Tuesday, April 3, 2018

TNB: The Great Detectives (Medical Mayhem)

Word has passed among The Tuesday Night Bloggers that a book called The 100 Greatest Literary Detectives, edited by Eric Sandberg and including contributions from various writers – including our own Kate Jackson is coming out to educate the unsuspecting about some of the best detectives in the business. As we sat and munched on toasted crumpets and sipped our tea, we decided to revive our weekly meetings and discuss the detectives we think ought to be included in any list of the "Greatest" detectives. We also wanted to include some of the really good detectives who don't get as much press as say a Sherlock Holmes or a Miss Jane Marple or (ahem) Hercule Poirot [more press clippings for our Belgian sleuth may found over at Brad's place Ah Sweet Mystery Blog aka "The Shrine To Agatha Christie"].

As Moira mentions over at Clothes in Books, some of us have decided to divide our detectives up into categories. This week's feature here at the Block is on Medical Mayhem with the spotlight focused on Mignon G. Eberhart's Nurse Sarah Keate and Dr. Hugh Westlake in a series by Jonathan Stagge
(aka Richard Webb & Hugh Wheeler). Sarah Keate was most likely the very first nurse I was introduced to in detective fiction. The book was The Mystery of Hunting's End and it was also my first taste of a locked room/impossible crime.

It is a mystery that revolves around a weekend party at Hunting’s End, a lodge owned by the rich Kingery family. Matil Kingery has invited a strange collection of guests to join her on the outing—the same people who were at the lodge when her father died of “heart failure” exactly five years ago. She knows that her father was murdered and intends to find out which of the guests is the guilty party.  She has to find out....she's in love with one of the young men and wants his name cleared.

Added to the guest list is the dapper young detective Lance O’Leary who is posing as an

acquaintance of Matil's and O'Leary has, as he often does, requested Keate to use her position as a nurse to help him sort out a mystery. In this case, he wants to know who was responsible for the death of Matil Kingery's father at the lodge some five years ago. If one of the requirements for detective greatness is the impact the character has on the reader, then Nurse Keate definitely qualifies. I reread Hunting's End countless times when I was young and every time I enjoyed watching Nurse Keate take on the assignment of the care of Aunt Lucy at the hunting lodge featured in the title. The nurse's eagle eyes, strong nerves, and knowledge of human nature all serve her well in spotting the clues that lead O'Leary to the solution of the murder. Without her assistance, Matil would never know which of the "friends" gathered at the hunting lodge had killed her father...and would be responsible for another death as well.
Such was Nurse Keate's personality and impact in the story, that I could relate whole scenes of the book which featured her for years after reading it--even during the years when the book was lost (see my review linked above) and I had no access to it. Given my sieve-like memory for books read pre-blogging, that's saying something. I could tell you about Sarah and her knitting needles and Sarah's descriptions of Aunt Lucy as a huge spider, for example.

Dr. Hugh Westlake is a more recent acquaintance. I discovered him in 2010--just as I was launching my blogging career--in Death's Sweet Song. Westlake is a small town practitioner and a widower with a precocious daughter. He often finds his medical practice leading him into situations where he feels impelled to act as an amateur detective. He's not a brilliant amateur à la Philo Vance, but his medical acumen gives him insights that allow him to spot clues not obvious to others. He's not infallible by any means, but the way he works his way through the twists and turns of the mysteries he becomes involved in is very realistic. I find him to be a very relatable character. 

Westlake leaves an impression on me because he represents the kind of every day individual who might get involved in mysteries and behaves in ways that real people might. The books I've read so far feature nicely-plotted mysteries with enough intricacy to please and puzzle. There is also a bit of the macabre and odd throughout the series that might titillate. I think it adds to the oddness to have such an ordinary amateur detective working his way through the clues. 

His investigation into fear and how it is used in the persecution of an actress is the foundation of the mystery in The Three Fears and uses the oddness of the human mind as the backdrop. Westlake is invited by his wartime friend, Dr. Macdonald "Don" Lockwood, and his wife Tansy to spend a month at their home in the Massachusetts resort of Bittern Bay. There will even be entertainment on hand in the form of two rival  acresses--Daphne Winters, with her "five sweet symphonies", budding actresses to whom she gives summer tutelage, and Lucy Millken, ""America's Most Beloved Actress"", one time understudy to the Divine Daphne, now her bitter rival. They expect fireworks and maybe even a cat fight or two, but no one expects murderous attempts to made on Daphne. 

Someone very clever is using the atmosphere to make attempt after attempt on Daphne's life and sanity--using knowledge of her three fears: fear of poison, fear of being closed in, and fear of fire against her. The culprit is relentless and doesn't even seem to mind that innocent victims are collected along the way. Two of Daphne's Symphonies are caught in the killer's web. The first intercepts a poisoned capsule meant for Daphne while they are at tea at the Milliken's house and the second dies in a fire in the summerhouse. Westlake, having previous experience with murders, joins the police in the search for the murderer, but they run into blank wall after blank wall. It isn't until one of the Symphonies makes an urgent phone call to Westlake that he begins to see the intricate plot behind it all. 

Although I have less of an acquaintance with Westlake (than with Keate), I can definitely say that he is a detective that I'm eager to read more of and hope to find more of the novels featuring him. So--if another feature of a great detective is to make readers want more of him, then Westlake definitely has that going for him.


The Passing Tramp said...

I've read both of these, in fact reviewed Three Fears on my blog and like them both too. In fact Eberhart's is one of my favorites by her. Love the setting!

Kate said...

Not read either of these books, but I am certainly tempted by The Mystery of Hunting's End, so will have to track down a copy of that.

Clothes In Books said...

You do a great job of making these sound appealing Bev - like Kate, I haven't read either of them, though have read something else by Mignon Eberhardt. I do love the idea of an investigative nurse and doctor. And the fact that you have read Hunting's End many times is quite the recommendation!