- 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.