MIGNON G. EBERHART – Woman on the Roof.

Paperback reprint: Popular Library; several printings, including 1968, 1973. Hardcover editions: Random House, US, 1967; Collins Crime Club, UK, 1968. Hardcover reprint: Detective Book Club, 3-in-1 edition, January 1968.


   Mignon Eberhart’s started out by writing detective stories, more or less. Her first five books, starting with The Patient in Room 18 in 1929, featured the mystery-solving duo of nurse Sarah Keate and private eye Lance O’Leary, and they were highly regarded enough that all five were made into movies.

   Allow me to digress, if you will. I did some investigation, and here’s a complete list of all the films that have been based on Eberhart novels. I’ve underlined the ones mentioned above as being the first five Keate and O’Leary books.

    ● While the Patient Slept, 1935; Aline MacMahon & Guy Kibbee (Keate & O’Leary).

    ● The White Cockatoo, 1935; Jean Muir & Ricardo Cortez (no series characters).

    ● Murder by an Aristocrat, 1936; Marguerite Churchill & Lyle Talbot (the former as Sally Keating, but no Lance O’Leary).

    ● The Murder of Dr. Harrigan, 1936; Kay Linaker & Ricardo Cortez (the former as Sally Keating, but no Lance O’Leary; based on From This Dark Stairway).

    ● The Great Hospital Mystery, 1937; Sally Blane, Thomas Beck, Jane Darwell (the latter as Miss Keats, with no Lance O’Leary; based on an unidentified story).

    ● The Dark Stairway, 1938. (British movie also based on From This Dark Stairway, but with neither Sarah Keate or Lance O’Leary).

    ● Mystery House, 1938; Ann Sheridan & Dick Purcell (Keate & O’Leary; based on The Mystery of Hunting’s End).

    ● The Patient in Room 18, 1938; Ann Sheridan & Patric Knowles (Keate & O’Leary).

    ● Three’s a Crowd, 1945; Pamela Blake & Charles Gordon (no series characters; based on Hasty Wedding).


   There was one book in which only Sarah Keate appeared and which did not become a movie, and that was Wolf in Man’s Clothing, which was published in 1942.

   Over the years I may have seen one or two others in this list, but the only one I remember watching is The Patient in Room 18. And you can, in fact, read my review of this it here, posted earlier on this blog. I enjoyed it, but it was in spite of all of the movie’s flaws, including being played primarily for laughs.

   Eberhart’s final mystery was Three Days for Emeralds, which came out in 1988, when the author was in her late 80’s. She died in 1996, with well over 50 novels to her credit.

   From the book at hand, however, try the following first line on for size: “There were times when the shadow on the terrace seemed to take on the shape of a woman’s body flung down, left in its blood and beauty.”

   It’s a pretty good indication, I think, of the kind of book you’re going to get when you read it. As it happens, the first wife of Susan Desart’s new husband had been murdered on that very same penthouse terrace five winters and four summers earlier. Ssusan had married Marcus when the Jim, the man she really loved — and still mourns for — died in Viet Nam.

   And other than that one single reference, this is a book that could have just as easily have been written in the 1940s. It’s an old-fashioned mystery story in which the staging creaks once in a while, but when Jim turns up not dead after all, and Marcus refuses any discussion of a divorce, revealing his true nature in surprisingly violent fashion, old-fashioned chills started to creep up and down this still rather modern spine of mine.


   In her later years Eberhart wrote what’s probably best described as romantic suspense, perhaps, but this is no cozy. There’s some real emotion involved in this book. I’d cast Edward G. Robinson and Barbara Stanwyck in two of the parts, and maybe John Payne as the other.

   But why it was never made into a movie, nor any other of Mignon Eberhart’s books after 1945, I can’t tell you. Woman on the Roof came along too late, but if her 1940s and 50s books are as good as this one is — and I think they are — then I’d have thought that they’d have fit right in with the Film Noir era.

   At the least, based on what Hollywood did to The Patient in Room 18, they would turned out better than the movies based on her early detective fiction. If ever an opportunity was missed, this was it.

— April 2003