#551: The White Cockatoo (1934) by M.G. Eberhart

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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.


See also

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.

46 thoughts on “#551: The White Cockatoo (1934) by M.G. Eberhart

  1. So now there’s a limit to how much egg should be put in pudding?

    I’m curious of what you’ll make of Cat and Mouse by Christianna Brand. That has the melodrama dialed up to the nines, and probably not that much detection, but man, it’s a great read.


    • Yeah, dude, everyone knows that if you put more than fifteen eggs in a pudding then the Egg Witch comes and writes loads of overly-florid prose in your classic-era detective novels.

      As to Brand, well, there’s some Brand coming on this blog next week, so let’s have this conversation then 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting that no-one thought to edit out some of the verbosity for single-volume publication. Crofts writing an extra 40,000 words for The Cask was at least prompted by a misunderstanding — and, in my opinion, the verbosity serves a purpose most of the time. Here, simply writing more to get paid more might be why it stands out so much to me… I have the same problem with Dickens half the time 😁


    • Isn’t that a regular feature of American writing? Here in Sweden, we’re told – and this might well be an urban legend – that American writers are paid by the word. That’s why their textbooks are so incredibly long and repeat themselves a zillion times…


      • The notion of writing a novel for serialisation fascinates me. I now some Christies were, I have a feeling Sayers was at least once, and Ellery Queen’s second period stuff was in some of the more cosmopolitan magazines going…so there’s surely reason to believe the practise was fairly common.

        But, like, did the magazines limit the word-count for each episode? And, surely, the text would have been amended somewhat anyway…so how has Eberhart’s book ended up so damn long? This is yet another area of GAD that I know nothing about. The only example of this I can draw on is the modern author Michael Connelly, whose novel The Overlook (2007) was originally serialised in The New York Times Magazine in sixteen 3,000-word segments.


  2. Years and years and years ago, when I had read all of Christie and Marsh, when I had read a few Allinghams and found them not to my taste, when I had rejected Sayers and not yet discovered Tey or the brilliance of Brand, I was jonesing for a crime queen. My university had given a wonderful production of The Bat, and I tried to read that one. But MRR had not gotten the note from the professor to cut every second adjective, and the whole thing oozed like The Blob. Couldn’t get through it.

    I think I had more luck with Rinehart’s contemporary, Mignon G. Eberhart. She is also very much HIBK, but I think her stories contained more traditional elements of mystery in them. Maybe fewer adjectives, too!!! Not that I’m recommending her to you because I can’t remember any of the books I read, and I have no desire to go back.

    And what the hell is EIRF??? All I can think of is, “Enid Is Really Friendly.”


    • It means Everything Is Rather Frightening.

      I doubt Jim would like Rinehart either. Both she and Eberhart made huge amounts of money from their serializations, which I think impacted their writing. It did not encourage cutting. But obviously a lot of people liked this style of writing, Rinehart and Eberhart was hugely popular, more popular than John Dickson Carr and most puzzlers. Even Dorothy L. Sayers praised this writing. (You’ll notice her books got longer and longer in the Thirties, as she decided she had Some Things To Say.) And today there’s a marked preference for longer crime writing.

      Look how publishers use big print and dead space to make Christie’s books appear longer than they actually are. I like Eberhart (who holds a strange fascination for me) and Rinehart, but the lean style is best for the classic detection of Christie, though I agree with the oft-made charge that Christie is a “flat” literary stylist. Just compare Sophie Hannah’s thick pudding with the sorbet of Christie, whom Hannah purportedly is following. It’s all wrong.


      • I’ve tried some Rinehart, and didn’t get far enough into it to warrant reviewing it. I figure she’s something who I’ll have a lot to read by when I finally develop some patience in my later years. Next to try is Carolyn Wells, who I’ve managed to avoid for all this time.

        Christie is a flat prose stylist, I completely agree. What I disagree with when that charge is made is the oft-touted idea that her characters are poor on account of that flatness — no-one used character archetypes in mystery fiction better than Christie, not even Carr (who, let’s be honest, didn’t really used character in the same way as Christie).

        Leanness is a good word for the style that best suits this classic era detection — previously I would have called it “functional”, but its brevity where redundant matters are concerned (and that includes the necessity of misdirection) is absolutely the key principle.


