Twenty-Four Hours Shows What a Difference a Day Makes

In Twenty-Four Hours, Louis Bromfield takes a plot that appears to be plodding off in one direction, gives it more twists than a bag of pretzels, and turns out a story that seems perfectly plausible.

As the curtain rises, old Hector Champion is giving a dreary dinner to distract himself from worry over the results of medical tests he will get the following day. His dinner guests include a nouveau riche financier, the financier’s current mistress and her husband, Hector’s nephew, the woman the financier wishes to marry, and the woman who had wanted to marry Hector some 50 years before.

As the party breaks up, Hector gets a telegram from his black-sheep sister who scandalized society years before by running off with her brother-in-law.

Bromfield leaves Hector at home fretting and follows the guests home.

Before 24 hours are up, the financier breaks up with his mistress and proposes to another woman, Hector’s nephew marries his actress girlfriend, two people are murdered, the mob puts a contract on one of the murderers, and the cuckolded husband is in a fair way to be fingered for the other murder.

By dinner the next evening, 67-year-old Savina Jerrold has straightened out all the remaining muddles, including Hector.

Twenty-Four Hours
By Louis Bromfield
Frederick A. Stokes, 1930
463 pages
1930 bestseller #10
My grade B+

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Door Conceals Classy Murder Mystery

Mary Roberts Rinehart can be counted on for mysteries with a cast of people with motive for murder and a maze of clues. Her novel The Door is in the classic “the butler did it” tradition, complete with a butler. Readers get all the clues they need to solve the murder, with enough red herrings to keep them from getting it right.

Miss Bell, a well-to-do, older woman, tells of the investigation into the disappearance and murder of Sarah Gittings, a private nurse who had worked for the whole Bell family as needed for years.

Suspicion falls on Jim Blake, Miss Bell’s cousin. The DA puts together a solid case, but something about it doesn’t feel right to the toothpick-chewing Inspector Harrison. The family rallies around Jim, doing some sleuthing on their own. Miss Bell helps by destroying evidence that would have bolstered Jim’s defense.

At the last minute, Rinehart pulls the threads together to finger the real murderer.

Although The Door is definitely a Roaring Twenties period piece, it remains solidly entertaining today.

I was disappointed Miss Bell and the Inspector didn’t pair off, but perhaps Rinehart felt the Inspector’s habit of dropping chewed toothpicks would lead to another murder.

The Door
by Mary Roberts Rinehart
Farrar & Rinehart, 1930
314 pages
1930 bestseller # 6
My grade: B

© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Ourselves to Know Is Full of Surprises

Novelists usually use technique of a narrator who got the story from somebody else when the veracity of the story is in doubt. In Ourselves to Know, John O’Hara turns turns that conceit inside out.

As a child growing up in Lyons, Pa., Gerald Higgins knows Robert Millhouser by sight. He ferrets out the story that Millhouser shot and killed his wife in 1908. Gerald doesn’t understand why his grandfather and parents respect Millhouser despite the murder.

When Gerald is grown, Millhouser him to write the story, with the stipulation that Gerald not publish it for 20 years.

Within this complicated framework, O’Hara presents a riveting story of complex people in a deceptively innocent-appearing era.

Although sex in all its permutations is part of that complexity—in fact, is behind the murder—O’Hara’s focus is on personal change.

No one in this novel is static. People make choices. Choices change people.

In the hands of a lesser writer, Ourselves to Know could have become either a trashy novel or a boring, literary one. O’Hara manages to present a novel worth reading and makes the reading enjoyable.

What’s more,  despite the fact that the identity of the murder is known almost from the beginning, O’Hara pulls off a surprise ending.

Ourselves to Know
by John O’Hara
Random House, 1960
408 pages
1960 bestseller # 5
My grade: A-
© 2010 Linda Gorton Aragoni

The Postman Still Delivers

James M. Cain’s slender novel The Postman Always Rings Twice is a sordid story of adultery and murder—and it is superb reading. Seventy years after publication, it is as fresh and contemporary as human nature itself.

Frank Chambers drifts into a California fuel-and-sandwich joint. Owner Nick Papdakis offers Frank a job pumping gas. Work isn’t Frank’s line, but he takes the job after getting an eyeful of Nick’s sulky, raven-haired wife, Cora.

Before 24 hours pass, Frank has Cora in bed. Cora wants “to work and be something,” but she says she can’t do that without love. If Frank will love her, she’ll be a hellcat, just once.

Nick’s days are numbered.

Frank and Cora bump off the Greek on their second attempt, but their cover-up goes awry. Their lawyer gets them off, but also sets them up for blackmail. The more they struggle to get free, the more they are entangled. Eventually, fate steps with a last ironic twist to the plot.

Read The Postman Always Rings Twice instead of watching it on late night TV.

You’ll be glad you did. None of the four film versions is nearly as good as the book.

The Postman Always Rings Twice
By James M. Cain
Grosset & Dunlap, 1934
188 pages
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

All This, and Heaven Too: 1847 Scandal Makes Sensational Novel

As a child, Rachel Field was curious about her great aunt, Henriette Desportes, whose tombstone told the date of her death but nothing of her life. In All This, and Heaven Too, Field fleshes out the facts she later learned with details she imagined.

After eight years in England, Henriette returns to her native Paris as governess to the children of the Duc and Duchesse de Praslin. The Duc is a handsome, unhappily married man. The Duchesse is a nut case.

When gossip links her name with the Duc’s, Henriette is sacked without a reference. Later the Duchesse is found brutally murdered, the Duc is accused of the murder. He commits suicide. Henriette stands trial. Defending herself, she wins acquittal.

