Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Crooked Lane by Frances Noyes Hart

Frances Newbold Noyes Hart (1890-1943) mostly wrote short stories for Scribner’s magazine, the Saturday Evening Post, and the Ladies’ Home Journal, although sometimes she branched out into longer fiction. The Bellamy Trial (1927) was so popular that Howard Haycraft selected it as part of his original definitive list of mystery fiction, later expanded by Ellery Queen. http://www.classiccrimefiction.com/haycraftqueen.htm

The plot of her last crime fiction novel The Crooked Lane (Doubleday, 1934) is straightforward enough on the surface: Karl Sheridan, trained by the Viennese police in the latest forensic techniques, returns to Washington, DC, to join what sounds like the Federal Bureau of Investigation. His family’s history with the diplomatic community ensures his immediate entrée into the choicest of social circles. He meets Tess Stuart in the opening pages of the book and his attraction to her obscures his objectivity when she pulls him in to investigate the apparent suicide of her sister.

His investigation largely takes place at one party after another, in which the various suspects reveal more than they intend to in a series of witty exchanges. The New York Times review of this book (August 19, 1934) says the conversation is too sparkling for anything but a novel. I found it makes amusing reading. Away from the parties, Sheridan employs the latest forensic techniques from Vienna, Austria, to examine clues but he is befuddled by his interest in Tess and fails to inform the local police as much as would be expected of a career law enforcement agent.

Kirkus Reviews (June 15, 1934) says this is a good story, not considering the mystery, and I agree. I actually found the mystery to be unsatisfying, as the identification of the culprit created a second question Hart left unanswered. On the other hand, the description of the Washington social whirl was fascinating, as well as the personalities and their interactions as well as Sheridan’s reactions.

What was especially intriguing is the way this story is written. Hart’s style is ornate and melodramatic, perhaps because of her experience writing for women’s magazines. The paragraphs drip with baroque imagery. Tess’s eyes are described thus: “a pair of immense eyes of the purest, the clearest silver gray—still and shining as the sky just before dawn, as young rain falling through a spring twilight, as moonlight on quiet waters.” The fountain in front of the White House: “the fountain, performing its exquisite and eternal pantomime of tossing showers of diamonds against a background of emeralds”. Coming home, Tess tosses her wrap on the sofa: “dropping the silver cloak over the end of the green-glazed sofa, so that it flowed down like a little river hurrying to the green sea of the carpet”. And Hart did not believe in standard sentence structure. Long strings of undiagrammable text are punctuated with a comma here and a dash there and wrap up with a period after six lines or so. The book is full of it. Even a mediocre editor could have reduced its length by 50 pages.

After a few chapters I found that I focused more on the writing than the story or the mystery. It is very different from the crisp, compact style of contemporary mysteries and thrillers. That doesn’t mean I wasn’t following the story line. The ending came as something of a shock, and I found myself wishing for a sequel just to find out what came next.

2 thoughts on “Friday’s Forgotten Book: The Crooked Lane by Frances Noyes Hart

  1. I have only read The Bellamy Trial and I found it over-long and a bit on the dull side. But it is interesting to read about her other books in the genre. I wonder if Karl is meant to be a bit like Philip Trent in Trent’s Last Case?

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  2. That’s an interesting thought. I didn’t make the connection between the two. I will have to think about that. Definitely this book is far too long. Another mystery reading friend said when I told her about the book that Hart was probably used to getting paid by the word.

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