        • Christie’s dialogue makes her characters live for people. She’s often good at dialogue (which is most of her writing). By her own admission, she wasn’t good at atmospheric descriptive writing. I quoted Christie from The Secret Adversary because this was such a laughable action passage:

          “Tommy took to his heels and ran–none too soon. The front door opened and a hail of bullets followed him. Fortunately none of them hit him.”

          That “fortunately none of them hit him” is the cherry on top.

          So no question that PD James can describe the interior of a room better than Christie, but in my view that isn’t great writing either. It’s inventorying and it goes on way too long. If you are going to write a lot of words, you need to make those words count for something. Just piling up words does not make great writing. For all her superior writing, PD James failed to make me remember her characters like Christie does. Aside from Dalgliesh, I’m not sure I can recall a single PD James character with specificity and I’ve read all her books except the Austen pastiche.


          • Julius Green made an excellent point at Bodies from the Library about how Christie’s talent with dialogue lends itself well to her playwright sideline — I’d never really considered that before, but it’s so damn obvious once someone spells it out. And isn’t her chapter of The Floating Admiral called ‘Mostly Conversation’? Clearly she knew what she liked and she knew how to do it well.

            The point about James’ characters is interesting in how it makes me reflect on Christies people. Brad and I recorded a podcast episode about Christie that I’ll get edited soon, and it was interesting to me how much more I could recall of the characters once they were put in plot context — Brad has all the names and details down pat, but I need to be told “She’s the one who does Xwhich means that Y becomes a suspect…” before I can put a face to them. Far more a result of my plot obsession than anything else, but I found it interesting nonetheless.


            • By the way if you ever wanted to do a talk together with me about Crofts or something, I would be happy to do it. He seems to be your favorite among Humdrums and of course he’s now going to be filmed, which is pretty amazing, I think.

              Or Carolyn Wells, we could have a Wells three-way with John, that could get wacky. I get strangely addicted to these writers like Wells and Eberhart, I think I get caught up in tropes!


            • Curtis, as the most recent neophyte to open up a Crofts Chapter House, I can think of little that would be more exciting than to do a presentation about Crofts with the man who literally wrote the book on Crofts. If there’s a way to make this happen that means I’m able to contribute anything useful or meaningful in any way, let’s do it!

              Or, sure, Wells, once I’ve read a few (or one and given up on her for life…) — I presume I’d be the lukewarm porridge in that discussion 😆


  3. Curtis and Jim, what gentlemen you both are to either not call attention to – or not even notice – that I completely mixed up the two authors!!! Had I But Known I would make such a sloppy mistake, I would never have gotten involved in this discussion.


  4. “Next to try is Carolyn Wells, who I’ve managed to avoid for all this time.”

    I suggest you have a entire bottle of your favorite alcoholic beverage by your side. If you don’t indulge, then find some favorite comfort food or snack in large quantities to calm you down. You will need it. I have just read three Wells books in a row (for the second and last time in my life) and only one of them was worth my time, just barely giving her credit for that one as it’s filled with hoary cliches to use Well’s own term on what a neophyte should avoid in her manual on how to write a detective story. Much to my surprise, however, was the highly modern use of a “floozy” secretary in that one good book published in 1919. Who knew such characters appeared in popular fiction that early in the US? Not me and I’ve read truckfuls of these books from the early 20th century.

    A hint: the early Wells books are better if you’re looking for pure form detection. But anything written from 1927 onward borders on fantasy rather than detection. And not in the good fantasy manner employed by JCD.


    • This, John, is part of why I’ve managed to get this far in the genre without broaching Wells’ work — I fear the cliche-ridden elements I’ve been prepped to find in her work. But, while I don’t expect to enjoy her to anything like the same degree, I was also told that Freeman Wills Crofts was an interminable bore…so, well, you’ll understand my desire to at least give Wells the benefit of the doubt 🙂

      Appreciate the tip on dates, though, thanks. I understand there are quite a lot to choose from, so this aeast betters my chances of finding something I like. And, yes, I’ll consider myself fully warned in the eventuality of my hating it…!


