- By Harriette Ashbrook
- First published: US: Coward McCann, 1930; UK: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1930. eBook available from Black Heath Classic Crime.
Harriette Ashbrook wrote seven detective stories in the 1930s, featuring wealthy, raffish Spike Tracy. When her first book came out (publishers Coward McCann later reminded readers) “such hardened brothers in crime as Will Cuppy of the New York Herald-Tribune, and Robert I. Center of the Detective Story Club hailed H. Ashbrook as one of the really worth while mystery writers, a “must” on the list of all good detective story fans”.
Although long forgotten, and never a front-rank writer, Ashbrook has a couple of modern champions. J.F. Norris calls her mysteries “entertaining, sometimes devious, and often very original for the time they were written”. They are, Norris writes elsewhere, “entertaining, smart, witty and never dull… Her early books are populated with lively characters and show an obvious love of the genre but derision for its tried formulae which she often spoofs in humorous asides. We get realistic detection with clever plot mechanics, neat insights into forensic police work not often seen in any of the American books of her contemporaries, and a smart alecky likeable playboy detective who is much more interesting and funny than Philo Vance.” TomCat has reviewed the first six novels; Ashbrook, he believes, is woefully underappreciated, and an important link between S.S. Van Dine and Helen McCloy.
Ashbrook’s later books are apparently her best. Cecily Thane is an entertaining, if slightly predictable, début. (Reviewers of the time, however, were wowed; see below.) Cecily, wife of millionaire jewel merchant Elton Thane, is shot dead in their brownstone apartment; the safe has been rifled, and $200,000 worth of jewels is missing from her private wall safe. An obvious robbery, the police say, and they know the man who did it: gigolo Tommy Spencer, a suspect in a similar murder. Fortunately, the district attorney has a smart young brother: Spike Tracy … who’s been locked up for drunk and disorderly behaviour.
The plot is well constructed, but slight, with many of the tropes of the 1920s: cast-iron alibis; suspects traipsing through the murder scene; and the amateur showing up the professionals. The solution involves clever time-juggling; erylvat ba gjb pybpxf (bar sbejneq 10 zvahgrf, gur bgure onpx 10), it reminds TomCat of Christopher Bush (specifically The Case of the 100% Alibis and Missing Minutes). Unfortunately, Ashbrook doesn’t play fair; Spike’s evidence (Qe. Cnegevqtr’f jngpu) isn’t shared with the reader until the end. I look forward to reading more by Ashbrook.
South Bend News Times: Should be read by every mystery fan in the country. It is so much better than the usual thriller, so much better than nine out of ten of the crime stories by well-known novelists that it deserves an immediate place in the best seller list.
The Outlook: Outstanding among recent detective stories.
Los Angeles Express: A grand detective story.
Dallas Times-Herald: An A-1 mystery.
New York Sun: Breathless and really dramatic.