Friday, February 22, 2008

Mignon G. Eberhart

After the war, my family settled into an Irish Catholic workingclass neighborhood where some of the most popular figures, besides the Pope of course, were Bing Crosby, Barry Fitzgerald, Loretta Young and, for the women, Mignon Eberhart. Her books were passed around like coin of the realm. My spinster aunt had a section in her small bookcase that was devoted entirely to Eberhart. No other author was allowed on these hallowed shelves.

After I'd plowed through the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew and Ellery Queen, Jr. I started reading some of the Eberharts at home and in the neighborhood. I liked her. The mysteries were really mysterious and the hermetically sealed worlds she created introduced me to a higher class of glamor than one found in the streets of Mickdom.

Eberhart was the Mary Higgins Clark of her time. Hugely successful and a master craftswoman. She's pretty much forgotten today but a good deal of her work still bears reading, at least if DEAD YESTERDAY AND OTHER STORIES, the new Crippen & Landru Los Classics collection, is an indication.

Editors Rick Cypers and Kirby McCauley divide her work among four protagonists-Sarah Keate, a middle-aged nurse; Susan Dare a young mystery writer; James Wickwire (one of her rare male leads); and Melvina Standish, another nurse.

The pieces are almost all fair-clue, heavy on atmospherics and observant in a melodramatic way of real life. (If you think I'm kidding about her atmospherics, no less a writer than Gertrude Stein congratulated the young Eberhart on her ability to compose chlling scenes.)

Part of Eberhart's popularity was likely her ability to anchor her hyper-plots in the real world. You learn stuff when you read Eberhart. Nurses are really nurses. When you're at a party, she tells you how's it laid out. And when she wants you to dislike somebody, she makes a quick and convincing case.

This is the kind of collection you take down from the shelf every once in a while for a change of pace. She was a talented woman and I thank Crippen & Landru for bringing her back.


Anonymous said...

I listen to the 1940s satellite channel these days, and yesterday heard Bing Crosby sing Tooralooraloora, It's an Irish Lullaby, and suddenly I was back in a safe, sweet place. My childhood flooded back to me. I'm not Irish, but behind us lived the Costigans, and I absorbed their world as a boy (including their stories of the nuns who rapped their knuckles with rulers to maintain order in the classrooms at St. Bernard's). That world of Barry Fitzgerald, and Bing, and others too, such as Pat O'Brien, was a good world, and a world that even now fills me with the deepest peace imaginable.

Richard Wheeler

Elizabeth Foxwell said...

Ed, Rick Cypert also wrote a biography of Eberhart, _America's Agatha Christie_ (2005), which, unfortunately, I believe was not satisfactorily promoted by its university press. It is sad that Eberhart's contribution to the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list, _The Patient in Room 18_ (1929), is out of print. She was well regarded by Bennett Cerf (long published by Random House).