Monday, March 30, 2009

Book Review - HUNT WITH THE HOUNDS by Mignon G. Eberhart

Hunt With The Hounds by Mignon G. Eberhart
1950, 192 pages

What a treat this slim novel turned out to be! I've always been a fan of classic mystery novels, at least the design and covers, but I don't know that I've ever really read one. A couple of months ago, we stumbled across a few at the thrift store and falling in love with the covers, Hunt With The Hounds in particular, I snatched them up, determined to read them. I started Hunt that day, but only made it a page in before heading for something else. Turns out, detective novels were written a bit differently back in those days. Finally, last week, I dove back in, determined to read the whole book. It's a short one, only 192 pages, but the writing style is very different from modern novels. Take the first 3 paragraphs of the book:

There had been, as Ruby said later, no other kill that day. That was Wednesday, the ninth of October, an unseasonably cold and rainy day, the day of the Dobberly Meet, the day Ernestine was murdered. She was murdered about twilight with the shadows of fog and coming night blurring trees and shrubbery together in an amorphous mass that seemed to advance and watch and then retreat, like unwilling witnesses who would not come forward.

It had not been a good hunting day; a small grey fox had eventually given them a thirty-minute run and gone to earth on the far side of Hollow Hill; so Ruby had been characteristically literal and accurate.

The day Jed Baily's trial ended was much the same kind of day, except it was in the spring, in March. There was Red Bud and White Dogwood along the misty blue hills, and the meadows we vividly green; it was, however, again unseasonably cold and rainy. By chance it was again the day of the Dobberly Meet but probably in its many years of existence had that particular meet had so sparse a field. The trial took place at the Bedford county courthouse; it was a narrow, cramped white clapboard building with a clock tower.

Great stuff, but hard to read at first. I write with a lot of commas, often in inappropriate places, but this book put me to shame. It tells the story of a small but affluent Virginia community, scandalized by the murder of one of their own. Ernestine, the lovely wife of Jed Baily had been killed, shot in the back in her home. It opens with her circle of friends awaiting the verdict of the trial of her husband Jed, and with an innocent verdict, aided by the testimony of Ernestine's dear friend Sue, who was also in love with Jed, the focus of the investigation turns to the other members of the close knit circle of friends. My favorite part of the book was that you never really knew who did it. I changed my opinion a couple of times throughout, and you were never really sure whether the friends were telling the truth or covering for each other. There are love triangles, twisty fox chases, opulent mansions, bumbling police, more dead bodies pop up, and a lot happens in a book so short.

I loved the time frame this book takes place in, with it's old school automobiles, fox hunts, attitudes about love and marriages. There's also some sort of intangible thrill from holding an old book of this sort, a kind of trashy paperback time machine, that makes me imagine a far classier time, when people wore vests and hats, and getting shot in the conservatory was as natural a location for murder as the library, rather than an alley or office building. Mignon D Eberhart, the "Mistress Of Mystery" wrote 59 novels between 1929 and 1988, and at her peak, sold more than Agatha Christie. Should be fun to track more of her work down.


Next - Touched By The Gods by Lawrence Watt-Evans

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