Mignon G. Eberhart Critical Essays


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Mignon G. Eberhart began her career with a series of five detective novels that featured Sarah Keate, a never-married nurse turned amateur detective, and Lance O’Leary, a promising young police detective. These first novels, which were written in the Mary Roberts Rinehart tradition, have been described by Joanne Harrack Hayne as “reminiscent of Rinehart at her most mediocre,” with Nurse Keate exhibiting the paradoxical “pluckiness and stupidity which are characteristic of the worst of the ’Had-I-But-Known’ narrators.” In many ways, Nurse Keate’s penchant for stumbling into perilous situations from which Detective O’Leary must rescue her anticipates the typical heroine of the later Eberhart novels, except that the romantic element is absent in the Keate-O’Leary novels.

For a brief period during the 1930’s, the Keate-O’Leary novels were very popular with Hollywood filmmakers. Between 1935 and 1938, Sarah Keate, renamed Sally Keating and growing progressively younger, appeared in five film adaptations. Even so, the Keate-O’Leary novels do not constitute a particularly significant contribution to the corpus of detective fiction.

Nurse Keate, without O’Leary, reappeared in two later novels, Wolf in Man’s Clothing (1942) and Man Missing (1954), and Eberhart experimented with two other amateur detectives, mystery writer Susan Dare and banker James Wickwire, who appeared in their own series of short stories. The Dare stories, which were first collected in The Cases of Susan Dare (1934), are also reminiscent of Rinehart. The Wickwire stories, seven of which are included in Mignon G. Eberhart’s Best Mystery Stories (1988), as far as Eberhart’s attempts to create a series character are concerned, are the most successful. In the Wickwire series Eberhart seems to have been able to allow more of her own keen sense of humor and eye for the foibles of humanity to come through, and the result is that Mr. Wickwire’s is a more rounded characterization than those of Dare and Keate.

After the publication of the fifth Keate-O’Leary novel, Murder by an Aristocrat (1932), Eberhart abandoned the principal series character formula in her major works, having found her own voice in her own unique blending of classic detective fiction and modern gothic romance. This blending is not always successful, and even though Eberhart denied that she wrote gothics, on the ground that “all the changes on Jane Eyre have been done,” the gothic overtones have persisted, to the point where one reviewer, after reading Eberhart’s Three Days for Emeralds (1988), concluded that the work is “more of a modern-day Gothic romance” than a mystery.

Although this criticism has its own validity, it must be noted, in Eberhart’s defense, that the gothic element in Eberhart’s work does not stem from a deliberate effort to write in that genre. Eberhart’s murders take place in exotic settings because those places have an inherent eeriness that heightens suspense. Eberhart’s choice of locations is best explained by one of her favorite quotations from the writings of Robert Louis Stevenson: “There are houses which demand to be haunted, coasts set apart for shipwrecks, and certain dark gardens that cry aloud for murder.” There are also, as everyone knows, certain kinds of atmospheric conditions—blizzards, hurricanes, and “dark and stormy nights,” that “cry aloud for murder.” Eberhart uses these, along with houses, coasts, and shipwrecks, not because they are the standard fixtures of the gothic romance but because they serve to heighten suspense and to provide a background for the psychological development of her principal characters.

The fact that Eberhart’s exotic settings are effective may be attributed to her ability to inject a considerable degree of realism into her descriptions of houses, lands, and circumstances. This is probably attributable to the fact that, as the wife of an engineer, she had traveled widely, so that she was usually able to write from experience. “A good many of these places,” she once said, “I’ve lived in myself.” For the most part, Eberhart’s settings reflect firsthand experience, and her characters do not enter through doors that do not exist in previous chapters, as her preliminary work on a novel often included the drawing of detailed house plans. This attention to detail—in her words, “walking the tight-rope” between too much and too little realism—has resulted in a body of work that has accurately been described as “plausible and entertaining.”

Like the exotic settings, the budding romances that characterize a typical Eberhart...

(The entire section is 1928 words.)