The Hundredth Chance is too predictable

The theme of The Hundredth Chance is familiar: A rough but noble man offers a marriage of convenience to an impoverished gentlewoman.

Ethel M. Dell keeps the story moving so readers have little time to notice how preposterous the characters and story are.


The Hundredth Chance by Ethel M. Dell
G. P. Putnam’s Sons, 1917.  1917 bestseller #10. Project Gutenberg Ebook #43069. My grade:B-.

Jack Bolton sits by Maud as he offers her marriage.
Jack offers Maud a marriage of convenience.

The poor gentlewoman is Maud Brian. Maud is 25 and worn out from caring for her 15-year-old brother.

Bunny is physically crippled from a fall in infancy and emotionally crippled by getting his own way ever since.

Maud refused rich Lord Saltash when he was named in an ugly divorce suit, but she remains infatuated with him.

Jake Bolton, a horse trainer for Lord Saltash, offers Maud marriage and Bunny a home.

The likelihood of the marriage succeeding is about 1 in a 100, but when Jake believes in the value of a horse or a human being, he’s willing to bet all on the hundredth chance.

Readers know how the story will end.

The real question is when will it end.

Dell’s characters are not believable enough to warrant close scrutiny.

The pasted on religious message is also suspect.

In the end, The Hundredth Chance fails because it does what 99 percent of novels on this theme do.

©2017 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Greatheart lacks great solution

In Greatheart, Ethel M. Dell has created characters readers will care about and eagerly follow, hoping for their happiness.

But, as often happens to Dell, when it’s time to end the story, she doesn’t know how to solve the problem she plotted.


Greatheart by Ethel M. Dell

1918 bestseller #6. Project Gutenberg ebook #13497. My Grade: B.


snow-covered mountains viewed from high above. People are tiny black wrinkles along path through snow.
Trekking through snow.

Greatheart concerns the three Studley siblings, Sir Eustace, Scott, and Isabel.

Since Isabel’s husband’s tragic death on their honeymoon and her subsequent mental and physical decline, the brothers have been trying in their different ways to help her back to health.

At a resort in the Alps, the brothers become acquainted with Dinah Bathurst, a perky English country girl traveling with Colonel and Lady de Vignes as companion to their daughter, Rose.

Scott is drawn to Dinah, but she’s tantalized by his handsome, athletic brother.

However, Eustace’s passionate pursuit of her soon frightens Dinah.

Scott’s attempt to discourage Eustace makes him even more determined to have Dinah.

Isabel comes out of her funk enough to try to protect Dinah, but she dares not protest when Dinah agrees to marry Eustace.

Dell is brilliant at creating suspense, and she makes Dinah’s behavior believable in light of her abusive mother and spineless father.

The only unbelievable element is sexual predator Eustace’s sudden reformation.

Unless, of course, a miracle happened.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Bars of Iron hold religious novel

All too often, writers of “religious novels” write romances with religion sprinkled on top.

Bars of Iron flips that fraud, presenting a religious novel in the guise of a romance.

prison corridor with iron barred doors, overprinted with poem about freeing prisoners


Bars of Iron by Ethel M. Dell

1916 bestseller #7. Project Gutenberg ebook #10509. My Grade: B-.


Avery Denys, a widow recently come to be a mother’s helper at the vicarage, stops Piers Evesham from beating his dog by dumping ice water on both.

For Piers, 25, grandson and heir to the irascible Sir Beverly Evesham, it’s love at first sight.

Four years older, Avery “left romance behind her” when she returned from Australia.

Her drunken husband was killed in a Queensland brawl, leaving her with an infant who lived only six months.

Piers shares Avery’s love for children. That brings the pair together—and into conflict with the vicar, whose cloth poorly conceals a sadistic temperament, and with Sir Beverly who hates women, particularly women fortune-hunters.

Ethel M. Dell moves the story so fluidly that her borrowings from the 100 most-used plots of the 19th century are hardly noticeable.

She also gives a multifaceted picture of religion, rare even in religious novels.

Where Dell falls notably short is in providing no reason for Piers’ murderous rages.

Even if no logical reason exists, novel readers demand some explanation—beyond man’s sinful nature—for premeditated murder.

© 2016 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Lamp in the Desert Gives Neither Light nor Heat

Hugely popular in her day, Ethel M. Dell churned out romances sprinkled with religious allusions to make her sexy tales palatable to god-fearing masses of women yearning for heaven both in this life and the next.

The Lamp in the Desert shows way she was so popular, and why she drew the contempt of better writers who sold fewer books.

Beautiful Stella Denvers travels unchaperoned to India where she joins her bother, Tommy, who is with the British colonial troops Within six weeks, she marries a handsome rotter, who disappears on their honeymoon from accident, suicide or, perhaps, murder.

Within a year, the widow marries the handsome, reclusive Captain Everard Monck, whom she loves but fears because she knows he’s keeping things from her.

