Friday, January 11, 2013

FFB: From This Dark Stairway - Mignon G Eberhart

From This Dark Stairway (1931) is Eberhart's fourth book to feature the sleuthing team of Nurse Sarah Keate and policeman Lance O'Leary. It follows her bravura locked room detective novel The Mystery of Hunting's End and nearly surpasses that book with yet another impossible crime. A physician enters an elevator with his patient on a hospital gurney headed for an operating theater. The elevator seems to malfunction or stall. When the elevator opens the physician is dead and patient and gurney are gone. But no one saw anyone get off or on at any of the other floors. The only explanation seems to be that patient killed doctor and fled. But how did he get away without anyone seeing him leave the elevator?

As is usual with Eberhart she sets the scene with a moody descriptive section that gives us a perfect rendition of the creepy stairway that the hospital employees are forced to use due to the mechanical problems of the only elevator that serves the four floors of Melady Memorial Hospital.  Sarah Keate tells us out of expediency she finds the stairway a better option even if it is dimly lit and rickety and spooky. There is a fair amount of HIBK type of narration in the opening chapters but this soon gives way to a tale of a motley group of nurses, doctors and eccentric patients all of whom become suspects in the murder of Dr. Harrigan.

There are cleverly placed clues, a few red herrings (remember them?), and an impressive show of misdirection especially in the final chapter. In addition to the puzzling and nearly impossible murder and disappearance in the elevator there is also the theft of an antique Chinese snuff bottle, the desire to find the formula for a new anesthetic drug called Slaepan, a missing surgical knife, the discovery of chewing gum on the doctor's body, and perhaps most significant of all the death of an unnamed Negro patient. In fact, in the penultimate chapter Lance tells Sarah that if the Negro patient had not died on that very night there would have been no murder.

I have read other reviews and criticism of the Sarah Keate novels which all seem to play up the HIBK elements and dismiss the detective novel portions as being middling to absent. Not so here. Keate does real detection even if much of it comes by accidental discoveries and coincidence. She seems to be present more often than is necessary during police interviews. Eberhart, however, gets away with this by making nearly all of the patients hysterics and oddballs who require a nurse present (at least according to head physician Dr. Kunce) so that the interrogation does not overly upset them.

I liked Eberhart's use of humor in this book, too. Sarah can often come across as a stuffy, old-fashioned spinster with Edwardian views about everyone's behavior, but here she shows off a modern self-effacement. There is a running gag about the mispronunciation of Dr. Kunce's name that wears thin by the midpoint of the book, but other nice touches include some digs at Sarah's spinsterhood, specifically her lack of sex appeal that she sarcastically acknowledges in her reporting of Sgt. Lamb's veiled insults.

Eberhart was known to me primarily as a suspense novelist and this is my first encounter with one of her true detective novels. She does an admirable job here. The characters are lively and strange. The action is well paced, the atmosphere grows increasingly eerie as the story approaches the denouement. I was never bored. The hospital setting even if set in the 1930s still felt modern to me with its staff adhering to stringent administrative protocol and the references to patient by their room number rather than their name. Three of the minor characters are called 301, 302 and 303, for example. This happens all the time in the real world of hospitals no matter how often nurses and residents are told to call a patient by their name. I know since I've worked in hospitals all my life.

What impressed me most of all was that From This Dark Stairway is one of the uncommon examples of a Golden Age detective novel in which the murderer's name is not revealed until the final sentence. This book is well worth seeking out for that tour de force bit of mystery writing alone.

12 comments:

  1. Sounds pretty interesting all right. I'm not sure when I'd ever get to it, but I may seek out a copy anyway.

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  2. This was one of Todd Downing's favorite detective novels, incidentally. I reviewed the last Sarah Keate novel, Man Missing, from the 1950s, and had to admit it was disappointing, despite a great setting (as usual with her).

    I wish Eberhart had stuck more to this character, but I think her WIP (woman in peril) books were so lucrative in the slicks that she found it hard to go back. She was a very solid professional mystery writer, but I think those of us who love detection prefer the Keates.

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    1. I read this book because of that Todd Downing recommendation, Curt. I think you'll notice i mention that I wanted to track down this title in a comment on one of that post that mentions he liked Eberhart's book and those other Rufus King titles.

