Do you ever play that game: “If you could live in a different era, what would it be?”

It’s a tricky idea: we comb through history and think about all the good things. How much fun would the Renaissance be if you caught a little case of the Black Death? The 1950’s ushered in rock ‘n roll, but you also had to sign a loyalty oath to Joe McCarthy in order to attend college. Tit for tat, baby, tit for tat!

Take the 1930’s, a time I feel has a lot to offer – if you can manage to stave off the Great Depression. It was a golden era for musical theatre: the very best composers were building the Great American Songbook before our eyes. Movies were thriving, and at least we opened the decade free of the Hays Code of censorship. As for books, well . . . you all know what the 1930’s was the Golden Age of, don’t you?

Now, in case you were thinking that mystery novels got any respect, I went through the entire New York Times Best Seller list for 1937. The first half of the year was dominated by two books: Gone With the Wind and Drums Along the Mohawk. Halfway through the year, as they started to fade a bit, Steinbeck appeared with Of Mice and Men. That and Northwest Passage ruled the list until 1938. (There was also a fairly brief appearance by Hemingway’s To Have and Have Not.)


Only two mysteries appeared on the list: Sayers’ Busman’s Honeymoon for two weeks in March and The File on Rufus Ray, a Crime portfolio by Helen Reilly, for a similarly brief run at the end of the year. That’s all, folks.  Still, it would have been a grand year to visit your local bookstore if you were a crime fiction fan. For 1937 saw Christie’s Dumb Witness and Death on the Nile, Carr’s The Burning Court, The Four False Weapons, and The Ten Teacups, Ellery Queen’s The Door Between, five novels from John Rhode/Miles Burton, four each from Erle Stanley Gardner and E.C.R. Lorac/Carol Carnac, a novel and a play from Brian Flynn, two Bobby Owen mysteries by E.R. Punshon, two each by Phoebe Atwood Taylor, Mignon G. Eberhart, Anthony Berkeley, Norman Berrow and Rupert Penny, plus books from Ngaio Marsh, Henry Wade, J.J. Connington, Todd Downing and Freeman Wills Crofts. Or, if you were tired of reading, you could go to the movies that year and watch three Charlie Chan movies, three Bulldog Drummond films, Perry Mason in The Case of the Stuttering Bishop, Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent, or Love from a Stranger, based on Christie’s “Philomel Cottage.”

And now you time travelers can add to the stellar names on your TBR pile the hitherto unknown one of Harriette Ashbrook. Now let me be the first to say that Ms. Ashbrook is in no way my discovery. John Norris wrote about her over six years ago, long before I entered the blogosphere. Most recently, TomCat wrote a couple of reviews, and they sounded quite interesting. Since all seven of the books Ashbrook wrote under her own name (She also wrote six “Had-I-But-Known” thrillers under the pseudonym Susannah Shane) are available on Kindle for ninety-nine cents, this big spender decided to give one a try. TomCat opined that the best Ashbrook was Murder Makes Murder, published in – you guessed it – 1937, so that’s where I went.


In his posts, TomCat painted Ashbrook as from the “Van Dine” school of mystery writing, which conjures for me complex mystery plots hinging on esoteric knowledge, with a dilettante detective at the helm to sort things out. Period One Ellery Queen completely embraces the “Van Dine” model, at least until The Siamese Twin Mystery.

You can check the “dilettante detective” off the list here as Spike Tracy seems more likeable, less pedantic version of Philo Vance, and with a similar relationship to the New York police, as Ashbrook relates here:

Even into the remoteness of Maine there had penetrated stories of the inconsequential brother of the district attorney of New York County who seemed to take life so lightly, but who with strange contradiction had delved so deeply and successfully into the murky depths of several baffling homicides. Inspector Perth decided to trust him – but to keep an eye on him.”

What I forgot as I started reading this was that TomCat, in his own review, described Ashbrook’s direction here as more in line with Helen McCloy. Now McCloy has become one of my favorite authors since I started this blogging gig and discovered her work. She actually published her first novel, Dance of Death, one year after Murder Makes Murder was published. McCloy’s exploration into the psychology of her characters – and the way she makes psychology matter in the plotting and detection of her books – is one of my favorite things about her work.

