Eberhart, Mignon G. (1899–1996)
Eberhart, Mignon G. (1899–1996)
American writer of mystery, crime, suspense, romance and historical fiction. Born on July 6, 1899, in Lincoln, Nebraska; died on October 8, 1996, in Greenwich, Connecticut; daughter of William Thomas and Margaret Hill (Bruffey) Good; attended Nebraska Wesleyan University, 1917–20; married Alanson C. Eberhart (a civil engineer), on December 29, 1923 (divorced); married John P. Hazen Perry, in 1946 (divorced); remarried Alanson C. Eberhart, 1948.
Scotland Yard Prize (1930), for While the Patient Slept; D.Litt., Nebraska Wesleyan University (1935); Mystery Writers of America Grand Master award (1970); Malice Domestic Lifetime Achievement award (1994).
(mystery novels; all published by Random House, New York City, except as noted) The Patient in Room 18 (Doubleday, New York City, 1929, rev. ed., Popular Library, New York City, 1972); While the Patient Slept (Doubleday, 1930); The Mystery of Hunting's End (Doubleday, 1930); From This Dark Stairway (Doubleday, 1931); Murder by an Aristocrat (Doubleday, 1932, published in England as Murder of My Patient, John Lane, 1934); The White Cockatoo (Doubleday, 1933); The Dark Garden (Doubleday, 1933, published in England as Death in the Fog, John Lane [London], 1934); The House on the Roof (Doubleday, 1935); Fair Warning (Doubleday, 1936); Danger in the Dark (Doubleday, 1936); The Pattern (Doubleday, 1937, published as Pattern of Murder, Popular Library, 1948); Hasty Wedding (Doubleday, 1938); The Glass Slipper (Doubleday, 1938); Brief Return (Collins, London, 1939); The Chiffon Scarf (Doubleday, 1939); The Hangman's Whip (Doubleday, 1940); Strangers in Flight (Bantam, 1940, enlarged edition published as Speak No Evil, Random House, 1941); With This Ring (1941); Wolf in Man's Clothing (1942); The Man Next Door (1943); Unidentified Woman (1943); Escape the Night (1944); Wings of Fear (1945); The White Dress (1946); Five Passengers from Lisbon (1946); Another Woman's House (1947); House of Storm (1949); Hunt with the Hounds (1950); Never Look Back (1951); Dead Men's Plans (1952); The Unknown Quantity (1953); Man Missing (1954); Postmark Murder (1956); Another Man's Murder (1957); Melora (1959, published as The Promise of Murder, Dell, 1961); Jury of One (1960); The Cup, the Blade, or the Gun (1961, published in England as The Crime at Honotassa, Collins, 1962); Enemy in the House (1962); Run Scared (1963); Call after Midnight (1964); R.S.V.P. Murder (1965); Witness at Large (1966); Woman on the Roof (1968); Message from Hong Kong (1969); El Rancho Rio (1970); Two Little Rich Girls (1971); The House by the Sea (1972); Murder in Waiting (1973); Danger Money (1975); Family Fortune (1976); Nine O'Clock Tide (1978); The Bayou Road (1979); Casa Madrone (1980); Family Affair (1981); Next of Kin (1982); The Patient in Cabin C (1984); The Alpine Condo Cross Fire (1984); A Fighting Chance (1986); Three Days for Emeralds (1988).
The Cases of Susan Dare (short stories, Doubleday, 1934); Mignon G. Eberhart Omnibus (includes The Patient in Room 18, While the Patient Slept, and Murder by an Aristocrat, Grosset, 1936); Mignon G. Eberhart's Mystery Book (includes Speak No Evil and With This Ring, World Publishing, 1945); Five of My Best: Deadly Is the Diamond, Bermuda Grapevine, Murder Goes to Market, Strangers in Flight, Express to Danger (Hammond, London, 1949); Deadly Is the Diamond and Three Other Novelettes of Murder (includes Deadly Is the Diamond, Bermuda Grapevine, The Crimson Paw, and Murder in Waltz Time, Random House, 1958); The Crimson Paw (Hammond, 1959).
(with Fred Ballard) 320 College Avenue (French, New York, 1938); (with Robert Wallsten) Eight O'Clock Tuesday (first produced in New York City, 1941, French, 1941); also author of The Murder of Dr. Harrigan (story for film of the same title), 1936.
