Sometimes quality and taste do not overlap. For instance, I have every reason to believe that The White Cockatoo (1934) by Mignon G. Eberhart is a very good book, but given that it veers far more heavily into the suspense/HIBK/EIRF schools of writing rather than anything qualifing as detection it’s not especially to my taste. It’s well- (if perhaps a little over-) written, has some good atmosphere, and introduces in the eponymous bird Pucci an unusual twist that enlivens the eventual resolution…but amidst all the mysterious happenings — sinister hotelier, sinister guests, sinister wind, sinister banging shutters, sinister everything — it’s just a bit too bland for my palate.
The essential setup sees engineer James Sundean, having travelled the world as part of his job and now due to relax with a friend in Spain, stopping off en route in an unnamed French tourist trap in the antithesis of tourist season. Staying at a large but under-populated hotel — in which “[t]he handful of guests must rattle around like so many peanuts”, an absolutely gorgeous phrase — he’s confronted with a chilly local wind, the aforementioned hotelier who may be up to some shenanigans from the first chapter, and, as if I need mention it, a beautiful woman who needs his help. Get used to that wind, by the way, because Eberhart really wants you to know that it’s windy:
The wind was steadily rising, murmuring and sighing and creaking windows and shutters, and it waved the dense vines and shrubs in the corners of the court so that they made black-blue shadows which fled anxiously across the white blocks of light.
Given that the peanuts in that hotel number a full four guests, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Eberhart wants to make a character of these gusts:
The night had increased in violence while I sat at dinner, and it seemed to me that the rambling old house had become, strangely, a part of the tumultuous night and was sharing its violence. It shook and rattled and swept bitter draughts through the corridors, and when at length I opened the door that led into the window-lined corridor of the north wing, the cold rush of air swooped upon me like some frightened creature let loose.
See what I mean? This is some gorgeous atmosphere, but those two descriptions come within five pages of each other. Contrast this with, say, the invocation of the wind in the opening chapter of Till Death Do Us Part (1944) by John Dickson Carr — where you’re given a similarly-deserted fairground and wind buffeting the tents and stirring them to uneasy life…and then left to absorb the sinister implications as the backdrop to what happens — and Eberhart is rather over-egging her pudding. Because she does this all the time throughout the book, never trusting you to rely on a previous description of some hallway or room or tangible sense of unease and instead laying it on so thick you almost lose track of what’s supposed to be happening. This seems the wrong way round to me.
Given the nature of the people involved — your Stage 4 grande damme, a priest, the Beautiful Woman, the various inept policemen, and the competent David Lorn — it spoils very little to say that questions of identity are soon raised, especially as people are getting shot and appearing in unusual places in the corridors of this spooky place. But every time we find ourselves on the edge of a burgeoning plot we lapse back into Sundean telling us what he’s thinking or how he feels…and we know that already: obviously when you’re stalking a gun-toting killer you exhibit a certain concern for your own well-being, or when you’ve already spent 120 pages going on about how lovely Sue Tally is then we don’t need another mention on pages 121 to 3,045,684 (I may, it’s fair, be slightly overestimating the length of this book). Maybe Eberhart was going for a sort of in-the-moment gritty realism, but what she gets is an extra 40,000 words which we, like Freeman Wills Crofts, are left to bitterly regret.
If you like this sot of thing, it’s here in spades, not least in the reams of explanation — often at gunpoint — where the bad guys spill their plan without there being much in the way of any investigative intelligence on Sundean’s part (there is a lot of “But of course! The X was in the Y the whole time! It was so obvious now!” — as if he knows he’s coming to the end of the book and simply needs to offer up some explanations quickly). True, I have recently enjoyed a detection-free atmosphere-heavy tale of spooky goings-on, but that had the decency to not outstay its welcome. This…doesn’t do that. This is overstuffed, overwrought, overdone, and one complicated death contraption away from being a late-Victorian sensation novel. In the normal order of things I’d take a star off the above and recommend you avoid it, but for those who like their HIBK/EIRF stuff this probably warrants inspection.
Curtis Evans @ The Passing Tramp: Dorothy L. Sayers, having rather tired of the predominance in mystery fiction of the cerebral pure puzzle detective novel (or so she said), gave an enthusiastic newspaper review to The White Cockatoo, particularly praising the novel’s spooky atmospherics. The White Cockatoo certainly has all that, and then some. Perhaps a touch too much, for my taste. At over 100,000 words the novel is a little long for a suspense tale in my view, but then readers of this blog will know of my partiality for the glittering brevity, the admirable economy, of mid-century domestic suspense.