Murder Makes Murder (1937) by Harriette Ashbrook

Today’s mystery under review, is another bonus title for my Something Old, Something New, Something Borrowed: Kate’s GAD Wedding Project. Ashbrook is not an author I have tried before but she wrote a number of mysteries including: The Purple Onion Mystery (1941), A Most Immoral Murder (1935), The Murder of Cecily Thane (1930) and The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933). Some of her novels were part of a series starring her amateur sleuth Spike Tracy, and today’s title is one of these. If you are like me and thinking “Spike who?”, then fortunately for us the book includes a footnote which gets readers new to the series up to speed:

‘Just to get things straight at the start, let us here baldly admit that in the homicidal tale which we are about to narrate, Spike Tracy is not the murderer. True, he has been connected at one time or another with some rather infamous murders. As the brother of R. Montgomery Tracy, District Attorney of New York County, he has on occasion played the Boy Scout and done a few kind deeds of detection on behalf of a baffled police department. And he has, in the course of his career as an amateur sleuth, light-heartedly robbed the United States mails, compounded felonies, obtained information under false pretences, indulged in false impersonation and kissed and told. But he always stops short of murder.’

Black Heath Classic Crime cover for Harriette Ashbrook's Murder Makes Murder. It shows an island coastal shore line, with rocks and fir trees on top. The sun is setting, there is a big cloud in the sky and there are three birds too.


‘1921 – The millionaire Thaddeus Culver creates a sensation when he announces that he will marry his housekeeper…

1935 – Culver’s daughter Elise has become a successful poet. Following a motor accident, she meets a handsome young man – only for her mother mysteriously to announce not only that the relationship must end, but that she and her daughter must move at once to a lonely island off the coast of Maine…

1936 – Spike Tracy is on his way to Hallett Island to attend the marriage of Elise Culver to his friend the publisher Hamish Hurd. But Elise is brutally killed before the wedding can take place…

Cut off from the mainland by a storm, Spike steps in to investigate the young woman’s death – and he is convinced that the roots of the tragedy lie deep in her parents’ past…’

Overall Thoughts

The opening chapters follow the chronology outlined in the blurb above and beginning in 1921, the author creates intrigue about why Thaddeus Culver, a confirmed millionaire bachelor, has married his housekeeper so suddenly – surely there is more to this than meets the eye? Furthermore, Ashbrook is smart in getting to the present day of the book pretty quickly, so we don’t have too long a run up to the first death.

Like the other reviews for my wedding and honeymoon reading project, I have compiled some life lessons from this mystery, for any vintage crime fans who are planning to get married or attend a wedding:

Life Lesson No. 1: Never get married on an island, especially if stormy weather is due.

There are many reasons for following this piece of advice. Firstly, if there is a serial killer on the loose then you are going to find it hard to get away from them, as bad weather usually prevents island departures, as well as stalling rescuers from arriving on the island. You might think being on an island reduces the number of people who might possibly want to kill you, but whilst this is true it certainly did not help Elise in this story. Spike Tracy numerates some of the other difficulties caused by bad weather:

‘It hemmed them in, kept them all prisoners in the house, surrounded them with its lashing midsummer fury. They were restless, bored. Thank God, the wedding was tomorrow! They were getting on each other’s nerves. But even the wedding would have to be put off if this storm continued. Only a few hardy souls from the village clad in oilskins and sou’westers had braved it. You could hardly have a bride in oilskins.’

Life Lesson No. 2: You never know when you are going to meet your future spouse.

Whilst romantic comedies may depict happenchance meetings in florists, bookshops and supermarkets, Ashbrook shows us that it can also occur during episodes of mild medical complaints. So, you never know acute indigestion could enable you to meet the future love of your life!

Life Lesson No. 3: If you are marrying your publisher check they are not just marrying you to ensure you produce future volumes of work.

Then again, I suppose this could work both ways. If you are a publisher and you are marrying one of your writers, make sure they not just marrying you to ensure you keep publishing their work…

Life Lesson No. 4: It can be risky being too candid about the bride and her relations, especially if you are the best man and you share some of your opinions with the groom.

It works out okay for Spike Tracy, but you might not be so fortunate. It is very much a gamble. You could be cold shouldered, end up headfirst in the wedding cake or become the alternative victim to the murder mystery novel you happen to be living in.

And now for a very important question…

Are you a traditional* Disney Princess?

Not the question you might have been expecting on a blog which reviews mostly older crime fiction, but bizarrely it was one which became ever more appropriate for the mystery I was reading. So without further ado…

Q1. Would others describe you as:

  • Naïve?
  • Unworldly?
  • Too Trusting?
  • So optimistic about life that anyone with a modicum of cynicism finds you difficult to be around?

Q2. Do you often find yourself saying things like this?

‘The world is so beautiful and I must capture it and hold it. Colour and sound and the soft feel of cool, green moss. And all the precious intangibles – laughter and love and friendship. The wind on your cheeks and sounds at night […] Sometimes I’m bursting with it, singing with it – all the loveliness of life.’  

Q3. Does your mother:

  • Issue unreasonable commands with no mention of why they should be followed?
  • Restrict your social circle and in particular keep you away from young men, who she deems are unsuitable?
  • Encourage your suit to an older man, who she feels will keep you as sheltered as you are now?
A gif from the film Tangled. It shows the female lead's supposed mother, singing her song "Mother Knows Best".