Mignon G. Eberhart wrote her first mystery novel in 1929 and her last, 59 books later, in 1988. During more than half a century, Eberhart earned a place for herself as one of the most popular writers in the mystery genre. Her heroines, such as Sarah Keate and Susan Dare, were arresting and courageous. Appearing in 1929 in The Patient in Room 18, before even Miss Marple, Keate was one of the mystery genre's first female sleuths. Because of her plucky heroines, Eberhart was often seen as following in the footsteps of Mary Roberts Rinehart , but she soon became known in her own right as a writer whose best work often combined a gothic atmosphere, a budding romance, and a "whodunit" mystery. She is considered to have influenced writers such as the best-selling Mary Higgins Clark . Eberhart's novels were also well received at the time of their publication, drawing high praise from both the reading public and reviewers. Often dubbed "America's Agatha Christie ," Eberhart was once described by Gertrude Stein as "one of the best mystifiers in America," and she counted President Harry S. Truman among her fans. In the 1990s, six of her earliest novels were republished by the University of Nebraska Press.
Many critics have referred to Eberhart's work as "escape" fiction. Marvin Lachman of The Armchair Detective, for example, wrote after the republication of The Patient in Room 18, "it is for someone seeking old-fashioned escape," and in the St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers,Joanne Harack classified Eberhart's writing as "escape/fantasy adventures." Eberhart disagreed with such statements, however. "Escapes are for people who are lazy readers," Eberhart stated in a Cleveland Plain Dealer interview in 1975. "The mystery reader is highly intelligent, and he likes to participate in the book." To ensure the kind of accuracy that an intelligent reader demands, Eberhart's prewriting work included drawing up floor plans so that "she does not have someone entering a window that did not exist two chapters before," as Pat Hobeck noted in the Plain Dealer. A frequent traveler, she was able to incorporate many exotic locales, such as Hong Kong, Lisbon, and the Caribbean into her work. She also planned clues that led to evidence "that a district attorney could use." Eberhart was original for her time period as well in that she explored the underlying psychological processes of characters' thoughts and motivations.
Eberhart began writing in the early 1920s. After the publication of a novella in a detective magazine, she went on to publish her first mystery novel, The Patient in Room 18, in 1929. She wrote murder mysteries right from the start. "You just can't write a detective story without at least one murder," she said in 1939 in a Plain Dealer interview. "Nobody is going to read 300 pages just to find out what became of Lady Emily's jewels." In her first novel, Eberhart introduced nurse and amateur detective Sarah Keate, "a worthy successor to Rinehart's 'Miss Pinkerton,'" as Lachman called her. Keate narrates the mystery but shares the detection duties with private investigator Lance O'Leary; both characters would reappear six more times. Nurse Sarah is both tough (she served in a combat hospital during World War I) and delicate (she has trouble saying the word "legs" in front of other people). Though O'Leary is the one who is more threatened by physical danger, Keate contributes with what Publishers Weekly calls her "acerbic wit and derring-do."
The Patient in Room 18 has a hospital setting, and Keate herself is a prime suspect in the murder and radium robbery that takes place there. Upon publication, the novel immediately drew enthusiastic reviews. "The story is one of the best of its kind that we have had the good luck to read this year," wrote a critic for the Saturday Review of Literature. Though the novel fell into the genre of Golden Age detection stories in which clues mattered most in the solving of the crime, the detective story was not the only aspect of the book that readers and critics enjoyed. A Bookman review pointed to its "novel background," and a reviewer in the Times Literary Supplement commented that "the non-detective parts of this story are excellent."
A subsequent Keate story, While the Patient Slept, published the next year, further solidified Eberhart's reputation as a writer of suspense. Eberhart also won the Scotland Yard prize for this novel, "deservedly," according to Will Cuppy of Books. In this novel, Keate is working as a private nurse at Federie House when her patient is murdered, and she and O'Leary must track down the killer. A reviewer for Bookman said, "This book places detective fiction on a higher level than ever before and is heartily recommended to fans." Like The Patient in Room 18, described by the New York Times as a "good, creepy yarn," While the Patient Slept builds what would become the trademark Eberhart atmosphere. Eugene Rynall in the Saturday Review of Literature wrote of the setting, "Federie House, with it somber ruggedness on an almost deserted road, with its mysterious turrets, its darkened draperies, its heavily carpeted floors, and its sinister occupants, is an almost perfect setting for a mystery story."
