Only a matter of days before I planned to read this book, Bev at My Reader’s Block just sneaked in ahead of me with a review of her own. Curious to see her rating I took a quick peek, and I was alarmed to see it had only got 2 stars. What was I letting myself in for?
‘It was bad enough that someone chopped up the chairs in the hospital’s contagion ward, but when an axe-wielder started in on the patients, Nurse Norma Gale figured she’d better turn detective before she ended up as choice chopped round herself.
Before she can nab the killer, Norma first had to figure out the significance of an artificial black thumb as well as why pools of water keep appearing outside of one patient’s door. Then there’s non-musical Aunt Aggie who insists on singing “John Brown’s Body” at odd times in the night. And what does Uncle William want with Aggie’s carpetbag anyway? Does any of this have anything to do with the still in Aggie’s basement?
Aiding and abetting Norma is Dr James Lawrence, whose intentions seem anything but honorable, considering that the newspapers report he’s engaged to one Louise Fish. Or maybe it’s just as well that the young doctor is seemingly out of the running as a potential beau. After all, any budding romance between Norma and James would just interfere with the pair’s bickering.’
Even before Bev’s review I was slightly nervous about this upcoming read, as my last four reads by this sisterly writing duo have not seen them at their best. Including today’s read I have read 14 of the 21 stories the Littles wrote and there have been some wonderful highs in this reading experience: The Black Gloves, The Black Coat, The Black Shroud and The Black Iris. So it has been unfortunate that my random choosing has given 4 less than ideal ones back to back, and the same has to be said for this next one, making it 5 in total.
Yet it has not been as terrible an experience as I had been fearing. Firstly, I was still very engaged by the writing style, the crisp dialogue and the central characters, as well as the zany antics. What I think this mystery lacked was substance or depth in its plotting. I don’t mean it needed to be metaphysical or philosophical, but the murders and odd goings on needed greater components attached to them, more information to be looked at. The Littles give us some unusual clues such as a riddle and the victim’s odd tendency to sing, but I think the plot needed more than these two items. The eponymous black thumb has little to no relevance in the story and I think the Littles would have done better to choose a different object to go into the title, such as an axe or a carpet bag – both items which feature far more prominently in the narrative.
Furthermore, whilst I enjoyed the characters were given, especially the central ones, we don’t get enough background or interaction with the field of or should I say ward of suspects, and the victim. One reason for this negation is perhaps due to the choice of narrator, a student nurse doing night shifts, as she simply doesn’t have the time to be doing lots of investigating and having multiple heart to hearts to glean clues. However, these deficiencies did not irritate me as much as they can do, but then they might be due to how drowsy I was feeling this afternoon. A simple suspense mystery was probably all my brain was up to.
I wonder whether the Little sisters spent much time in hospitals, either as patients or staff, since they are very fond of using such a setting for their books. The Black Honeymoon focuses on a nurse and both Black Corridors and The Black Stocking are mostly set inside a hospital, the latter being a mental health facility. The hospital in today’s read is an insolation one, concerned with caring for those with contagious diseases. The extensive hand washing, and some people’s scepticism of it, strikes a cord in modern times. The Sergeant Detective is one such person remarking to Norma: ‘Modern civilisation! We lived through that there now Stone Age without none of this truck – and lived better.’ Suffice to say Norma is far from impressed. That said given the amount of night-time wanderings the patients engage in, I am surprised that the healthy characters do not get scarlet fever passed on to them.
The way the story reads, you can imagine it being written with a film or TV adaptation in mind, not least because of the way the Littles often conclude their chapters on a cliff hanger or dramatic note. This reminded me of the Francis Durbridge TV series such as A Game of Murder (1966), wherein each episode would end in a dramatic fashion, usually with a body falling out of an unlikely place.
So in conclusion if you are new to the Littles, I recommend not starting with this one.