Give yourself one point for each bullet pointed option which fits you and your life.

0-2 – Whilst it would be hard to describe you as a traditional Disney Princess, this is no bad thing (if the comments in Ashbrook’s book are anything to go by). You are no doubt taking the world by storm, as well as taking no prisoners, when anyone tries to tie you down or make you fit their preconceptions of how you should be.

2-4 – You have your traditional Disney Princess moments, but by and large you are too busy with everyday life to wax lyrical about nature. You also find that the invention of the telephone means you can always cut short any lectures from your mother.

4-6 – You have a few more traditional Disney Princess moments than the previous category does. One hopes these moments are ones of creative passion and zest for life, as opposed to endless monologues from your mother on who you should marry and where you should live.

6-8 – You are a full-on traditional Disney Princess, who regularly sings to the birds who flock around you. That is of course when you are allowed out of your locked tower.You might have quite a constrained life, but your continuing optimism and ability to see the beauty in things, is a lesson for the rest of us cynics.

As mentioned in the results above, the sheltered hothouse existence of Elise is not one that is overly endorsed, either by specific characters such as Spike Tracy or by the ending of the novel. Tracy has a great deal to say about Elise and her poetry at various points in the book:

“Well, it’s this way. She’s a poet, and a damn good one, I’ll admit. A poet of pure lyricism. Too pure. It’s a lyricism untouched by reality. That’s because she herself has never touched reality. She’s always been shielded and sheltered and she has lived in a world where all discordant notes have been suppressed. She thinks everything is beauty and loveliness. She knows how to sing – but she doesn’t know how to weep. Not that I’m against singing. But too much of it and too constantly is infantile […] It’s just pure distilled beauty. And life’s not like that. Life’s ugly and spotted and magnificent and sordid and beautiful and nauseating and a lot of other things all mixed up together. You only get the pure unadulterated elements in a laboratory. And that, exactly, is where your precious Elise has been living all her life.”

It was interesting to see how Elise’s way of life became relevant to later aspects of the story. In addition, I felt that the violent stabbing of Elise recalls the more violent fairy tales, many of the older Disney film plots were based on. It could also be argued that Elise can be regarded as akin to Sleeping Beauty, when her body is discovered: ‘She was lying there on her back. There was very little blood. It had not even spotted the bedclothes. There was no twisting or distortion. It was almost as if she had lain peacefully to receive the repeated blows of the stabber.’

Interestingly, the narrative running up to Elise’s murder, makes it seem like the mother, Sarah, has more to hide and that she would be a more likely person that someone might want to kill. Spike Tracy is not your stereotypical hero initially, as he is quite frightened and unsure what to do when the corpse is first discovered. However, he gains confidence once the police arrive. At times in the investigation, he works alongside the police, but in the main he operates independently, more in the background and with the aid of his newspaper contacts.  

Turning to a contemporary assessment of Ashbrook’s novel, The Saturday Review wrote that ‘spectres of tragic past tend to trip up actors of present; otherwise consistently dramatic yarn with literary overtones.’ The first part of this sentence is, in my eyes, a massive understatement. At least two lives could have been saved if people had not withheld information. The characters who actually know what has gone on in the past and know what has been happening in the present are the exact same characters who actively obstruct the investigation by not revealing what they know until more people have died. Consequently, this is a mystery whose solution relies on the suppression of a lot of information, in order to delay the revealing of the answer to the crimes. This made for a frustrating reading experience, as we are subjected to a lot of conversations which quickly become dull as character after character refuses to help the police or Tracy. This is a shame as I think the solution has interesting aspects to it, with each death having a different purpose.

Rating: 3.5/5

For Better or Worse: In keeping with other books I have reviewed for my classic crime wedding and honeymoon reading project, I am giving this read a special rating. Was my reading for better or worse? I don’t think many will be surprised if I say for worse. This is primarily because I don’t feel there was enough here to convince me to try another by the writer.

*I made the qualification here, as I am aware that in the present-day Disney has produced films with more independent and active female protagonists.


  1. I found a reasonably priced copy of this (I don’t like e-books unless I have no other choice) based on a positive review from TomCat on his blog for Murder Makes Murder.

    Your criticisms are fair and I understand the rationale for your rating. It isn’t fairly clued. Nevertheless, I enjoyed this one and came away impressed with the characters Ashbrook created as well as the final twist and its devastating ending.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes Tomcat suggested it to me too. I agree that the ending is surprisingly dark, but I think the previous narrative had irritated me sufficiently, that I was not able to enjoy the solution as much as I wanted to.


      • An interesting view . I enjoyed all the Ashbrook series and as they were issued here by Blackheath at only 0.99p for e books, it was a cheapish job of reading. ! I did find the gradual progression from brittle/bright young thing to much serious outlook ,to be a good development and generally I was not too bothered about the solving of the plots!.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Yes if you get on with the series characters then plot deficiencies or irritations are easier to overlook. I know I have that bias with some series I like. I have read one of Ashbrook’s books written under her penname Susannah Shane, which I think I might have enjoyed more, if I am remembering correctly.


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