The State Versus Elinor Norton (Mary Roberts Rinehart, 1934)

Elinor, on trial for the murder of Blair Leighton, awaits the verdict of the jury.

Like most Rinehart romances, a large aspect of the story is the great social upheaval of the world war and the death of Victorian sensibilities. The book takes the form of a memoir/reconstruction of events by Carroll Warner, who’d been in love with Elinor since they were children.

Caroline had Elinor very late in life and never had the slightest affection for her. Whether in their New York mansion, their Palm Springs one, or the one in Newport, Elinor’s life is a very lonely one. Her only true friend is Carroll Warner, whose family was hardly poor — they were their Newport neighbors — but in Caroline’s view existed so far beneath her station as to be invisible.

Lloyd Norton is selected for Elinor’s husband. Elinor is too cowed by her mother to care much, and the marriage is about as perfunctory to Norton as well. War breaks out and Norton goes over. He comes back a mental wreck. Norton is violently jealous of his wife and grows increasingly unstable, though Caroline refuses to see it. At last, they decide a change of lifestyle might do Norton good and they buy a ranch in Montana. “They” meaning Norton and Blair Leighton.

If Norton had any actual cause to suspect his wife’s fidelity, it’s Blair Leighton. She had few interactions with him but often saw him riding while her husband was at war and experienced the first crush of her life. Blair is an Englishman of indeterminate means in the country for indeterminate reasons. Those who know him best know him to be an adventuring womanizer.

The ranch is a crude series of shacks on a vast, lifeless plain, but Norton does actually seem to improve given work to occupy his time. Blair buys in with him, but it quickly becomes clear that his income is quite limited and he expects to leach off Norton. After a combination of inexperience, over expansion, and a disastrous winter, Norton’s own capitol is quite depleted and the ranch limps along solely on Elinor’s allowance from her mother. It’s then that Norton and Blair’s friendship begins to breakdown and Norton’s neuroses return.

On a hunting expedition one winter, the two find themselves snowed in. Only Blair returns. It’s widely if quietly thought that the close quarters broke them both, a fight ensued, and Blair killed him. Regardless, Elinor is convinced it was as Blair said — an accident — and further, gleefully accepts his marriage proposal. But after months of waiting, Blair has still made no move to marry. He has, however, relentlessly hounded Elinor for more money, whether it be by selling her jewelry or by appealing to her mother. It turns out that the windfall that Blair expects — Elinor’s inheritance once Caroline finally dies — will never come. The estate manager writes backs that Caroline is virtually penniless — she’s simply been too ill, stubborn, and trapped in the past to realize it. Everything has already been sold to pay her debts except the Newport house, which is willed elsewhere. Blair for once drops his mask and Elinor realizes what he is — that he was only ever using her for her money and never intended to marry her.

The sheriff arrives and confiscates Blair’s gun. It’s clear he’s suspected of murdering Norton and he needs to flee quick. He ransacks the house looking for Elinor’s pearls — the only thing she’d refused to sell — but doesn’t find them. Elinor has them in her safety deposit box. Late that night, he returns to the ranch, obviously drunk, and begins climbing the steep stairs to Elinor’s room. When he reaches the top, Elinor shoots him with Norton’s old service pistol.

Carroll knows the story, but very little of this is brought out at trial and the defense isn’t confident. The taciturn ranchers that make up the jury, however, are more penetrating than they imagined. Belated, perhaps, but they find that Elinor’s shooting was nothing but self-defense. Elinor moves back east and marries Carroll.

No inscriptions.

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The Visiting Villain (Carolyn Wells, 1934)

Bruce Dunbar is an eccentric old multi-millionaire. He has no immediate family, but his nephew and three nieces dine with him every Saturday night. He would call himself a jolly prankster while the cousins are more likely to call him a malicious bastard. His delight is mentally tormenting them and pitting them against one another. He’s also very fond of wills, rarely going more than a year without writing a new one.