  5. Sorry this wasn’t to your liking, but sometimes just being able to cross an author off your list is worthwhile.

    Based on my (very hazy) recollection of Eberhart’s biography, serials were standardized by this time in terms of length and number of installments, so she wasn’t trying to drag out the story indefinitely for more money, although she may have done so to reach those word counts. The problem was having to arrange the incidents so that they appeared at certain intervals within each installment. This did result in having to pad out or cut certain areas, but the bigger issue is ending up with oddly structured book. I believe Eberhart’s editor sent at least one manuscript back to her for revision because it read more like a serial than a novel. As we know, however, the more popular an author becomes, the less editing they receive.

    Be careful with Carolyn Wells! I thought I could try Wells just once, but it’s getting harder to keep from going back for more.


    • This might at least partly explain why the narrative here seemed to wander around so much and then veer up unexpectedly with some sort of sinister happening. Serialisation and novel-writing, one feels, are not entirely sympathetic.

      I’m tempted to set up an editing service and only take on clients who have published ten or more novels. It’s about that point that the nonsense starts creeping in, because they’re probably going to sell no matter what, and their editors do feel like they give up. I saw the most recent John Connolly book in a shop recently and it’s over 700 pages — that’s insane, and someone frankly needs to have a word with everyone involved…


          • I’ve found that SF is often a good place for this sort of length book, mainly because its a genre that welcomes the exploration of ideas more openly. Of course, some SF authors write 700+ page books that are terrible — see most of the High Fantasy subgenre — but then there something like Grass by Sheri Tepper, which can’t ben far off 700 pages and I’d happily read again if it were twice as long.

            Some of Ludlum’s epics top out at this length, too, so I suppose I’ve just partially unpicked my point above since a handful of his are absolutely wonderful. My copy of The Aquitaine Progression is 784 pages, but quite when I’m going to find the time to find out how good it is is beyond me.

            But, yeah, given the number of authors who write books this length, very few of them actually need to…


        • I gave up on Connolly a few years back when he was struggling to maintain a plot for books half that long, so I’ll just assume he doesn’t manage it here and move on without reading it 🙂


    • I’m not act accusing Eberhart (or Rinehart) of dragging out her books for more money, just offering an explanation of why the books read like they do. Later in life Mignon wrote shorter books. But serialization produced a huge amount of income for them and of course it got top priority. There was then an audience for lengthy, more verbose mysteries.

      Carolyn Wells is like a box of chocolates: you never know what you’re gonna get! Some of them are really nutty, if you will.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I didn’t mean to suggest that—I just got excited that reading Eberhart’s biography has finally come in handy! I do enjoy her lavish writing style, which creates a very deep and rich world, but it’s not for everyone.

        The only Carolyn Wells novel I’ve read is The Mystery Girl, which is a really delightful comedy of manners until it goes crazy (in a bad way) after the murder. Are there any books by Wells that you would recommend?


    • Well, if you fancy it, we could start with a Spoiler Warning post; October’s has already been arranged, but the next one after that would be due to go up in January 2020 — I reckon I’ll be up to The Box Office Murders or Mystery in the Channel by then, both of which are readily available and so would be more than eligible for people to “read along” with. How does that sound?


      • Sure thing. I think HarperCollins stopped reprinting with Magill. I assume with the television series they will start up again. I’m planning on looking at some of the later books again, because I’m thinking of trying a second ed. of Masters.


        • Man, I would love HarperCollins to continue their Crofts reprints — I was talking to David Brawn about this very thing at Bodies from the Library a couple of wees ago. Obviously my interest is, in having hugely enjoyed most of what I’ve read so far, that others have the chance to read Crofts as fully as possible…but also I only need three more titles to complete my collection, and naturally I’d therefore love to be able to pick them up for sensible money, too 🙂


  6. Never one to completely write off a writer whose books I tend to make fun of I’ve decided to write up the that one book of Wells I referred to above. Check out my post for today on The Man Who Fell Through the Earth. So far it proves to be the purest of her detective novels I’ve read and despite its early publication date of 1919 has some startlingly fresh and modern ideas. Something I didn’t mention in the post is that 1919 was also the year her husband died. She was married to him for only a single year and never remarried. Perhaps the seriousness and dedication to the story construction, vibrant characters and enviable intricate plotting all were a way of working through her grief.


  7. Pingback: The White Cockatoo (1933) by M. G. Eberhart – crossexaminingcrime

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