Having read Death of a Doll last year, my first novel by American crime writer Hilda Lawrence, I have been looking forward to more of her books being reissued so I would have the opportunity to read another one. Death of a Doll was the third of only three novels Lawrence wrote featuring the detective Mark East, so I was delighted to find that the first in the series, Blood Upon the Snow – originally published in 1944 – has now been made available again too.
The novel opens with Mark East’s arrival in the small town of Crestwood on a dark, snowy evening, having been hired by the elderly historian Joseph Stoneman who is staying with friends, the Moreys, in a remote country house in the mountains. After making his way up to the house to meet his new employer, Mark is surprised to find that Stoneman believes he is a private secretary, not a private detective. However, the old man’s shaking hands and uneasy manner tell Mark that Stoneman knows exactly who he is and what he does. Intrigued, Mark agrees to stay on in the role of secretary for a while, hoping that eventually Stoneman will tell him what is going on and why he has secretly summoned a detective.
As Mark gets to know the other people living and working in the house, he becomes even more convinced that something is not right. What – or who – are the servants so afraid of? What is wrong with the pale and nervous Laura Morey? And was Stoneman’s fall on the cellar stairs a few days before Mark’s arrival really an accident? Then a woman dies under suspicious circumstances and suddenly Mark’s skills as a detective are required after all.
I found this book quite different from Death of a Doll, but equally enjoyable. While Death of a Doll is set almost entirely within the walls of Hope House, a women’s refuge in New York, Blood Upon the Snow has a very different setting – one that I loved from the opening descriptions of a remote ‘one-lane town’, ‘lying at the foot of Big Bear Mountain and surrounded by a dark forest’.
The cold, snowy winter weather provides atmosphere and the portrayal of a small community where everyone knows everyone else’s business increases the sense of suspense and danger as the people of Crestwood become aware that the killer must be someone they all know. I didn’t guess the solution and, to be honest, I wasn’t completely convinced by it; it certainly wasn’t something the reader could be expected to work out from the clues we are given. Mark East tends to keep his thoughts to himself too and doesn’t give us a lot of hints as to how he is progressing with solving the mystery – although now and then he does confide in Beulah Pond and Bessy Petty, two spinsters he meets in the town shortly after his arrival in Crestwood.
I remembered Beulah and Bessy appearing halfway through Death of a Doll and being a bit confused as to who they were and how they knew Mark, so it was good to see the beginnings of that relationship and to have my questions answered! The two women are fans of crime fiction and Beulah in particular likes to do some amateur detective work, which adds a bit of light-heartedness to the story even if it doesn’t do much to move the actual plot forward.
Now that I’ve read the first book in this series and the last, I will be looking out for the middle one, A Time To Die. What a shame Hilda Lawrence only wrote three of them.
Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.