KATHARINE HILL – Case for Equity. E. P. Dutton; hardcover; 1945. Digest paperback reprint: Mystery Novel Classic #74, as The Case of the Absent Corpse, 1946.

   This is the second half of a two-part series on Katharine Hill’s complete works of mystery fiction. Dear Dead Mother-in-Law (Dutton, 1944), Lorna Donahue’s first foray into fighting crime, was reported on here on this blog not too long along, and this is her second. As of yet, no additional information has been discovered about the author, but not all of the available resources have been exhausted, so there is still hope.

   The two books take place in consecutive summers, but if Katharine Hill had another summer (and another mystery to be solved) in mind, it (or they) unfortunately never materialized. Once again the red-headed suburban Connecticut widow, married four times, gets on the wrong side of the local law, in the guise of Chief of Police Starkey, first by parking in an illegal spot in front of the post office, then by calling him out to a isolated home in the country where she’s found a body – but when he gets there, there is no body to be found.

   The owner of the house is an actor, one with a role in a local play, and when he doesn’t show up later for work, it is, of course, a “Case for Equity.” But is the dead body, the one that disappeared, his? Lorna does not know, and so she goes to work, determined to show Sharkey what’s what.

   From page 20, as she finds the house empty the next day:

   And what a glorious opportunity for an amateur detective – to have the scene of the crime all to herself without any interfering officers of the law shouldering about, collecting and removing clues to be numbered exhibits later; obliterating all the subtle indications that might tell much to a perceptive woman, in their eagerness not to overlook the smallest material evidence – the dropped button, the cigar or cigarette ash, the bullet embedded in the woodwork!

   Later on, from page 33:

   Surely no professional detective had ever had such a difficult task as this self-assumed one of hers. With the corpse just briefly glimpsed once, and not available for examination, without knowledge of the nature of the wound or the weapon used – her horrified mind had merely registered that there was a lot of blood about – with no fingerprints or other regulation aids, this mystery must be solved, if at all, by psychological methods, by intuition rather than by deduction – perhaps by nothing more scientific than that leap across probabilities to the truth which is known as a hunch.

   As even the most seasoned mystery reader knows, without my reminding him or her, it is also awfully difficult to solve a murder when one does not even know who the dead man is. And to Lorna’s credit, her efforts are … not awful. There are pieces of manuscript salvaged from a fire, and a letter from the missing man (who may be the dead man) which may or may not be forgery. There are also intricate time-tables describing the whereabouts of all of the interested parties, a poker chip left fortuitously under an table, and more.

   In similar fashion to her previous mystery, Mrs. Donahue takes the missing man’s widow (?) under her wing, and simply moves in with her to facilitate her investigation. There is much of interest to the inveterate mystery buff here, and a very clever plot to be uncovered, so why it just doesn’t work is also a mystery. Part of the reason, though, may be because of the extremely narrow group of people who take an active role this time around.

   Even the old-fashioned kind of mysteries that invariably take place in isolated English country house mansions have more active suspects and/or active players than Case for Equity does. It’s a closed set, and after a while, even in the wide-open Connecticut countryside, the reading starts to feel cramped. (In Dear Dead Mother-in-Law the town of Ridgemont seemed filled with people. Not so now. It could almost be a ghost town.)

   While this book has all of the right elements, in other words, they’re not spread around thickly enough and/or they’re simply not laid out properly, without the tight Christie-like control over events. It’s another case of almost, but not quite, and with no intention of being unkind at all, that could also be easily said of Katharine Hill’s writing career. Other the other hand, you should not get me wrong. Read her if you get the chance. Neither of her works of detective fiction deserves obscurity either.

— April 2005