Afterward, Henriette meets and marries a American minister, Henry Field, through whom she comes in contact with the most important figures of Civil War era America.

Field makes Henriette come alive in her warts-and-all imagining of the story. The tale loses steam after trial, so the latter chapters are less exciting than the early section.

By the time readers get to the end of the book, they may have forgotten the lesson of Henriette’s life: pride in one’s virtue can be deadly.

All This, and Heaven Too
By Rachel Field
Macmillan, 1938
594 pages
# 6 on the 1938 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Anatomy of a Murder Is a Keeper

Robert Traver’s Anatomy of a Murder is courtroom drama at its best.

Lieutenant Frederic Manion shot Barney Quill to death in front of a room full of witnesses in Quill’s hotel bar before turning himself in. Manion says Quill had raped his wife.

Paul “Polly” Biegler dislikes Manion on sight, but since he lost his bid for re-election as county prosecutor, he needs income, and Manion needs a lawyer. Polly gets his secretary and an aging, alcoholic lawyer to help him defend Manion.

The only legal defense open to Manion is insanity.

At the trial, the novice prosecuting attorney is “assisted” by a savvy lawyer from the Attorney General’s office. It’s a fight to the finish—with the real excitement coming after the verdict.

Polly is an unlikely hero. Gentle, middle-aged, and funny, he pursues wily trout instead of luscious babes and remembers (sometimes) to water his mother’s plants while she’s away.

Anatomy of a Murder has mystery, courtroom drama, humor, a sprinkle of romance, and a generous helping of memorable personalities. Despite the passage of a half century, the story still rings true except for one thing: it’s impossible to imagine a murder case going to trial today in less than three months.

Anatomy of a Murder
by Robert Traver
St. Martin’s 1958
437 pages
Bestseller #2 for 1958
My grade: B+
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

We Are Not Alone Quirky Novella with Cinematic Appeal

James Hilton’s We Are Not Alone is so British and so visual that reading it is like watching Masterpiece Theatre in your mind.

The story revolves around a harmless eccentric, David Newcome, “the little doctor” of Calderbury. Newcome is a brilliant surgeon with a childlike humility, honesty (he actually admits to now knowing everything!), and genuine concern for people. Newcome and his wife, Jessica, have little in common, except their son, Gerald, a timid boy who, depending on your point of view, has a vivid imagination or is an inveterate liar.

The doctor is called to treat a young German dancer who attempts suicide after a broken wrist prevents her from making her living. Newcome discovers Leni likes children and suggests his wife hire her to look after Gerald.

Jessica learns Leni had attempted suicide and starts wondering what else her husband hasn’t mentioned. She fires Leni just as war breaks out between England and Germany. Germans are no longer welcome in England. Newcome tries to get Leni back to Germany, but while they are on the way to the coast, Jessica is found poisoned.

Newcome and Leni die for the murder, but did they do it?

We Are Not Alone is quirky and intriguing. Its novella-length makes it a comfortable evening’s entertainment.

We Are Not Alone
By James Hilton
Little, Brown, 1937
231 pages
# 10 on 1937 bestseller list
grade B
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Of Mice and Men: Mouse-size novel probes man-size theme

Of Mice and Men is a perennial on high school reading lists; it is short, easy reading, well-plotted, and gruesome. It’s theme, however, is anything but adolescent.

George Milton and Lennie Small are itinerant farm laborers. George does the thinking for both of them. Unaware of his own strength, big, dumb Lennie has to be be watched constantly or his fondness for soft, silky things gets him and George into trouble.

The pair arrives at a remote ranch for harvest. The boss’s son has recently married a good-looking slut with a wandering eye. Her presence has everyone in the bunkhouse wishing for something to call his own. They see that George cares for Lennie as if he were family. Before long the other hands are asking George if they can’t join him and Lennie on the place they plan to buy where they can “live on the fatta the lan’ and have rabbits.”

The story’s climax is both shocking and inevitable.

John Steinbeck’s characterization rings true as well. The bunkhouse crew are losers. As individuals, they are totally forgettable.

When you close the covers of the novel, all you’re left with is the knowledge that sometimes love carries an awful responsibility.

Of Mice and Men
By John Steinbeck
#8 on the 1937 bestseller list
© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni

Compulsion is can’t-put-down reading

Compulsion covers much of the same ground as Crime and Punishment, but with a far more American tone and faster pace.

Novelist Meyer Levin was a young reporter in Chicago in the 1920s when two brilliant college students from wealthy homes kidnapped and killed a younger boy. Thirty years later, Levin set out to explore through fiction the question that was never answered at the time of the murder and the subsequent trial: why did they do it?

Why indeed?

Was it a genetic flaw? Or did their environments make them murderers?

Maybe Judd really believe he was a superman, above the law, as he sometimes said.

Or maybe Artie was demon-possessed.

Perhaps the sexual abuse inflicted by his nursemaid unhinged Judd.

Or perhaps, as the reporters said, they were just perverts.

Levin writes with the precision of an accomplished journalist. He puts nothing unnecessary down, omits no needed detail. Even the discussions of philosophy are so deft that Nietzsche becomes a plausible influence on the murderers. And, despite the horrific subject matter, Levin never stoops to any language unsuitable for a family newspaper.

Compulsion grabbed me with its first page and didn’t let go.

See if it won’t do the same for you.

By Meyer Levin
Simon & Schuster, 1956
495 pages
# 3 on the ’57 bestseller list
My grade: A

© 2007 Linda Gorton Aragoni