The Purple Onion Mystery (Harriette Ashbrook)

  • By Harriette Ashbrook
  • First published: USA: Coward McCann, 1941
  • Availability: Black Heath Crime

Ashbrook’s last detective story has a poor reputation. Mike Grost thought it was awful; Baudelaire found it utterly unbelievable and very disappointing. Purple Onion is not bad, but it’s the weakest of Ashbrook’s seven detective stories; it comes across as a tired effort, recycling elements from earlier works.

A publisher’s secretary is shot dead; suspicion falls on both the publisher (a feckless philanderer) and his daughter’s boyfriend (possibly a crook). The plotting feels loose; and whodunnit is obvious well before the end. The elements are rather stale: a heroine in love with a suspect, and desperate to protect her father (e.g. Cecily Thane); innocent people (including a compromised lady) moving about the crime scene concealing their actions; spinsters; secret identities; blackmail; and even a veiled lady – a survivor from the Edwardian, if not Victorian, age. The murderer is (as in at least two of the previous mysteries) an altruist; as in A Most Immoral Murder, the secret benefactor goes back to World War I. Plus points are Spike Tracy’s friendship with a likeable middle-aged cook, and a sad story of misplaced devotion.


1941 Coward McCann

When Lina Lee was shot through the head by an old army. 38 in the office of Felix Penton, playboy-publisher, Spike Tracy found himself up against the toughest case of his entire amateur sleuthing career. There was no lack of clews, nor of suspects for that matter. Not one of those involved had an alibi. And before he could even begin to establish any sort of a case, there were a number of separate mysteries to be solved which didn’t make much sense individually but, when put together properly, gave the answer to the murder.

For instance, what was the meaning of the purple onion in Lina Lee’s luxurious apartment? Who was the veiled woman appearing so mysteriously at certain crises in Penton’s life? Why were the account books of the Penton Press taken from the safe, and what did the auditor’s check-up reveal? And most important of all, what did a certain society-page photograph, yellowed with age, have to do with the case?

The Purple Onion Mystery calls for Spike Tracy’s most brilliant deductive powers. And he comes pretty close to failure when he runs up against the blind devotion which Felix Penton inspires in women.

Miss Ashbrook surpasses her public’s highest expectations in her latest mystery. The insouciant Spike Tracy pursues his investigations with the same zest and joie de vivre exhibited in his earlier cases. And when he does discover the criminal, it comes as such a shock to him that – well, that is for the reader to discover.

3 thoughts on “The Purple Onion Mystery (Harriette Ashbrook)

  1. You can never tell with these infernal detective stories who’s going to like what, can you? I genuinely believed you would end up liking Murder Makes Murder and Murder Comes Back more than the earlier ones, but here we are on the other side. Anyway, my review of The Purple Onion Mystery is coming later this month and largely agree with you.

    Ashbrook’s last detective story has a poor reputation.

    I wonder if its poor reputation can be blamed on the abridged edition, Murder on Friday, which was easier available until Black Heath reissued it.


    1. Sigurd Sharon is clearly the standout – brilliantly tricky. I’d probably rate them:

      Sigurd Sharon
      Steven Kester (transparent but oh so clever)
      Most Immoral Murder (fun, unusual motive, obvious solution)
      Murder Makes Murder
      Murder Comes Back
      Cecily Thane (solid imitation of Benson Murder Case)
      Purple Onion

      Looking forward to your thoughts on Onion.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s