Friday, January 10, 2014

Wedding From Hell: Unidentified Woman (1943), Mignon Eberhart

Poor Victoria Steane!  Her wedding was all set to go, when, just two days before she was to make her walk down the aisle all dressed in white, there were two murders on the grounds of her gorgeous family country estate, regally situated amidst Florida pine trees and palmettos. And it turns out Victoria is the lead suspect in the crimes!

Nifty jacket of the American first edition showing Victoria Steane on
the spine and a shocking scene that tales place  near the end of the novel

Along with mystery, romance constitutes the lifeblood of Mignon Eberhart novels; and weddings, either impending or recently concluded, are common features of her books. Sometimes the heroine has just married and is having doubts, while sometimes, as in Unidentified Woman, she is about to get married and having doubts.  Murder puts her through her paces, but somehow by the end of the novel not only is she out of legal jeopardy but her romantic situation is settled--happily ever after.

1940s Dell mapback laying out
the scene of the crimes
In Unidentified Woman, protagonist Victoria Steane, lovely lumber mills heiress, has recently evaded prosecution for murder in the drowning death of Henry Frame, her late father Victor's "trusted employee and closest friend," who happened to be massively embezzling from the estate.  It is now generally believed that Frame's death was either accident or suicide.

Seemingly exonerated after this ordeal, Vicky is on the verge of marrying Michael Bayne, an office manager in the Steane Mills--though she's having doubts--when death again strikes on the Steane estate.

Twice in one night, actually!  The titular "unidentified woman" is found drowned in the river like Frame was and someone very close to Vicky is found strangled in the estate's pump house.

John Campbell, the former State's Attorney who had threatened Vicky with prosecution, now is in the army (war seems imminent) and, it appears, in love with Vicky.  But there is a new State's Attorney who is out to charge her not just with one murder, but three!  How does Vicky get out of this mess?  Not without having to deal with yet more violent death on the Steane estate, that's for sure.

Anthony Boucher picked Unidentified Woman as one of his twenty favorite mystery novels form 1943 and I must say it's a good example of an Eberhart mystery.  There's a nicely-conveyed setting in Florida--a first, I believe, for Eberhart at this time--a complex plot and not too much love stuff for this male reader (the author in some of her books has a tendency to make them almost more romance novels than mysteries).  Additionally, there's an amusing character in Vicky's teen aged second cousin, Agnew Isham, who does a bit of sleuthing (I also liked Agnew's widowed mother Bessie and her erratic attire).

Often in her books Eberhart falls back on the romance formula of a beautiful young woman who is strangely bereft of friends and family (except maybe an aunt somewhere). Here there's lots of family, as well as a housekeeper, a butler, a cook, a maid and a gardener, all on a fine country estate. We could almost be reading an English Golden Age mystery.

My only real complaint is that I don't feel the book is really fair play. We can't really "solve" the mystery until there's an information dump near the end, or so it seems to me. Nevertheless, Unidentified Woman is a satisfying tale of murder, mystification and emotional tension--one that would film well too.

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