“Mystery, Romance and the Feminine “I”” by Charles L. P. Silet
H. R. F. Keating in his Crime and Mystery: The 100 Best Books describes Mignon Eberhart as the heir and successor to Mary Robert Rinehart in the mystery-romance genre of crime fiction and a “star writer” in the first person single feminine tradition. Gertrude Stein described her as one of the “best mystifiers in America.”
Mignon Good was born in University Place, Nebraska on July 6, 1899. She attended Nebraska Wesleyan University from 1917 to 1920 but left before receiving a degree. She married a civil engineer, Alanson Eberhart, in 1923 and began writing short stories to escape the boredom of traveling with her husband while he pursued his career. When her stories stopped selling she turned to writing novels; the first, The Patient in Room 18, was published in 1929. The novel featured an amateur sleuth, nurse Sarah Keate, who appeared along with police detective, Lance O’Leary, in four more novels in the early thirties before Eberhart turned to writing non-series’ mysteries. Sarah appeared solo in two more later novels. The second of the Keate/O’Leary novels, The Mystery of Hunting’s End, received the $5,000 Scotland Yard Prize–quite a windfall in 1931 dollars.
Eberhart received many honors for her mystery fiction, among them an honorary doctorate degree presented by Nebraska Wesleyan University in 1935, and in 1970 the Grand Masters Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Eberhart divorced Alanson and in 1946 married John Hazen Perry. She published her 59th and last novel, Three Days for Emeralds (1988), shortly before her 89th birthday.
Her most popular works were non-series novels which offered a well-judged blend of exotic locales, wealthy characters, atmospheric suspense and romance all seen through the eyes of a sympathetic female heroine. Her popular titles include The White Cockatoo (1933), With this Ring (1941), Five Passengers from Lisbon (1946), and R.S.V.P. Murder (1965).
Both The Patient in Room 18 and While the Patient Slept are classic mystery novels which, even with Keating’s reservations about Eberhart’s early efforts, provide readers with a glimpse into the genre quite different from the hard-boiled traditions we usually associate with American crime fiction of the period. The first book is set in a provincial hospital and provides a variation on the locked-room mystery. The patient in Room 18 is receiving treatments for his cancer and is murdered to enable a thief to escape with the radium which is being used and is of considerable value. The book is deeply atmospheric and Eberhart uses the eerie, night watch in the hospital to great effect. O’Leary solves the crime and confronts the various suspects in a surprise ending reminiscent of other “golden age” narratives. While the Patient Slept relies on a “country house” setting when Nurse Sarah is called in to take care of a wealthy, comatose stroke victim. While various family members and hangers-on gather in the man’s rather gothic mansion to await his recovery, a series of murders take place, once again requiring the investigative talents of O’Leary. With Sarah’s help the detective sorts out the suspects and in another dramatic confrontation scene reveals the murderer and explains the crime. Both of these early novels show Eberhart in the beginning stages of her career, working through the elements which she would perfect in her later novels.
The year The Patient in Room 18 appeared turned out to be an especially rich one for crime fiction. By 1929 the “golden age” writers Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie were well established in Great Britain as was S. S. Van Dine in America, and during the same period Ellery Queen made his debut along with Margery Allingham, Josephine Tey, and Anthony Berkeley. The immediate success of the Sarah Keate books among this distinguished group of writers speaks well of Eberhart’s appeal. A decade later she had become not only the leading female crime novelist in the United States but also one of the highest paid in the world.
An Annotated Mignon Eberhart Reading List
Keate and O’Leary Mysteries
Non-series Suspense Novels
Buy Romance Mystery Books at MysteryBookstore.com
Charles L.P. Silet teaches courses in film and contemporary literature at Iowa State University and writes extensively on the mystery field. His collection Talking Murder: Interviews with 20 Mystery Writers will be published by Persea Books in October, 1999.