Saturday, 27 July 2013

Penguin no. 523: The Cases of Susan Dare
by Mignon G. Eberhart

     Susan stumbled and groped through the folds of the draperies, trying to find the way through the entangling maze of curtains and out of the tent. Then all at once they were outside the curtains and staring at a figure that lay huddled on the floor, and there were people pouring in at the door from the hall, and confusion everywhere.
     It was Major Briggs. And he'd been shot and was dead, and there was no revolver anywhere.

The cases of Susan Dare tend to go something like this: Susan Dare finds herself somewhere she doesn't want to be and she feels tense and unhappy; the atmosphere is heavy, the house/theatre/ apartment is imposing. She feels uncomfortable in the company of the people she is with, most of whom she has never met before, many of whom she would avoid if she could, and she notes that at least some of her companions do not particularly like each other. Before the story advances more than a few pages someone will be shot with a revolver which cannot be found afterwards.

Susan Dare will feel overwhelmed, but philosophical: so this is what it feels like to be involved in a murder case. She will continue in this wide-eyed state for the next few hours, overwhelmed by the number of police involved, and by all the questions they ask. She will long to escape the tense situation in which she now finds herself, but she will resolve to take herself in hand and face that which she finds so unpleasant. And then her Irish friend Jim Byrne, a Chicagoan journalist, will arrive, and she will begin to feel confident and secure. People will depend upon her; people who have never met her before will insist that she is the only one to whom they will talk.

No one, least of all the police, will have any idea of the murderer's identity, and at this early stage Susan Dare will be no more informed than anyone else. Yet something will be nagging at her; something she has seen or heard doesn't quite fit, although she will be unable to place exactly what is wrong. Then in one inspired moment she will know the answer unequivocally. She will always be right, and so evidently so that no further investigation or proof will be necessary. The case will be closed, the police will deal with the murderer, and Jim Bryne will drive her home, scolding her for the risks she has taken, even though he may well be the one who placed her in harm's way to begin with. He will also feel quietly pleased about the scoop he now has for his newspaper.

The Cases of Susan Dare is a collection of six short stories, each one episodic and dealing with a single murder case; together they chronicle Susan Dare's progress from successful crime writer to consultant detective. This latter role is one she never seems particularly comfortable with, possibly because it is one she doesn't seek to begin with: she inadvertently starts on this new career when it becomes necessary to demonstrate that a close friend is not responsible for the crime of which she is suspected. And by the sixth case, despite her perfect record in determining the method, motive, and murderer behind each preceding crime, Susan Dare still seems to lack faith in her ability to solve crimes, and she remains overly concerned with how people will feel should she fail.

Susan Dare is not an unappealing character, and taken one at a time these stories are probably fine, if a little unlikely, but grouped together like this it is impossible to miss their formulaic quality. There is typically some small variation incorporated into the structure of each one - sometimes the murder occurs before the narrative begins, sometimes it takes a little longer, and once the weapon was something other than a revolver, although it too couldn't be found. The one thing which never alters is way in which Susan Dare arrives at her solutions: it is always a sudden revelation, without any apparent reasoning, based on various things she has inadvertently, and sometimes fortuitously, observed.

And that makes it all a little too convenient. Susan Dare refers to her intuition as subconscious reasoning, perhaps to delineate it from the more conventional deductive approach, and she considers this ability as her greatest asset. But it seemed to me that this was the principal flaw in the narrative, for it is impossible to accept its unfailing nature: it alerts her to when each murderer in each case will make their next move, to when she should call the police for assistance, and to every action that every person is going to take. But there is nothing in life which is that reliable.


  1. I rather liked the old-fashioned charm of these - a bit like an almost grown-up Nancy Drew. However, I do agree that one can have too much of a good thing in a collected volume!

  2. The way you describe Susan Dare's intuition reminds me of Maisie Dobbs, a series I never could warm to because the crime-solving relied too much on Maisie's intuition than on following clues. I don't mind not being able to "play along" and solve the mystery, but I like to see some sort of reason for the detective's beliefs. In a single story, I wouldn't mind it much, but in a bunch of stories or in a full-length novel, I'd find it frustrating.



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