Kathleen Moore Knight Essay - Critical Essays


The crime novels of Kathleen Moore Knight, who published works in no other genre, display individual characteristics while still exemplifying the influence of the Golden Age fiction of S. S. Van Dine and the romantic suspense fiction of Mary Roberts Rinehart. Knight uses regionalism not only for local color or embellishment but also for clues, making place essential to her fiction. Because she stresses clues—the crime puzzle—in all thirty-eight novels, they may be classed under that Golden Age term, “novel of detection.” She refers frequently to Van Dine’s character Philo Vance, even coining a verb for detection, “philovancing,” in Death Blew Out the Match (1935; the title refers, as do many of her titles, to a clue repeatedly analyzed in the story). The Rinehart influence on her basic plot, present to a greater or lesser extent in every book, is revealed in plot elements characteristic of what Ogden Nash called the Had-I-But-Known school.

As novels of detection, Knight’s books have three patterns, depending on the nature of the main detective (nearly all of her characters are involved in solving mysteries). In his series, Elisha Macomber, like other great detectives of the puzzle mystery, is involved only as an investigator. (Like many other main detectives, he is unattached to a family, although a wife, Hattie, is mentioned in Death Blew Out the Match; she never appears in the stories, and she is dead by Knight’s second book, The Clue of the Poor Man’s Shilling, 1936.) Macomber is never in real danger, although he is shot at for a warning in The Tainted Token (1938) and he uses himself as bait for the murderer in Acts of Black Night (1938). This absence of personal risk is necessary for the calm and stability of his role.

Margot Blair, Knight’s other series character, performs very differently, narrating her stories and dominating the action, causing events to occur. She threatens criminals and so is often in danger herself; she and her assistant from her public relations agency are sometimes injured. For example, Blair is shot in Rendezvous with the Past (1940).

Knight began using a third pattern during the World War II years: nonseries books with the usual basic family plot but with no one detective dominant. In these books, the lead character, who is always female and sometimes narrates, does much of the detecting; police work is usually involved as well.

In series and nonseries tales alike, the reader cannot predict whether the case will be resolved through the Van Dine method of analyzing clues or through the Rinehart method of events conspiring to expose the criminal; Knight draws from both patterns to end her stories, with the criminal dead, or trying to kill someone else, or trapped just as the detective or the police officer arrives and explains the mystery.

The Clue of the Poor Man’s Shilling and The Trouble at Turkey Hill

Knight’s pattern shows clearly in two of her best Macomber novels, The Clue of the Poor Man’s Shilling and The Trouble at Turkey Hill (1946). Both narratives are in the first person, a voice Knight always handles well. Luella Paige, narrator of The Clue of the Poor Man’s Shilling, is a fifty-four-year-old former schoolteacher who retired early, and Marcy Tracy of The Trouble at Turkey Hill is a retired teacher from the Penberthy School, currently the town librarian. She is also middle-aged. Both women are carefully kept out of the plots as suspects, and neither has any family. They are commentators, distanced from the action. Sympathetic, they enjoy helping others through detection. Because they are mature and uninvolved, they are often called on for help by others in the story, especially Elisha Macomber.

Typical of all Knight mysteries, both novels have young lovers of varying degrees of virtue. In The Clue of the Poor Man’s Shilling, Laura May Howland and Evan Rider are the “true lovers,” while the alcoholic seducer Julian Hollister, with whom Laura May is temporarily infatuated, represents the false. Hollister’s wife, of whom the reader learns after Hollister’s murder, and her lover are neutral, although as city dwellers they are naturally suspect in the determinedly rural Penberthy series. Relationships are more numerous and complex in The Trouble at Turkey Hill, as the lovers include both victims and murderer. One triangle of an unhappily married couple and a Portuguese girl includes two victims; another comprises a pair of childhood sweethearts and a local rich man. Candy Pierce is the “true lover,” but her love is the murderer, and the rich man who saves her at the end has some slight instability, which disqualifies a male for marriage to a true lover. Although a few other Knight books end without imminent wedding bells, The Trouble at Turkey Hill is unique among Knight stories: It ends by extolling single women. Knight finds variations in every story though she always follows the same kind of plot.

The setting for the Macomber series is Penberthy, a fictional island near Boston. Maps are provided in some of the earlier novels, but Penberthy is not precisely Cape Cod or Martha’s Vineyard. It is rural, old New England, a sparsely populated prototype, a setting that one might like to imagine once existed, completely Yankee and still upholding—despite the presence of mistrusted “off-islanders”—the old Puritan virtues.

The island supplies not only mood and color to the series but also motivation and clues. The boat trip along the coast taken by Luella Paige and the bicycle ride of Marcy Tracy, for example, both lead to informative (if ridiculous) happenings, events that are rooted in New England geography. In The Bass Derby Murder (1949), the murderer is betrayed by his misuse of the dialect in...

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