- By Harriette Ashbrook
- First published: US: Coward McCann, 1933. Available on Kindle.
Cecily Thane was an orthodox Vancian investigation; Steven Kester was a country house mystery. In her third mystery, Ashbrook tries the ‘hero walks into enigmatic situation’. Spike Tracy’s car breaks down in Vermont; high-spirited Jill takes him home to meet her family, whom she believes are trying to kill her; and that night Tracy discovers the dead body of her hated guardian, Methodist preacher Sigurd Sharon.
Well, this is rather brilliant: deceptively straightforward, with hyperingenuity in spades and a lethal trap for the smug. Sigurd Sharon is one of the earliest American detective stories to play with abnormal psychology, a genre in which Helens McCloy and Eustis would later produce classics. The modern reader (as both J.F. Norris and TomCat warned) will probably work out what’s going on – but it must have made readers in 1933 reel. The solution is as deft as the finest of Ashbrook’s American contemporaries, and finely clued, to boot – followed by a justifiable unofficial execution (unlike, say, Halter‘s Tête du tigre). Gur zbqrea ernqre jvyy pbzcynpragyl guvax “Evtug, vg’f boivbhfyl fcyvg crefbanyvgl; gung’f Nfuoebbx’f ovt fhecevfr” (cnegvphyneyl vs ur ybbxf hc n gvgyr va Qnavfu) – naq gura or ragveryl gnxra bss thneq jura Nfuoebbx erirnyf n frpbaq frperg, yvxr n frg bs onohfuxn qbyyf. Vg’f abg whfg vatravbhf, gubhtu; jr’er nyybjrq gb srry dhnyzf nobhg Wvyy’f sngr.
Ashbrook’s first two mysteries were entertaining; this is stunning. And it’s short and fast-paced enough to read in a single sitting. Pity this wasn’t filmed; Hitchcock could have had a lovely time with it.
1933 Coward McCann
“Yes, I got your number all right –
“You’re the sort of young fellah that goes around nosing into affairs that ain’t no concern of yours, butting in where you ain’t wanted, minding other folks’ business instead of minding your own, and in the end turning up with the right answer, which don’t add none to your popularity with certain parties I could mention.”
Not an altogether flattering portrait, these homely, irate words of Sheriff Silcox, but they do convey a picture of Spike Tracy, that insouciant young man who takes crime so light-heartedly, yet who somehow manages to baffle the professionals just as all good detective story detectives should.
He did it in The Murder of Cecily Thane, and in The Murder of Steven Kester, and he does it again in The Murder of Sigurd Sharon. There didn’t really seem to be much reason why anyone should kill Sigurd Sharon. He was old and weak and he was going to die in a few months anyway. Futile business, on the face of it, but closer acquaintance with the two girls who lived in the house with him brought to light all kinds of dirty work. Mary was lovely and tragic. Jill was lovely and comic – at times. At other times it was hard to classify her – angel or devil. Beside the secret which these two girls harboured between them, murder seemed simple. We will wager that never in all the pages of detective fiction have you found a story as strange and unbelievable, yet at the same time so unquestionably true to life as this story of the blight that lay over the lives of these two girls, and how it figured in –
THE MURDER OF SIGURD SHARON