party is organised, an event which sees apparent hints of Homer’s continued presence in the place and concludes with a body. Yet it is neither Homer’s nor Betty’s. Detective Bartholomew Egbert certainly has his work cut out to unravel this mystery, as the body count rises, – not least because of everyone’s innate desire to thwart his progress.
The Littles deliver a strong opening, introducing us to the key characters well, including those which are off page, so to speak. The reader begins to conjure up an image of characters such as Mary and Homer, based on the comments others make. This book also demonstrates the effectiveness of concluding your chapters on bombshells, of one kind or another. I’m sure it crops up in their other books too, but I felt the Littles did it particularly well on this occasion.
I have read over 10 mysteries penned by the Littles now, so it is fair to say I have some kind of template in my head when I begin these stories, especially in regard to the type of plot events which will occur and the type of heroine we will encounter. In terms of the plot events everything is as usual, i.e. mad antics during the night and bodies which pop up and disappear from unusual places.
Nevertheless, I felt the Littles gave us something of a different female protagonist, in comparison to the usual ones they craft. She is meant to be a young woman, but the way she talks and acts, you’d assume she was middle aged. Normally the female narrator is besieged by romantic interests, all vying for her attention, yet Eugenia bucks this trend. There is no instant spark between her and Kendall, and in some ways it is more Eugenia being the chaperon for the much older Lucy, than the other way around. Whilst I am happy to have a non-man-mad protagonist, I did not feel it was simply because Eugenia was burning with other goals and plans. At times it seemed more like poor social or even anti-social skills, as Eugenia is frequently stiff and sharp with others and at the start of the book is determined to avoid communal activities. I had pretty much ruled Kendall out as a love interest and wondered whether the romantic lead might be Detective Egbert. Yet Eugenia extinguishes that idea at the soonest possible opportunity, being rude to him from the get-go, for no real reason. Her rudeness did seem unnecessary at times and I felt this had the effect of alienating the reader from her. Kendall intermittently begins to show some interest, but there is little to no response from her and by the end of the book you’re not surprised that there’s no wedding bells in the offing. Kendall is a lively and animated character, who I think the reader will quickly warm to, yet his counterpoint, Eugenia, does not seem able to match it in her own way. Again, I should emphasise that I do not need romantic subplots in my mysteries to enjoy them, but in the case of the Littles’ work a romantic thread to the narrative is very common. Moreover, a key part of their tales’ comedy is the working out of this courtship. Who does she pick? Do they resolve their differences? Do they get on each other’s wicks before realising they like each other? All of these types of aspects come into play in the humour of the Littles’ novel. Yet in The Black Eye, this element is sort of there, but in a rather dysfunctional way, which in turn affected the humour, I think.
Another weakness with this read concerns the mystery plot. The Littles are known for their inclusion of bizarre and zany elements in their plots. Observant readers may have noted the Egyptian theme of the Rue Morgue Press edition cover, so I was prepared and unfazed for this theme to crop up in the narrative. Yet from my synopsis you’ll see that I have not mentioned it at all. It does not turn up for quite some time in the book, and when it does, I did not think it was adequately grounded, which surprised me, as usually the Littles are good at doing this. It just seemed forced into the plot and it never really established any roots.
Furthermore, I felt the plot to be somewhat sparse, despite the healthy body count. Egbert works in the background a lot and the other main characters do not uncover sufficient information by themselves for the reader to have enough to work with. Though the story progresses I imagine most readers will be able to make a couple of shrewd guesses. However, I don’t think even Einstein could figure out much of the meaning around the mysterious ‘black eye,’ which is a shame as it is an intriguing clue.
Whilst we know from the get-go that poison is the murder method being used, the Littles seem to forget to inform the reader which poison it is, who had access to the stuff and how it was administered. This information all tumbles out at the end in the last few pages, along with a heap of other really crucial pieces of information. The motive is highly unusual, but because it is such a surprise, with the reader being too much in the dark, it falls a little flat.
Given the number of books I have enjoyed by the Littles I expected more from them. I would suggest reading this a book if you a completist and you are already a fan of their work, but new readers should start elsewhere.