Murder Comes Back (Harriette Ashbrook)

  • By Harriette Ashbrook
  • First published: US: Coward-McCann, 1940; UK: Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1942

Moira Ballinger was – in her own daughter’s words – “a bitch, a lousy, grasping, unprincipled bitch that didn’t give a damn for anything in Heaven or earth but her own rotten, selfish desires. She ruined every life she touched.”

So few tears were shed when the millionairess apparently shot herself. Her stepson detested her, while she had disinherited another son; both desperately needed money. But the family physician wasn’t convinced it was suicide. After all, the circumstances were identical to those in which her millionaire husband had taken his own life 20 years before…

This seems to be Ashbrook’s take on that American sub-genre: the warped family headed by a repulsive matriarch. (The most famous example is S.S. Van Dine’s Greene Murder Case; other examples include Queen’s Tragedy of Y and There Was an Old Woman, Hugh Austin’s Murder of a Matriarch, and Christie’s Appointment with Death – yes! Carr’s Poison in Jest is related.)

Ashbrook applies a hard-boiled sensibility. The suspects are corrupt, amoral, rich people with secrets – and ripe prey for blackmail; Spike Tracy is attracted to a femme fatale (like Vivian Sternwood in The Big Sleep) who lies to protect herself and others, tries to seduce Spike, and shanghais him; and Spike himself lies to the police and withholds facts.

But it’s not a great detective story. The big secrets (Ballinger’s murder, bastardy) are obvious; two murders are almost perfunctory, and their culprit is revealed two-thirds through; and the murderer of Mrs. Ballinger is not a surprise – yet another of Ashbrook’s altruistic killers.

Other reviews: Pretty Sinister Books; Beneath the Stains of Time

3 thoughts on “Murder Comes Back (Harriette Ashbrook)

  1. Well liked this one more than you, but I’m less of a traditionalist when it comes to plotting. Apparently I’m much more easily fooled than you are. Perhaps I want to be fooled! It’s easy for me to miss things with writers I thoroughly enjoy. It’s the poorer writers who NEVER manage to trip me up with misdirection– like Brian Flynn who I am not very fond of reading. Too many of his books disappoint me.

    Rufus King liked revisiting the rich family with an imperious matriarch plot convention as well. However, I don’t she is always the victim in his mysteries

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    1. Yes, I’m the traditionalist who loves Gladys Mitchell! 😉 It depends on genre, of course; if I’m reading an American puzzle plot, the benchmarks are Van Dine and Ellery Queen.

      I find Flynn uneven, but there’s enough good stuff in the first ten (certainly Peacock’s Eye and Orange Axe) to impress. Besides, didn’t you like Murder En Route and The Triple Bite? I get the impression that his teen books will be better.

      Any suggestions on which Rufus Kings to read? I’ve read a few of the early ones, but found them overwrought and purple in prose.

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    2. ” like Brian Flynn who I am not very fond of reading. Too many of his books disappoint me.”. Well, John, I hope the Puzzle Doctor is not reading this ! 🙂

      Like

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