I first encountered Rath’s work last year with her title Death at Dayton’s Folly (1935), which had been reprinted by Coachwhip in 2019. One year on and I have finally got around to trying more of her work, (where does all the time go?) I had two to choose from, as I also have a copy of A Shroud for Rowena (1947), but in the end I went with today’s read. The Murders at Hillside has never been in book format until now, as it was originally published in Complete Detective Novel magazine, in their No. 37 July edition in 1931. It contains neither of her series characters, though given that it was written much earlier this makes sense. Rath wrote this mystery when she was only 16 years old and since she was born in 1905, that means she must have written it around 1921, a decade prior to publication.
The website Mystery*File includes this blurb from the original magazine: ‘Death strikes in the night and a gay house party becomes the scene of a series of baffling crimes. From the first murder to the startling solution of the last you will follow breathlessly this brand new book-length novel, complete in this issue.’ Death does strike and it strikes quickly, as during the very first night the blind host, Ellen King, is shot. Her lawyer is one of the members of the house party and naturally she was going to discuss with him something which was troubling her. It goes without saying that she plans on doing this the following day and therefore does not get the chance to do so before dying. But has her secret trouble died with her?
When it comes to classic crime novels there are many examples where a host does little to ensure their house party will be enjoyable and harmonious. Ngaio Marsh’s Death and the Dancing Footman (1942) springs to mind, in which the host actively wants acrimony to break out. The same cannot be said for Ellen, as our narrator tells us that:
‘I have always detested the ordinary weekend, where your hosts insist on entertaining you strenuously every waking instant that you are under their roof. So it was a compliment on my part to Ellen King that I always accepted her invitations. You were expected to entertain yourself at Ellen’s; she never invited anyone whom she had not known and liked for a long time; she has an excellent cook and the remains of her father’s wine cellar, and Ellen herself was well worth talking to.’
It almost seems a shame that this did not happen this time round!
Gilbert Haynes, an elderly retired lawyer, is the narrator for most of the story. He is part of the amateur sleuthing trio. The other two members are Juliet Selby and Douglas Martin (the latter being Ellen’s lawyer). However, Haynes’ contributions to the investigations are largely derived from what he accidentally happens to overhear, and I feel the other two provide much more crucial evidence and ideas about the solution to the mystery. In conjunction with the amateurs, we also have Sheriff White and Constable Jackson. You can’t say we are lacking in detectives in this book! This decision is perhaps one influenced by the writer’s inexperience and I think in her later work she trims down the detecting cast.
The more proactive nature of Doug in the investigation is reflected in the fact that he narrates two of the chapters. I’m not sure why Rath decided to switch narrators at this juncture. Maybe she did not feel she could include the more passive Haynes in those plot events and therefore did not want to have Doug reciting his activities in a long monologue to Haynes. Observing Doug in these two chapters I did wonder whether he would have been a stronger choice for narrating the whole story, as he seems to be more comfortable pursuing the amateur sleuth role.
So far I have focused on the non-family members involved in this mystery, but Rath includes several relations of Ellen’s and unsurprisingly we learn many reasons why they may have benefited from her demise. The murderer’s motive is well hidden though and looking back at the story I can see how the narrative pushes our attention away from the truth, as there are plenty of other distracting suspects.
Given that this is a first mystery the cluing varies in quality, with some being better crafted and used than others. There is at least one clue which I thought was quite clever, yet perhaps needed to be sharpened just a little to provide that ‘doh’ moment when you realise that you should have spotted something, and you hadn’t.
However, Rath uses the killer’s multiple attacks very effectively within the plot. I felt these successfully muddied the investigative waters and concealed the murderer well, as often in first mysteries it can be too easy to spot the culprit. I don’t think that this is a problem here. In addition, puzzle fans will be pleased to know that a list of unanswered questions concerning the case are included in the narrative.
As a first go at producing a mystery novel, (and at 16 no less), I would say this is a reasonably strong effort. There are no irritating loose plot ends and the sleuthing characters manage to uncover a lot of information by plausible means and it is fairly shared with the reader. The romantic subplot is also not overdone. It is particularly interesting reading this book, having read one of Rath’s later books, as you can see how much she improves and develops her writing and I am definitely keen to return to her work.
Source: Review Copy (Coachwhip Publications)