Dell never explains why Stella came to India in the first place, or why she picked Dacre to marry rather than one of the decent men.

Monck’s passion for Stella, with whom he’d never talked even about the weather, is similarly inexplicable.

Dell throws snakes and shadowy figures from the bazaars into the story whenever the plot lags. Otherwise inexplicable behavior is chalked up to malarial fever or use of opium.

Unless you have malaria or use opium, you’ll want to skip this 1920’s novel. There are better plots and more believable characters on daytime soap operas.

The Lamp in the Desert
By Ethel M. Dell
1920 bestseller #9
Project Gutenberg ebook #13763
My grade C-

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Another Saturday, another library book sale

The Sidney (NY) Memorial Library had a sale Saturday of books from a single donor. I was delighted to find the collection had a good sprinkling of vintage novels. Hardbacks were 50¢; I filled a bag with snow-day reading.

I picked up If Winter Comes by A. S. M. Hutchinson, which topped the charts in 1922. I’m reading it now and finding it hard to put down. Another novel by the author, This Freedom, was #7 that year and #6 in 1923.

Other books that I carted home are:

A Lion in the Streets by Adria Locke Langley (1945) and Kings Row by Henry Bellamy (1941). After reading these to review here, I knew I wanted them  for my own collection. (Kings Row will be reviewed here in 2011.) They are both novels worth reading more than twice.

The Money Moon by Jeffrey Farnol published in 1911, the same year his novel The Broad Highway was the number 1 bestseller. He had other bestsellers:   The Amateur Gentleman (1913) and  The Definite Object (1917).

The Way of an Eagle by Ethel M. Dell (1911), a very popular romance writer who was sneered at by more literary authors. Her novels  The Hundredth Chance and  Greatheart made the bestseller lists in 1917 and 1918 respectively.

Penrod and Sam by Booth Tarkington (1916). Tarkington may be best remembered for The Magnificent Ambersons, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1918. I happen to think Claire Amber (1928) is a more interesting novel.

The U. P. Trail by Zane Grey (1918) is one of Grey’s many bestsellers, but not, I fear one of his better novels.

The Calling of Dan Matthews by Harold Bell Wright (1909) is an early novel of the author who went on to best-sellers such as The Winning of Barbara Worth (1911 and 1912), Their Yesterdays (1912), The Eyes of the World (1914 #1), When a Man’s a Man (1916), The Re-Creation of Brian Kent (1919 & 1920), Helen of the Old House (1922), The Mine with the Iron Door (1923).

What about you? Found any great vintage novels in the used book bins lately?

©2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Musings on the 1918 bestseller list

Older of the bestsellers are increasingly hard to find. When I do find them, the pages are yellow and brittle.

Publishers are reissuing many of the older books as their copyrights expire and the move into public domain. I’d rather read the books first, though, and then buy those I want to read more than once.

I’ve recently discovered that Milne Library at the SUNY College at Oneonta has a superb collection of vintage fiction, some of which is in the regular circulating collection. The library staff and student assistants are wonderful. They even helped me get a long term parking permit so I didn’t have to get a permit on every visit.

According to my posting scheme, I should begin  posting the reviews for 1918’s bestsellers this week.  These novels are . . . .

  1. The U.P. Trail by Zane Grey
  2. The Tree of Heaven by May Sinclair
  3. The Amazing Interlude by Mary Roberts Rinehart
  4. Dere Mable by Edward Streeter
  5. Oh, Money! Money! by Eleanor H. Porter
  6. Greatheart by Ethel M. Dell
  7. The Major by Ralph Connor
  8. The Pawns Court by E. Phillips Oppenheim
  9. A Daughter of the Land by Gene Stratton-Porter
  10. Sonia by Stephen McKenna

Several of these authors were incredibly prolific and popular in their day. E. Phillips Oppenheim, who I’d never heard of, published over 150 books and is credited by some with originating the thriller.

Mary Roberts Rinehart was no slouch either. She wrote over 60 popular mysteries and originated the phrase “the butler did it”.

Zane Grey also has 60 novels on his resume and an organization devoted to keeping his work alive.

Ethel M. Dell, another author unfamiliar to me,  appears to have knocked out a novel a year from 1911 to 1939.

Despite their incredible output, I have located only a few of these authors’ books.

Of course, not all the 1918’s bestselling novelists were so prolific.

Ralph Connor, who wrote just 11 novels and two volumes of short stories, was a full-time Presbyterian minister. Edward Streeter produced a similarly small volume of novels in his spare time. His day job was vice president of Fifth Avenue Bank, which later became Bank of New York.

Gene Stratton-Porter, who I thought was just a novelist, was actually a naturalist, wildlife photographer, and one of the first women to start a motion picture studio. The state of Indiana now operates two of her homes, Wildflower Woods and Limberlost, as state historic sites.

When I run out of reviews of bestsellers, I’ll fill out the year with reviews of some classics that didn’t make the bestseller list. Stay tuned.