Saturday, October 20, 2007

Barry's Reviews---"Next Of Kin"

Next of Kin (1982) by Mignon G. Eberhart
reviewed by Barry Ergang
This is the first novel I've ever read by Eberhart. This is the last novel I will ever read by Eberhart.

Requiring the most sustained act of willpower since that exercised when in my senior year of high school I had to plod through Silas Marner, this is the most exasperating excuse for a mystery novel I've ever had the displeasure of experiencing. I bought it from an e-Bay auction because it contains a locked room problem. About eighty pages into it, I seriously considered not bothering with it. The only reason I didn't was to see how the locked room business was solved.

In terms of reading time that could have been satisfactorily spent elsewhere, it was a mistake.

Mady Smith, the viewpoint character – I'm loath to call her the “heroine” because she's neither heroic nor much of a sleuth – is a young woman of wealth and privilege who has never done much. When former senator Stuart Channing is offered a Cabinet appointment, Mady hopes to be able to get some sort of job with him to fill the void in her life. She's quite enamored of Stuart's younger brother Hill Channing, a physics professor, whom everyone calls Chan and whom she's known for years strictly as a “friend.”

On Valentine's Day, to celebrate the ex-senator's future appointment, his wife Lettie, a childhood friend of Mady's whom Mady originally introduced to Stuart, throws a party at their luxurious New York apartment. Mady and Chan arrive late because of inclement weather, by which time the party is over. They discover that Stuart earlier had locked himself in his study to make some important phone calls and had not emerged. Chan's knocks elicit no responses from his brother. Using a key, he unlocks the door and finds Stuart slumped over his desk, dead from a gunshot to the back. The room is stiflingly hot, the thermostat having been set higher than the senator would have set it. The gun on the study floor is his brother's.

The cast of characters consists of Mady, Chan, Lettie, Mady's stepfather Clarence, Stuart's vanished secretary Nadine Hallowell, a lawyer named Larry Todd, and a couple of police detectives. About halfway through the book Lettie's uncle, who's been living in Australia for years, shows up. On page 195 of a 224-page book we're introduced to Lettie's mother and her mysterious, Middle Eastern second husband. The latter's role is crucial to the story's solution. Bringing him in at the last minute violates one of the basic tenets of good mystery writing.

There is virtually no detection to speak of in this story – and “story” is the apt word because like Silas Marner, this is a short story badly padded to novel-length. Unlike John Dickson Carr, for instance, in Patrick Butler for the Defence, Eberhart generates no great sense of urgency or suspense to keep matters interesting. “Action” consists mainly of people running from one home to another or Mady brooding about Chan, worrying that he's not interested in an amorous relationship with her and that his solicitousness towards his bereaved sister-in-law is motivated more by attraction than from a mutual sense of loss. Characters are defined by their physical features and manners of dress; the dialogue doesn't differentiate them because they all sound alike – including the cops. If you're one of those readers who gets annoyed with Carr's habit of breaking off unfinished sentences, you'll be apoplectic with Eberhart's. Carr did it for dramatic effect and to keep the reader plunging ahead. Eberhart uses the device ad nauseum, doing nothing to advance either the story or the characterizations.

The characters rehash the same information over and over again – endlessly, it seemed to me – as though the author were just trying to fill pages rather than advance the plot. If two people discuss something in one chapter, you can be sure that a few chapters later one of them will tell the same thing to another character.

Both in narrative and dialogue, Eberhart's favorite word is “lovely.” The hardcover edition, published in 1982, sold for $10.50. If you had a nickel for every time she used “lovely,” you could pay for the book, sales tax included, and still have several dollars left to pocket.

By the time I reached the last page, I didn't care who did it – I just wanted it to be over so I could find something good to read. The final revelations aren't as surprising as they're meant to be, and my irritation was intensified by Chan's mention of clues he spotted that told him the murderer's identity in the early chapters. It only reinforced my notion that this story could have been told effectively in a much shorter form.

Oh – that locked room “puzzle”? It's barely touched on or pondered by anyone, police included, and its simple solution is glossed over in Chan's explanation.

Why Eberhart received the Mystery Writers of America's Grand Master Award is the biggest mystery of all.

For more on this review as well as the Golden Age be sure to check out the Golden Age Wiki at

Barry Ergang © 2003, 2007

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