      If my posts were more like yours I would have written about Eberhart's interesting life as a writer. But as you know by now I'm all about the story first and the actual book second. I usually gloss over the writer. I leave that for you, my friend.

      She was the first mystery writer handled by Doubleday Doran to have her books marketed both as mysteries, under their Crime Club imprint, and also as mainstream novels under the Doubleday Doran "main brand." All her Sarah Keate books came out as Crime Clubs. But in 1935 The House on the Roof, a non-series WIP novel, was released outside of the Crime Club label even though it was described as having "Love, terror, mystery..." on the DJ. In the following years nearly all of Eberhart's books, which were primarily suspense or WIP, were also published outside of the Crime Club imprint and few of them had any mention that the book was a mystery anywhere on the book's DJ or the advertising. I think she felt constrained being labeled as a mystery writer and wanted to branch out to a wider audience. She eventually broke off with Doubleday Doran and chose Random House as her publisher who did not have a separate mystery imprint.

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    2. Yeah, I think both Rinehart and Eberhart found the mystery writer label limiting.

      I liked some of Rinehart's initial WIPs, like Fair Warning, which is like a dark fairy tale, but found myself getting kind of bored with them, because it always seemed to be the same situation. It actually desired me to write an Eberhart parody, with a heroine named Creme Brulee.


      Have you read Eberhart's House on the Roof or The Dark Garden. Those have Chicago atmosphere you could cut with a knife, I think. I spent a week in one of those old Chicago town houses twenty years ago and that always made me partial to the setting.

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    3. "Desired me?" That was supposed to be inspired me. Curse my careless spellchecking!

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    4. House on the Roof is one I am interested in finding after reading a review at Mystery*File. In her early career Eberhart was very cinematic in her storytelling. Don't know why more of her books weren't made into movies. Steve Lewis thinks HOTR would've made a great movie. And imdb.com tells me all of the Sarah Keate novels were made into movies. Amazingly, this book (which is very cinematic) was filmed twice: first under the prosaic title The Murder of Dr. Harrigan and then again as The Dark Stairway. I've seen clips of the filmed version of While the Patient Slept. Though I think the casting of O'Leary is very wrong (53 year old Guy Kibbe!), the actress Aline McMahon as Sarah Keate is spot on. Her looks, her manner, her movement are all exactly as I pictured the nurse. There were all types of Sarah Keates in the movies from glamorous Ann Sheridan to frumpy Jane Darwell. I like McMahon the best.

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  3. The Sarah Keate novels are my favorite of Eberhart's books. I'm less into her suspense novels that don't feature the spinster nurse. I've got my (thanks to you) replacement copy of of Hunting's End on the docket for the Vintage Mystery challenge this year. I'm going to have to keep my eyes peeled for this one.

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    1. I think Hunting's End is my favorite of the Keates. Nothing beats getting trapped by snowdrifts, lol.

      I liked that whole will they or won't they thing she had going on with Lance O'Leary too.

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    2. Yes, the "will they or won't they" made quite an impression on me the first time I read this (when I was a young thing too many years ago to mention). I imagine Hunting's End will remain my favorite too...it was the first locked room mystery I ever read and I loved the atmosphere of the snow-bound lodge. I still remember the cat that goes all stiff and walks way out around the room in question. I'm looking forward to the re-read.

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  4. John, I am not familiar with Mignon G. Eberhart's fiction and your review of FROM THIS DARK STAIRWAY gives me a fair idea of her writing, one that's quite to my liking. A nurse and a cop for a sleuthing team should make for an interesting read, as would the discovery of a corpse in the elevator of a hospital, and the patient on the way to the OR being the prime suspect. That's a vivid premise for a murder story. I also like the element of suspense and humour in it.

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  5. This sounds good, John. Another title to add to my list of books I hope to get to this year. (I remain hopeful.) I had an Eberhart book here a while back and just couldn't get into it. I was hoping she'd be a bit like Mary Roberts Rinehart with whom I occasionally confused her when I was a kid.

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    1. This one starts off very much like a Rinehart novel and there are echoes of her style throughout. I liked this one a lot and the detective elements are there to hold interest. She tends to be too verbose in her descriptions for my tastes, but it's a strength she has -- creating mood and atmosphere like Anne Radcliffe did centuries ago.

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