The Black Smith (1950) by Constance and Gwenyth Little

Today’s review is for the 17th standalone mystery, written by this sister writing duo, from Australia. If you have read some of their work already then you will not be surprised that this is another hospital set mystery. Of the 16 I have read, 6 have had a full or partial hospital setting. I am unsure why they returned to this choice of setting so much, as I am not aware that they had any nursing or medical experience.

Synopsis

The Black Smith is vintage Little, complete with a couple you just know will bicker all the way to “I do,” a corpse that won’t stay put, a cast of characters that would do any loony bin proud, and a closed setting – this time a country hospital where the staff works, lives and engages in a little mayhem on the side. Judith Onslow took the job as head nurse to start life over again after she was named correspondent in a messy divorce, only to discover that the brother in law of her ex-lover is the doctor in charge of the hospital […] If these aren’t enough ingredients to fuel a potent homicidal cocktail, toss in a doctor who drinks, an amiable playboy who’s always hanging around, a birdlike woman who is the former head nurse, some demanding patients, one elderly doctor who’s crippled by arthritis and another, even older doctor who likes to wander the halls of the hospital wielding a very sharp knife.’

Overall Thoughts

Like in their earlier novel, The Black Glove, the Little sisters have chosen a female protagonist who at the time may have been considered socially compromised, as she was cited as a correspondent in a divorce case. The authors seem very comfortable including such characters and I like how such protagonists do not conveniently fall into the neat categories of femme fatale or naïve innocent.

However, this component does not save this book from being the poorest effort I have read from these two writers. Where to begin?

Firstly, the Littles oddly seem to change tactics in this story and reveal a lot of information up front about a certain character’s dubious and suspect activities, which include moving a corpse. Now in a Little mystery corpses going walkabout is a given, but it is strange that this time we know from the get-go who is doing the moving.

But I suppose it is useful that they did tell us, as there is no way you are ever going to fathom out much of the case. There being a lack of clues and all. What also makes things difficult is that despite opening the novel with Judith, she plays little to no role in the plot. She sometimes happens to be around when things occur and when people talk, but she does not fulfil the requirements of accidental or amateur sleuth. You could take her out of the plot, and it wouldn’t particularly change. This is fatal for a Little mystery as the best ones have a successful female lead who is an engaging anchor point for the story. Judith on the other hand is quite keen to just get on with her work. An admirable trait, but dire for a mystery book.

Another key feature of a Little mystery is that the story includes a young female and male duo who constantly bicker their way into matrimony. Verbal sparring and sparks inevitably fly across the pages, in between murders. However, in the case of The Black Smith, the romance is positively anaemic, given how little the two characters in question even converse with one another. This was surprising given the blurb. Suffice to say there is no character to care or root for.

The plot limps along like a poor man’s half-hearted soap opera. You expect a zany plot from the Little sisters, but this one lacked direction and propulsion. So, it will come as no surprise when I say that the solution comes out of nowhere.

When I first started reading books by this author, I really enjoyed them, with more than one gaining the accolade of Book of the Month, but the last few have been a bit meh and now this one has reached a new low. I wondered if this change in enjoyment was to do with which titles I had been picking. Had I unwittingly latched upon a strong period of their writing in the beginning? Was there a part of their career where they were writing at their best? To ponder this a little more I decided to add my ratings to the Littles’ bibliography and see if any clumps formed for books rated 4/5 and over.

1.The Grey Mist Murders (1938)

Rating: Do Not Own

2. The Black-Headed Pins (1938)

Rating: 4/5

3. The Black Gloves (1939)

Rating: 4.25

4. Black Corridors (1940)

Rating: 3.75/5

5. The Black Paw (1941)

Rating: 3.75/5

6. The Black Shrouds (1941)

Rating: 4.5/5

7. The Black Thumb (1942)

Rating: 3.75/5

8. The Black Rustle (aka The Black Lady) (1943)

Rating: 4/5

9. The Black Honeymoon (1944)

Rating: 4/5

10. Great Black Kanba (aka The Black Express) (1944)

Rating: 4.25/5

11. The Black Eye (1945)

Rating: 3.75/5

12. The Black Stocking (1946)

Rating: 4.25/5

13. The Black Goatee (1947)

Rating: Do Not Own

14. The Black Coat (1948)

Rating: 4.5/5

15. The Black Piano (1948)

Rating: On TBR Pile

16. The Black House (1950):

Rating: 3.5/5 Review to Follow

17. The Black Smith (1950)

Rating: 2.75/5

18. The Blackout (1951)

Rating: 3.5/5

19. The Black Dream (1952)

Rating: Do Not Own

20. The Black Curl (1953)

Rating: Do Not Own

21. The Black Iris (1953)

Rating: 4.5/5

It’s a bit inconclusive, other than a general trend that books published pre 1950 are stronger. It is pleasing though that they ended their writing careers on a high, as I did very much enjoy The Black Iris. Putting this list together also reminds me that I don’t have many to go until I have full set. Only 4. I thought I needed a lot more.

Rating: 2.75/5

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