Today I am looking at one of Eberhart’s standalone novels.
‘Americans Sue Talley and Jim Sundean find themselves at the same large, off-season hotel in the south of France. Amidst a constant spooky, atmospheric wind, a series of murders occur; Sue begins to suspect that the deaths are connected to her arrival.’
The mystery is narrated by Jim Sundean, an American engineer who has recently arrived from Russia, a fact he is not keen to mention. It could be said that he appears as shifty as the ‘self-styled American citizen’ hotel manager when he checks in: ‘The thing began, as it ended, with the white cockatoo. His name was Pucci, and he gave me a doubtful glance from his shining black eyes, and sidled nearer, peering over my arm while I wrote, as it what saw might confirm his suspicion.’
Since it is winter the hotel is far from busy and you would think the hotel manager would be desperate for Jim to stay, yet that does not appear to be the case. Jim is in two minds about doing so due to the poor amenities, but it is this discouragement from the manager which bizarrely makes him commit to staying:
‘Such small things decide one’s destiny. Things that are wildly and absurdly out of proportion with the train of events they involve. Everybody knows the dramas of those moments of decision; the word that, eventually revolutionises a whole life; the turning left when it might have been right, or right when it might have been left that has at its end of a heartbreak or triumph, the chance speech, the chance glimpse, the chance encounter – life is full of them, and everybody knows the heights and the depths to which they lead. What I’m trying to say is that at that moment it was for me a faint, delicious smell of roasting meat.’
I enjoyed the fact that this rhapsody for all things HIBK, is wonderfully undercut at the end by the prosaic. In keeping with the HIBK vibes, Jim naturally gets a room in the deserted chilly north wing and the windy weather only adds to the sinister aspect of the hotel. It is not long until a woman knocks at Jim’s door, pleading to be let in. She claims to have been abducted, yet the information she is willing to give is suspiciously minimal. She makes him go get her room key from the main desk, and on his return he finds she has returned to her own room and in replacement there is a dead body in the corridor, seemingly stabbed by one of the hands from the clock in Jim’s room. I thought the setup to the mystery, in this respect was effectively done, as we are left unsure as to which characters we can trust and this is a puzzle which is only added to, as more new faces enter the mystery. It goes without saying that the other hotel guests are as mysterious as the hotel staff.
In contrast to some of the other books I have read by this author, I felt Eberhart provides us with a more intriguing puzzle to solve than usual. There is the murder method which is less straight forward than it appears and then there is the suspicious behaviour of the hotel manager and his wife, particularly the latter who is determined to hide any evidence which points towards Jim. A backstory involving imposters and a huge inheritance are engagingly woven into the mix and contributes towards our distrust of the characters. Eberhart does a good job of maintaining suspicion towards Jim and Sue and secondary killings increase the complexity of the case and add further surprises for the reader.
Pucci, the eponymous cockatoo plays an interesting part in the narrative, which is not overdone. As well as supplying crucial evidence, he also helps Jim out by preventing a bizarre moment in which Jim nearly snogs his ambiguous antagonist/ally, the hotel manager’s wife: ‘Madame is more than kind. Madame is also beautiful. The cockatoo is eating fringe off the chair.’ Jim goes on to think that Pucci’s behaviour was a ‘heaven-inspired moment.’ However, on other occasions Pucci does not seem averse to embarrassing Jim, such as when Pucci pulls a box of matches out of Jim’s pocket, as the suspect he is interviewing, under the ruse of asking for a match, then knows the match request was an excuse to get him to talk.
The title garnered a number of positive reviews at the time. The reviewer for the Sunday Express commented upon the ‘perfect setting’ Eberhart creates for her crime, whilst J. Jefferson Farjeon describes the book as ‘exciting and also good.’ He goes on to write that: ‘The author has collected a most intriguing group of people in a little Continental hotel, and has woven round them a genuinely thrilling atmosphere… I would recommend The White Cockatoo very strongly.’ Meanwhile Dorothy L. Sayers said that the story ‘conveys more real eeriness and discomfort than you could get from gallons of blood, dozens of sheeted spectres…’
Picking up on this last idea, I think one of my main issues with this read was that there were too many paragraphs of “feelings” and atmosphere. They make the narrative far longer than it needs to be and due to the excessive quantity of such matter, the effect they produce weakens over time. There is a lot of writing which doesn’t do much. I would say this book might suit being a film more, as this excess would be translated into appealing visuals. Identity reversals are important in this mystery and they come thick and fast in the final pages. I was quite chuffed that I clocked one of them earlier in the tale.
I have yet to read a really good book by Eberhart. The HIBK elements invariably mar the better puzzle mystery lying underneath all the atmosphere and to be honest Sue is a bit a pain at times, in what she will or will not reveal, as well as her obtuseness over some parts of the case.