WHO WAS THIS “FIRST LADY OF MYSTERY?”
by Z.J. Czupor
This prolific award-winning mystery author has an impressive resume and a name you may not know. Her novels have been translated into more than twenty languages and during the 1930s eight of her novels were adapted into films. Her books continue to be published worldwide. Gertrude Stein (1874-1946) described her as one of the “best mystifiers in America.”
In her 60-year writing career, she was the most highly paid author after Agatha Christie (1890-1976). In fact, she was one of two writers dubbed “America’s Agatha Christie,” a title she didn’t like. It was a Miami News book reviewer who crowned her, and her paperback publisher took advantage quoting the Miami News on subsequent covers. Instead, she preferred to be called, “First Lady of Mystery.”
Who is this author with the impressive resume?
Mignon G. Eberhart (1899-1996) wrote fifty-nine books and several collections of stories in which the New York Times Book Review (1982) said, “She successfully conjured up through the years—rich families, nice people, romance, something of a looked-room mystery, lots of suspects.”
In Eberhart’s first novel, The Patient in Room 18 (Grosset & Dunlap, 1929) she introduced her amateur sleuth nurse Sarah Keate who solves mysteries with her detective boyfriend Lance O’Leary. Sarah is red-headed, self-assured, likes a good joke, has a feel for the ludicrous and often finds comedy in tragedy. The novel begins with Nurse Sarah off duty at an unpleasant dinner party where radium is mixed with murder. With Sarah’s help, O’Leary solves the crime and reveals the murderer.
Nurse Sarah appears in seven Eberhart novels with one collection of stories. In the series, Sarah accidentally turns her patient cases into murder mysteries. The narration is first person and in a role reversal, ahead of its time, Eberhart places Sarah in the position to care for helpless young male patients.
The first five Nurse Sarah mysteries were made into movies. But it was Eberhart’s second novel, While the Patient Slept (Aline MacMahon & Guy Kibbee, 1930), that earned her the $5,000 Scotland Yard Prize (worth about $87,000 in today’s dollars).
In 1929, when Eberhart wrote her first novel, it was rare to have a female lead in a novel-length detective story. It wasn’t until the following year that Christie wrote her first novel featuring female detective Jane Marple (The Murder at the Vicarage 1930). Previously, Marple appeared only in short stories.
In addition to her female nurse protagonist, Eberhart also created two other amateur detectives who starred in stand-alone novels. They were Susan Dare, a mystery writer, and James Wickwire, a banker. Again, she broke new ground by writing mostly stand-alone mysteries which is considered unusual considering her large output of work.
Mignonette Good was born in Lincoln, Neb., on July 6, 1899. She studied for three years at Nebraska Wesleyan University but didn’t complete her degree. In 1923, at the age of 24, she married Alanson Eberhart, a civil engineer. She began writing to combat boredom of traveling with him while he pursed his career. However, her world travels played prominently as exotic locales for her mysteries.
She was a genteel woman with a sharp wit, sparkling blue eyes with light auburn hair. She preferred bourbon but accepted most libations. She was fascinated by science and technology. She loved dogs and had a procession of French poodles all named Beau (Beau Geste, Beau Brummel, Bea Regard, etc.).
In addition to her proclivities for mysteries, she was a Civil War “buff” due to the influence of her mother, an engaging storyteller, whose family came from Virginia and West Virginia. Two of Eberhart’s stand-alone novels The Cup, the Blade or the Gun (1961) and Family Fortune, (1976) are set during the Civil War, while another novel, Enemy in the House (1962), takes place during the American Revolution.
By the end of the 1930s with six novels published, she became one of the most popular female mystery writers in America and was either the second or the third highest paid author after Christie and Mary Roberts Rinehart (1876-1958), who, incidentally, was also called “America’s Agatha Christie.”
Eberhart was a disciple of Rinehart, but eventually became known as a writer of romance mysteries with a touch of the gothic. In this arena she influenced writers like Mary Higgins Clark (1927-2020) who called Eberhart, “one of America’s favorite writers.”
When Eberhart was asked to name her favorite writers, she said she never missed a book by Christie or New Zealand crime writer Ngaio Marsh (1895-1982). ”They are old friends,” she said, “… But my real love is for the brotherhood and sisterhood of the genre. I love mystery writers as a breed and am so glad to belong.”
After she published her novel Fair Warning in 1936, she collaborated with playwright Robert Wallsten (1912-2005) to adapt the novel into a play renamed ”Eight O’clock Tuesday.” The play ran on Broadway in 1941, starring Academy Award winning actress Celeste Holm (1917-2012).
The plot of Fair Warning concerns a young wife trapped in an evil man’s house where she searches for an escape. The New York Times said, “Mrs. Eberhart has written many excellent mystery stories, but in none of them has she presented a more baffling problem than in this one.”
Eberhart’s novels featured mostly female protagonists with very little detection happening. Most of the crime solving plays out off stage by the police. She wrote sparsely but with three-dimensional characters using psychology, or aberrant psychology and believable motives. Her plots were filled with suspense and romance.
Consider the sparse writing in the opening lines of her fifty-ninth and final mystery Three Days for Emeralds (Thorndike Press, 1988) when Eberhart was short of her 89th birthday:
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.
Michael E. Grost writing on his website, A Guide to Classic Mystery and Detection, said, “Suspense passages in Eberhart often show the heroine with a heightened sensory awareness of her surroundings and are almost hallucinatory in their intensity.”
Eberhart had no children. In 1946, she divorced her husband of twenty-plus years to marry John Hazen Perry who she divorced two years later claiming physical and emotional abuse. She then remarried Alanson Eberhart. They remained married until his death in 1974. It was after she remarried that critics said Eberhart did her best writing.
Chicago Tribune journalist and good friend to Eberhart, Norma Browning (1915-2001), wrote in her syndicated column after Eberhart remarried, “She now lives with her family—the bridge building husband, two dogs, a Siamese cat, and a duck named Robespierre—on an 18-acre estate in New Jersey…Her study is separate from her house. It has no hidden closets, no balconies, no sinister patios or verandas. It’s just a plain converted milk house and she’s always out of it long before dark. Her longest writing time on a book was five months, her shortest, twenty-one days.”
A website owned by Eberhart’s literary estate, quotes her: “In my early teens I gathered up courage and postage stamps and sent a book-length typescript to an editor. It was accepted. The story was a murder mystery and thus started me on a hard but rewarding writing path. The writer hopes that a mystery novel is entertaining to read but it is not easy to write.”
In 1971, Eberhart received the Grand Master Award from Mystery Writers of America (the second woman to receive such an honor after Agatha Christie in 1954) and she served as its president in 1977. In 1994, she received the Agatha Award and the Malice Domestic Award for Lifetime Achievement.
In a 1984 newsletter published by MWA Eberhart said, “I drank dark liquids with Ogden Nash in speak-easies and had shots of whiskey with Hemingway in Cuba.”
One of her favorite sayings, which found its way into several of her novels was, “If you can’t keep your spirits up, put some down.”
Mignon G. Eberhart, the “First Lady of Mystery,” died in a nursing home in Connecticut in 1996. She was 97.