A Time to Die by Hilda Lawrence

This is the second of Hilda Lawrence’s three mystery novels featuring the private detective Mark East, but the last one I have read. Having previously enjoyed the first book, Blood Upon the Snow, and the third, Death of a Doll, I was hoping that this one would be just as good. It was originally published in 1945 and has been reissued by Agora Books as part of their Uncrowned Queens of Crime series.

Like Blood Upon the Snow, A Time to Die is set in the small town of Crestwood, near Bear River. Mark East, having solved a crime there the winter before, has returned in the summer to spend a few weeks with the friends he made during his previous visit. He’s looking forward to a nice relaxing break this time, but on the evening of his arrival he is invited to a charity supper at the church where two fellow guests – a child and an old woman – are struck by arrows during an archery contest. When, later that night, the Beacham family’s governess goes missing, it seems that the two incidents could be related. Aware that his peaceful holiday is quickly becoming much more eventful than he’d anticipated, Mark is reluctant to take on the case, but changes his mind when a body is discovered…

Of the three books in the Mark East series, I think this one is the weakest, but I did still find it entertaining. The plot is quite complex, or at least it seems to be at the beginning when I felt I was wading through a jumble of confusing and unconnected events and struggling to follow what was happening, but once things begin to fall into place and we learn a little bit more about the background of the missing governess, the story becomes much more compelling. The novel has a huge cast of characters (more than necessary really; a lot of them could probably have been left out without having any impact on the story), which means there are plenty of suspects and I didn’t guess who the murderer was before the solution was revealed.

If you haven’t read any of Hilda Lawrence’s novels yet, I would recommend reading Blood Upon the Snow before this one if you can. Many of the characters we meet in this book were introduced in the previous one and it’s also interesting to revisit the same community in two different seasons and see how life in the town has changed now that the cold, snowy winter weather has been exchanged for blazing summer heat. One thing that disappointed me, though, was that Beulah and Bessy, the two elderly spinsters who play important roles in solving the mysteries in the other two books, hardly appear at all in this one – I think we only see Bessy once or twice. It’s a shame because seeing them carrying out their own amateur detective work in parallel with Mark had been one of the highlights of this series.

Not my favourite by Hilda Lawrence, then, but I’m glad I discovered this series and I just wish she had written more than three of these books!

Thanks to Agora Books for providing a copy for review via NetGalley.

This is book 2/20 from my 20 Books of Summer list.

Blood Upon the Snow by Hilda Lawrence

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.

Death of a Doll by Hilda Lawrence

Hilda Lawrence was an American crime author best known for her series of novels featuring the private investigator Mark East, published during the 1940s. This one from 1947, Death of a Doll, is the third in the series and has been reissued this month by Agora Books. Lawrence is one of several ‘forgotten’ or lesser known crime writers to be brought back into print by various publishers recently; sometimes it’s easy to see why an author’s books have been allowed to fade into obscurity, but I was very pleasantly surprised by this one and am hoping the rest of the Mark East series will be made available again too.

The story is set in and around Hope House, a home for young women in New York City run by Monica Brady and her assistant Angelina Small. The home provides seventy girls with a safe refuge where, for a small fee, they can have a bed, hot water, two meals a day and the opportunity to make new friends. At the beginning of the novel we meet Ruth Miller, a woman in her twenties who works in Blackmans department store and who is excitedly telling her regular customer, Roberta Sutton, that she has been offered a place at Hope House. We don’t know why Ruth has found herself with nowhere else to go and nobody to turn to, but she gives the reader a hint that there has been some sort of trouble in her past. Later that day, we see her arriving at her new home, suitcase in hand, full of optimism for the future.

Two days later, Ruth is dead, having fallen from a window on the seventh floor of Hope House during a party at which all of the girls were dressed in rag doll costumes. Suicide is assumed, but Roberta is not convinced. Why would Ruth have killed herself just as her life was beginning to improve? What the reader knows, but the characters don’t – although some of them suspect – is that during those few days at Hope House, Ruth came face to face with someone from the past…but who was it and how could this have led to her death?

Roberta calls in her private investigator friend, Mark East, who arrives in New York accompanied by two more amateur detectives, the elderly spinsters Miss Beulah and Miss Bessy. It’s going to be difficult to know where to start – there’s so little known about Ruth and her background, and the fact that all of the girls were dressed in identical doll costumes on the night of her death doesn’t help – but surely between the three of them they can solve the mystery?

I really enjoyed this book. Although the story is slow to unfold – a lot of time is spent on exploring the relationships between the various girls and employees at Hope House – I still found it difficult to put down. I didn’t guess the culprit correctly, but felt as though I probably should have done! I did suspect almost all of the ‘dolls’ at one point or another, constantly changing my mind as more information was revealed. The setting is wonderful too; I could vividly picture the interior of Hope House, with Kitty answering the phones on the switchboard, Jewel operating the elevator, and Miss Brady and Miss Small seeing that everything ran smoothly, while making ambitious plans for the future.

My only problem with the book was that I felt there were too many characters and that we saw things from too many different viewpoints. I’m not sure whether we really needed three detectives either. I think Beulah and Bessy were probably included to lighten the mood and provide some comedy, but they didn’t add much to the story in my opinion and I would have preferred to have spent more time following Mark’s investigations instead. Otherwise, this was a great first introduction to Hilda Lawrence’s work and an unusual combination of the cosy and the dark and suspenseful.

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.