Eberhart, Mignon G(ood)

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EBERHART, Mignon G(ood)

Born 6 July 1899, Lincoln, Nebraska; died 8 October 1996

Daughter of William Thomas and Margaret Hill Good; married Alanson C. Eberhart, 1923, 1948 (twice); John H. Perry, 1946 (died)

Mignon G. Eberhart attended Nebraska Wesleyan University and received a Litt. D. from that same institution in 1935. Although she published plays (Eight O'Clock Tuesday, 1941, with Robert Wallsten; 320 College Avenue, 1938, with Frederick Ballard) and short stories during the first half of her career, Eberhart later wrote only novels of suspense, for which the Mystery Writers of America named her their Grand Master in 1970 (the second woman to receive such an honor after Agatha Christie in 1954). In more than 60 of her novels and short stories, mystery is linked with romance, and the reissue of many of her earlier works attests to her continued popularity. A reviewer of Escape the Night (1944) best summed up Eberhart's approach to mystery writing as an "expertly wrought combination of murder, thrills by night, and fervid romance with a well-hidden killer and an exciting finish."

Although several of Eberhart's novels are historical (The Cup, the Blade or the Gun, 1961, and Family Fortune, 1976, set during the Civil War; Enemy in the House, 1962, set during the American Revolution), the majority are contemporary in setting and display considerable patriotism, particularly during the war years (The Man Next Door, 1943, Wings of Fear, 1945, Five Passengers from Lisbon, 1946).

Although Eberhart has traveled widely in the U.S. and in foreign countries, she rarely chooses a setting other than the continental U.S. or the West Indies. Her settings offer the additional advantage of variable climate, with the result that most of her novels feature some sort of inclement weather as a commentary to the human conflicts. Eberhart's style is leisurely, with dialogue that serves to reiterate rather than advance the plot; these techniques not only increase the atmosphere of suspense that is her trademark, but also buy time for character development.

Eberhart's main characters are women who find antagonists in jealous female rivals or relatives and show respect to older women. With only one exception (Another Man's Murder, 1957), Eberhart's novels are told from a female character's point of view. Her heroines are primarily cast in the roles of marriageable young women suddenly confronted with love triangles bound up in death or financial ruin (Dead Men's Plans, 1952). They may work for their living (The White Dress, 1945, Danger Money, 1974), but they rarely hold positions of power. Eberhart's murderers are, with few exceptions, male. If the murderer is female, as in The White Dress, she is described as possessing traditional stereotypical masculine characteristics.

Eberhart's heroines are not always virginal but they are always passive. They are often married to older men who physically abuse them (Strangers in Flight, 1941, Woman on the Roof, 1963) or to men who practice a type of psychic torture (Fair Warning, 1936). Sometimes the husband exercises crippling control even in his absence (Message from Hong Kong, 1969, The Unknown Quantity, 1953, Never Look Back, 1950). Invariably, these husbands become the victims of murder, and the progress to their various deaths goes hand-in-hand with awakening on the part of their wives. The path to a newfound consciousness in a married Eberhart heroine is twofold: the woman initially learns to understand and reject her present subordinate position to her husband, but in the second stage of the process she voluntarily begins to rely upon another man—generally younger and always more physically attractive than her spouse. This man usually becomes her husband at the conclusion of the novel.

In the characters of Susan Dare in The Cases of Susan Dare (1934) and Nurse Sarah Keate in The Patient in Room 18 (1929), however, Eberhart develops a different type of female protagonist, a woman who relies more on her brains than on her ability to be attractive to a man. Dare and Keate are not sexless beings, but they value their own quick thinking and prefer not to play the helpless female. The romantic element is not absent entirely but it is underplayed. Susan Dare and reporter Jim Byrne are coworkers and do not march off to the altar at the end of a case; Sarah Keate routinely assembles evidence that she and policeman Lance O'Leary will evaluate. The difference between these two heroines and the prototype Eberhart heroine lies in intelligence as well as in professionalism; Dare and Keate may not relish being caught up in murder plots, but they work to dispatch the problems as quickly as possible. Furthermore, Dare and Keate deal with murder repeatedly, whereas other Eberhart heroines confront murder as a one-time rite of passage to true love and marriage. Moreover, Dare and Keate are not humorless creatures; unlike their confused counterparts in the other novels, they have a feel for the good joke, for the ludicrous situation, and for comedy in tragedy. Man Missing (1954) provides an excellent example of what an Eberhart heroine can do in this respect.

While Eberhart's novels lack the compassion of those of Charlotte Armstrong, the plotting of those of Agatha Christie, or the lively literacy and profundity of those of Dorothy L. Sayers, Margery Allingham, or Ngaio Marsh, they offer a blend of mystery, suspense, and romance not found in the works of those other authors, as well as an appeal to a different audience. In this light, Eberhart noted in an interview with Jean Mercier (who called Eberhart "the doyenne of American mystery writers"), "I have always felt liberated and I am in sympathy with women's demands for equality. But oh, I do believe in marriage. Marriage is forever, or should be." Eberhart's novels speak to this conviction and garnered her a wide and continuing readership. Many of her works were reissued throughout the mid-and late-1990s.

Other Works:

While the Patient Slept (1930). The Mystery of Hunting's End (1930). From This Dark Stairway (1931). Murder by an Aristocrat (1932). The Dark Garden (1933). The White Cockatoo (1933). Murder of My Patient (1934). The House on the Roof (1935). Danger in the Dark (1936). The Pattern (1937). The Glass Slipper (1938). Hasty Wedding (1938). The Chiffon Scarf (1939). Brief Return (1939). The Hangman's Whip (1940). With This Ring (1941). Wolf in Man's Clothing (1942). Unidentified Woman (1943). Sisters (1943). Another Woman's House (1947). House of Storm (1949). Five of My Best: Deadly Is the Diamond, Bermuda Grapevine, Murder Goes to Market, Strangers in Flight, Express to Danger (short story collection, 1949). Hunt with the Hounds (1950). Deadly Is the Diamond (1951). Postmark Murder (1956). Deadly Is the Diamond and Three Other Novelettes of Murder: Bermuda Grapevine, The Crimson Paw, Murder in Waltz Time (1959). The Crimson Paw (1959). Melora (1959). Jury of One (1960). Run Scared (1963). Call After Midnight (1964). R.S.V.P. Murder (1965). Witness at Large (1966). El Rancho Rio (1970). Two Little Rich Girls (1971). The House by the Sea (1972). Murder in Waiting (1973). Nine O'Clock Tide (1978). The Bayou Road (1979). Casa Madrone (1980). Family Affair (1981). Next of Kin (1982). The Patient in Cabin C (1983). Alpine Condo Crossfire (1984). A Fighting Chance (1986). Three Days for Emeralds (1988).

The papers of Mignon G. Eberhart are housed in the Muger Memorial Library of Boston University.


Haycraft, H., Murder for Pleasure: The Life and Times of the Detective Story (1941).

Reference works:

Detecting Women (1994). Ecyclopedia Mysteriosa (1994). St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers (1996). TCA (1942).

Other references:

PW (16 Sept. 1974, 1995).