Nurse Sarah Keate also saw success in the movies. Six of Eberhart's novels, four of which were Keate stories, were adapted into films in the 1930s. Eberhart also wrote one story expressly for film, The Murder of Dr. Harrigan, released in 1939, and, with a collaborator, she adapted another mystery into a play titled Eight O'Clock Tuesday, which ran on Broadway in the early 1940s. Along with these ventures into other media, Eberhart continued writing superior mystery novels. The Dark Garden, published in 1933, was her first novel that did not feature Keate and O'Leary. Cuppy, who reviewed Eberhart's books favorably for almost 20 years, found this novel to have "exciting gradations," a "vigorous, impressive climax," and to be "plotted most lucidly.… It ought to get your unanimous vote," he concluded. Other reviewers agreed on the quality of this novel.
Eberhart's next mystery, The White Cockatoo, garnered mixed reviews. Isaac Anderson, a long-time reviewer for the New York Times, found it to be disappointing. "Sarah Keate, the redhaired nurse who played a leading part in Mrs. Eberhart's other mystery stories does not appear in this book," he noted. "It might have been better if she had." For her next novel, however, Anderson had nothing but compliments for Eberhart again; "'The House on the Roof,'" he wrote, "is a Class A mystery, which is precisely what we have learned to expect from Mrs. Eberhart." Like Cuppy, Anderson recommended the great majority of Eberhart's books for almost two decades.
Over the next 50 years, Eberhart continued to do what she did best: write exciting, atmospheric murder mysteries. She introduced another female serial character, Susan Dare, who wrote mystery fiction. Harack found these stories to be "rather more successful" than those featuring Sarah Keate. Eberhart also created the baker James Wickwire. New York Times writer Anthony Boucher, however, found Eberhart's use of a male protagonist to be "a surprisingly unprofessional error," claiming that "[Eberhart] alienates her usual devotees by concentrating on a new male protagonist."
Eberhart continued writing mysteries until she was in her 80s. Her 57th novel, The Alpine Condo Cross Fire, was called "neat entertainment" in a Publishers Weekly review, which also praised Eberhart's "deft delivery." In 1995, the University of Nebraska Press began reissuing six of Eberhart's early novels. After rereading The Patient in Room 18 Lachman noted that Eberhart "has more than nostalgia going for her. There is atmosphere and an aura of mystery and dread." A Publishers Weekly writer found that the "suspense steadily builds" to a "satisfying denouement" in While the Patient Slept, commenting also on the atmosphere of "darkness and decay." "Eberhart's timing and gothic atmosphere are second to none," wrote the Publishers Weekly contributor. "[Sarah's] return is a welcome addition to the distinguished ranks of other silver-streaked gumshoes."
Eberhart was one of the masters of the mystery field. Writing about Postmark Murder, published in 1956, a New Yorker reviewer described Eberhart as "one of the most thorough and ingenious plotters in the trade." Yet Eberhart's affinity for writing mysteries seemed to have gone beyond the words she put on paper and to extend to the whole field itself. Her New York Times obituary quoted Eberhart as saying, "My real love is for the brotherhood and sisterhood of the genre. I love mystery writers as a breed, and am so glad to belong."
Armchair Detective, fall, 1995, p. 415.
Bookman, May 29, 1929, p. 30; March 30, 1930, p. 28.
Books, February 16, 1930, p. 18; October 8, 1933, p. 15.
The New Yorker, April 7, 1956, p. 164.
The New York Times, May 19, 1929, p. 24; January 15, 1933, p. 15; November 17, 1957, p. 55.
Plain Dealer (Cleveland, OH), April 27, 1975.
Publishers Weekly, July 5, 1985, p. 66; February 6, 1995, p. 80.
St. James Guide to Crime and Mystery Writers. 4th ed. Detroit: MI: St. James Press, 1996.
Saturday Review of Literature, May 18, 1929, p. 1028; March 15, 1930, p. 830.
Times Literary Supplement, June 6, 1929, p. 458; July 14, 1995, p. 8.
obituary and other sources:
The New York Times, October 9, 1996, p. D19.
Washington Post, October 11, 1996, p. B6.
Eberhart's manuscripts are housed at the Mugar Memorial Library at Boston University.
Several of Eberhart's novels were adapted as films of the same title, including While the Patient Slept and The White Cockatoo, both 1935, Murder by an Aristocrat, 1936, and The Patient in Room 18, 1938. The novel Hasty Wedding was made into a film titled Three's a Crowd, 1945; From This Dark Stairway was made into a film titled The Dark Stairway, 1938; The Great Hospital Mystery was based on an unidentified story by Eberhart, 1937; Mystery of Hunting's End was adapted as a film titled Mystery House, 1938.