The nearest thing Bruce has to a child is Streamline, his cobra, who he absolutely dotes on. One morning, just after a Saturday dinner, Bruce is found dead in his bed. It was cobra venom that killed him, the autopsy shows, but he wasn’t bitten. Fleming Stone, the celebrated detective, at once notes that the puncture wounds are too small and too close together. Someone injected the venom into him.

Another surprise, on the 25th of last July, Bruce quickly visited several different lawyers and had several different wills made, each naming a different cousin as the sole heir. All were signed within minutes of one another and finding the last one will be a pickle.

Dividing it into its two parts, the murder mystery was written well enough and the clues dropped do narrow down the suspects to two people. My first suspicion was actually that it wasn’t a murder at all: Bruce’s health had been failing — I thought he killed himself and arranged the wills stunt as one final jab at his family. As to the wills portion of the mystery, the solution of that is a pure deus ex machina.

Inscriptions: a name was written on the flyleaf, but it’s been obliterated by permanent marker.

Bill Had an Umbrella (Louise Platt Hauck, 1934)

Deirdre is a wealthy heiress who stumbles into Bill’s life accidentally, at her wits end about what to do with Precious and Phillipe. P&P are, respectively, her late father’s second wife and stepson. Precious thought the fortune was Bart’s or else there’s little chance she would have married him, but now P&P live on at Riverview on Deirdre’s dime, and Deirdre — so desperate is she to avoid any and all conflict — can’t bear to throw them out.

But back to Bill. Bill’s an ad man, his mother Eleanor is a landscaper. Deirdre was fleeing from her troubles to California, but Bill persuades her to stay with them. His mother’s looking for assistant — at least, that’s the pretext. Bill, of course, really wants Deirdre to stay because he’s fallen madly in love. And it isn’t long before Deirdre responds in kind, although there is the hitch that she’s sorta-kinda already engaged to Arthur. Arthur’s been off for years in India or Tibet or maybe it’s Mexico now — you can never tell with Arthur; his interest burns fierce but is out quickly. Deirdre is quite sure he’s already forgotten, and he would have, were it not for Phillipe.

Phillipe, chafing under what seems to him an exceedingly small allowance, has attempted to win financial independence by investing in a fine and upstanding center for the artistic endeavors and bathtub gin — mostly bathtub gin — but unfortunately it’s just been raided and Phillipe needs cash to stay out of jail. One sob story to Arthur later, twisting the truth only slightly by replacing Deirdre’s name for his own, and Phillipe is in the clear and with several thousand to spare. But Arthur, chivalrously, must of course now marry his technically fiancee.

Cutting the story short, Bill thinks he’s been thrown over and Deirdre can’t forgive him his doubts and both are positively miserable until Eleanor patches it up. Arthur’s already skipped away to chase after opals in Central America, P&P take their newfound riches with them to Paris, and Bill and Deirdre are left at Riverview to plan their Christmas wedding.

Inscription: On the flyleaf, “Bill Platt, From Ann”. Relative, perhaps?

The Hobgoblin Murder (Kay Cleaver Strahan, 1934)

Almost fifty years ago, a young woman eloped with a man that her father considered to be far below her station. He disowned her, and suspicious of his other daughters’ complicity, put his vast fortune in trust. Not a penny was to be turned over until after the death of his eldest daughter, Prudence — a woman as hardhearted and tyrannical as himself. His three remaining children, now elderly, lead an isolated, joyless life filled with fear and anger.

One night, the granddaughter of the estranged eloper appears at the door seeking shelter.  It comes to be known that she is ill and in danger of losing her sight if she does not get an operation, and has come in search of funding. She brings with her a four-year-old child, whose presence is probably the only reason she was not turned away at once. All the same, it is obvious that she will get no money until after Prudence dies.

Prudence is found dead six weeks later, stabbed in the neck with knitting shears. The house was locked tight. Everyone inside had a motive, but also an alibi. Lynn MacDonald, a Sherlock Holmes-like detective, is called to unravel the mystery.

The twist is something that has to be seen to be believed. Stop reading now if you have any intention of picking up this book.

Fair warning, I’m going to spoil the end…

The four-year-old is actually a fully grown circus midget.