The Black Eye (1945) by Conyth Little

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.

Overall Thoughts

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.

Rating: 3.75/5

11 comments

    • I think screwball comedies and comic crime generally is quite a tricky thing to do well, so it’s not surprising that some books don’t hit the mark.
      I too love Rice’s books, but I can’t seem to click with the Norths – Pam in particular can get a bit infuriating. I’ve read a number of them, but the detection element often seemed a bit wanting. And don’t get me started on Oh Oh!!
      Have you read any of Alice Tilton’s Leonidas Witherall mysteries?

      Liked by 2 people

      • I find that what one specifically does or does not like can be such a personal thing. For me, at least, subgenre isn’t enough to reliably identify what I will actually respond to (which is why it’s challenging for anyone to successfully recommend authors, or music artists, to me, even if they know my general tastes). It narrows it down, certainly, but then you can give me five authors within the same subgenre, all of them recognized as excellent, and I might enjoy the work of only two of them—and only certain books, at that. After all, part of what makes a good writer good is having a distinctive personality to their work, and the corollary is that not every flavor will be to everyone’s taste, even among flavors that are similar enough to fall into the same subgenre. So, for instance, I loved the Tilton books, I liked most (but not all: see below) of the Little books, and Craig Rice didn’t work for me at all.

        Liked by 1 person

      • I haven’t read Tilton but now will try to get my hands on one. Despite my liking the Norths, the books are pretty much all the same: always a brilliant but unfathomable insight by Pam; always a mad chase near the end (in the dinosaur exhibit of the museum in one case!). And not sure why I like them—maybe because they drink a lot of cocktails—because I usually like my humor a little less in your face. Edmund Crispin does his humor with more of a wink of the eye, for instance. And not in the mystery genre, Jerome K Jerome I go back to anytime I need a bit of a smile.

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      • Tilton only wrote 8 of the books. I finished reading them all this year and produced a ranked list: https://crossexaminingcrime.wordpress.com/2020/01/29/new-year-new-list-ranking-alice-tiltons-leonidas-witherall-mysteries/
        They’re pretty much all high quality.
        Academy Chicago Press reprinted them a while back and I have mostly those copies. Yet Tilton also made it into the Dell Mapback imprint. I have the one for Cold Steal. I hope you are successful in tracking a copy or two down and I would be very interested to hear what you make of them, as they don’t tend to get talked about very much online.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Aha, I hadn’t made the mental click between Tilton and Taylor. I have both Beginning With a Bash and The Iron Clew on my shelf with just the Taylor name on them although I’m pretty sure I haven’t read either. So now at least I know I have two good choices already awaiting me. I’ll move them into the TBR cage of the bookshelf and start them after I finish the Lorac (Checkmate to Murder) I’m working on now.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Oh well good job you realised before you bought duplicates. You have the first and last in the Leonidas series. Ironically I read the last book first and it is one of my favourites to date. Beginning with a Bash is also very good, but it is different to later books in the series. Leonidas is in a different place financially and I thought it was a bit darker perhaps.

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  1. This must be one of the Littles that I started but abandoned—the exception rather than the rule, certainly, but I think there were two or three like that. Generally it was because the protagonist’s world felt too unhappy for me to enjoy it, or the protagonist’s emotional place too grim or bitter, or the cast of characters too dislikeable to me.

    By the way, I love your allusion to “mad antics during the night and bodies which pop up and disappear from unusual places.” What a perfect encapsulation of what goes on in these books (and, to some extent, screwball mysteries in general)!

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think in this book the characters don’t click with each other, which passes onto the reader a bit. It is weird because the components are the same as they use in other books, but this time around they don’t seem to produce the same effect. Black Out was another of their titles which I felt to be weaker.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the review, and I recall feeling slightly underwhelmed after reading this title. It was my second foray into the Littles, and it seemed like a few reviewers ranked this title among the best of their works. On a good note, the plot, as tends to be the case for the novels I’ve read by Rice and the Littles, turned out more convoluted than it initially appeared to be. But on a not-so-good note, I was slightly puzzled by the ambivalent conclusion to the romantic tension between Eugenia and her beau…

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m surprised to hear this being ranked as one of Littles’ best. If anything it is second worst for me lol I agree that the romance is not well handled here. It doesn’t really seem to get going.

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