I sort of get what TomCat is saying here: although Murder Makes Murder is the only Ashbrook novel I’ve read to date, it is not particularly complex, nor does it remind me in most ways of Van Dine, who was emotionally stultifying. This book is all emotion, with very little actual detection going on. And while there is a lightness of tone about Tracy, the case he is investigating here heaps tragedy upon tragedy to the point where it felt more like a late 30’s woman’s melodrama starring Davis or Crawford . . . except it couldn’t star them because the girl dies in the beginning.

The first third of the book moves quickly and covers fifteen years full of incident. Millionaire Thaddeus Culver surprises the world by marrying his housekeeper Mrs. Culver, a quiet capable woman with a young daughter named Elise. It doesn’t take long for the cynical press (and one of my favorite things about the book is Ashbrook’s period depiction of journalists – it’s straight out of a Capra film) to put two and two together and surmise that Elise is Culver’s natural daughter. A few years later, Culver dies and leaves his fortune to the little girl, upsetting his greedy sister and her weakling of a son. Here’s where I expected the novel to become more of a battle for a fortune, but it moves in a different direction.


Elise grows up to be a beautiful, unspoiled young lady with a penchant for writing poetry. In a charming scene, she meets a young man and a mutual attraction instantly blooms. But then, Mrs. Culver whisks her daughter away to Culver’s remote estate on Hallett Island in Maine. Five years later, Elise is a poet of some repute and about to marry her publisher, who happens to be good friends with Spike Tracy. Thus, the amateur sleuth is on the island when a storm cuts them off from the mainland, and the beautiful bride-to-be is murdered in her bed.

Up to there, it all worked for me. The prose feels of its time but is brisk and enjoyable. The set-up to the murder was intriguing. And then it all changes to . . . something else. The “trapped on an island” trope is abandoned when the storm dies, and Tracy doesn’t do so much sleuthing as observing one incident after another. Yes, he “deduces” things, but I can’t say any of this is done in the “fair play” manner of, say, Van Dine or McCloy.

Ultimately, it boils down to two questions: which of a very small cast of characters murdered Elise and what the heck was going on that explains Thaddeus and Sarah Culver’s actions over the beginning of the novel? The answers to these questions are interesting, and they are very moving. In fact, the book is more of a tragedy than a mystery, in the sense that a classic mystery is, to some measure, an intellectual exercise. We can’t figure out what’s going on until Ashbrook reveals a great deal of information, which she does far too late to help us play armchair detective.

Still, it wasn’t a bad story, and it twisted along like a good novel does, right to the very end. I just think I want more mystery bang for my buck (well, one cent shy of a buck!), and I look forward to reading more of TomCat’s reviews to see if the Spike Tracy mysteries set in New York City have stronger puzzles.

Happy New Year, everybody!



  1. McCloy’s exploration into the psychology of her characters – and the way she makes psychology matter in the plotting and detection of her books – is one of my favorite things about her work.

    I read Murder Makes Murder directly on the heels of The Murder of Sigurd Sharon, which can only be described as an ancestor of McCloy’s psychological-driven mysteries and it has an impossible crime that hinges on it. You can compare Sigurd Sharon with Through a Class, Darkly (almost a cracked mirror-image of each other) and, with that comparison in mind, Murder Makes Murder reminded me of The Man in the Moonlight with its use of an original motive. So I stand by my comparison!

    Yes, the books set in New York City, The Murder of Cecily Thane and A Most Immoral Murder, have the classical puzzles of Van Dine and Queen. Cecily Thane is a very amusing, charming and lighthearted take on the Van Dine-Queen detective novel. You’ll love it, I promise!

    Anyway, I’m glad you still enjoyed the book and thanks for the mentions! Happy New Year!


  2. Please do not refer to me as Sinister John, Brad. Santosh invented that moniker for me and I have always loathed it. I tolerate it from him but no one else. I have a last name that is no secret. The decent and kind thing to do is call a person by their real name when you know it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I will never call you that again, John. But in all fairness, this is the first time I’ve ever heard your feelings about the nickname. Consider it stricken from my mind.


    • Well, John, you yourself call yourself “The Culprit” in your profile. Also, your icon picture (which really looks sinister) is that of a fictional villain !


    • You are absolutely correct. Her 1938 debut was for Dance of Death. I have made the correction in the post, and thanks! (Great news for me: I haven’t read either novel yet!)


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