KATHARINE HILL – Dear Dead Mother-in-Law. E. P. Dutton; hardcover; 1944. Books, Inc., hardcover reprint, 1944?

   This is the first half of a two-part series on Katharine Hill’s complete works of mystery fiction. Part two, covering her second novel, Case for Equity, also involving her series character detective, Lorna Donahue, will be reported on shortly.

   In Crime Fiction IV, Al Hubin provides us with no information on Katharine Hill, neither birth nor death date. She seems to have written the two books and vanished. But not quite, or at least not completely. The copyrights on both books were renewed in the early 1970s, so she was still alive then. I also have tracked down the name of a sister, and the sister’s daughter, but – all three have very common names, and the hunt has bogged down. [Bogged down totally, as a matter of fact. I have learned nothing since I first wrote this review, nor does Al Hubin shed any further light.]

   Lorna Donahue is a widow who lives in Connecticut, the town of Ridgemont, to be precise. Even though fictitious as far as Connecticut is concerned, it’s obviously a wealthy sort of town in the semi-rural Wilton-Weston-Ridgefield suburban part of the state. Or at least in 1943 or so, it would have been quite rural, and with a gasoline shortage a large problem of the day, walking was a common alternative to driving.

   Only gradually do we learn about Lorna’s prior life: several husbands, on the stage, the newspaper game and now the real estate business, for which she has a partner, thankfully, for it allows her both (a) to be snooping into homes while people are gone and (b) to have someone to run the business while she is busily doing the aforementioned snooping.

   These last two observations are my own. Found dead at a bridge party is a recent bride’s outspoken mother, emphasis on outspoken, and it is her husband (of the recent bride) who is accused of killing his mother-in-law. And clapped immediately into jail, with no provision for bail, and so he sits, as the daughter (and his wife) moves in with Lorna.

   Who of course does not believe for a moment that he did it. A much more likely is the snooty woman (my observation) whom the dead woman, not long before she died, accused of cheating at cards on the continent, in partnership with a younger man everyone assumes she was cheating on her husband with (now deceased). Or it could have a tramp. Britain never had a monopoly of tramps to be murder suspects.

   Without my being able to come up with a better word, the sleuthing that is done is charming, as long as you can ignore the fact that the police department on the job is not on the job, because if they were, Lorna would have hardly a role to play. The small town atmosphere is evoked through many small details, describable only by someone who lived through that small era in time, unreproducible by someone would attempt to write a story taking place in such a setting today.

   The humor is sneaky but not all subtle. From a brief passage, as Lorna takes in her new guest (Pamela, the daughter), page 39:

    Mrs. Donahue fitted out her pathetic house guest with a pair of her own pyjamas, flowered in green on purple and they were her quietest pair, which would contained three Pamelas, and a toothbrush in cellophane which she had on hand for emergencies.

   Later on, Lorna is trying to envision what kind of defense that Walter (the son-in-law) might be able to raise. From page 166:

   The inference was therefore inescapable that the person who killed Ada Mullins by swinging a bottle over her head had left the scene, carrying the bottle with him. The disappearance of the bottle proved, ipso facto, the disappearance of the killer – and that the man who had not disappeared, who had remained innocently and jovially preparing doubtless mild cocktails for the most prominent and respected of Ridgemont’s ladies, was not the murderer, in spite of the circumstances deemed so damning by the prosecution, that he was a married man whose mother-in-law was not a pauper, and that he had not been on th best of terms with her every moment of his married life. Could every member of the jury assent that there had never been a breeze at breakfast – a time when few of us are at our best – between him and his mother-in-law?

   You have probably decided long before now whether or not this is book you feel urged to seek out and purchase on the Internet, and I don’t blame you at all. The detective work is successful, however, no matter how improbable (and perhaps even naive) its basis in reality may be. Gritty hard-boiled fiction it’s not, but please don’t get me wrong. Following the clues and solving the mystery – that’s the edge that makes this old-fashioned suburban cozy work for me.

— April 2005.