Friday, March 25, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Episode of the Wandering Knife (1943) by Mary Roberts Rinehart

This is my entry in the Friday's Forgotten Mysteries meme usually hosted by Patti Abbott at her blog, PATTINASE. Doing the hosting duties this week is Todd Mason at his blog, SWEET FREEDOM while Patti takes a well-deserved break. She'll be back at her post next week.

EPISODE OF THE WANDERING KNIFE is a relatively short novel - just 128 pages in my current library edition. I zipped right through it, couldn't turn the pages fast enough. I've read several Rinehart books lately (I'm sort of on a reading binge with her) and this, surprisingly, has turned out to be one of her best. I'd never heard of it before so I came to it with a blank slate. Except that I knew I was going to get a 'murder with manners' tale probably taking place among the well to do. And sure enough I did. But what a tale!

EPISODE OF THE WANDERING KNIFE is full of suspense and a terrific 'what happens next' rhythm which I loved. Rinehart is so good at this kind of pacing. I wish more mystery writers today had this knack, by the way.

Since we only have 128 pages, things have to happen at a relatively fast clip and they do. First we have a big party (the mayor in attendance) thrown at the mansion of Mrs. Shephard, a society type with high society attitude. Within a couple of pages, the party is over and a murder has occurred in the house next door where her son lives. Larry Shephard staggers in with the news that his wife, Isabel (who had not attended the party) has been stabbed to death.

Mrs. Shephard runs right over to see what's what and the cops are called. The cops arrive quickly enough but the murder weapon, the knife in the title, has disappeared. The heroine of the piece, Judy Shephard is also in attendance, keeping an eye on her mom who is prone to volatile behavior. We're also introduced to Anthony King who first appears to be a member of the police but then evolves into some sort of mysterious agent eager to find the murderer while driving Judy nuts with his exasperating behavior. We know, right off the bat, that despite his odd behavior (and possibly because), Tony King is the romantic lead. Rinehart usually has one up her sleeve.

To protect her son Larry (the obvious suspect) from being arrested for the murder of his wife, Mrs. Shephard has spirited the knife from the crime scene under the noses of the cops. She goes next door and hides the knife in her toilet tank. As good a place as any I suppose. Then she collapses, prostrated on her bed - though she is not the collapsing type - assuming the cops won't cross her bedroom's threshold if she is lying in bed in shock. Ah, mother love.

There aren't many servants left in the house since the story takes place during WWII, when most able-bodied men and women were needed for fighting or war work of some sort. But Mrs. Shephard does have a couple of servants in residence as well as a secretary, the hard working Alma, driven to distraction by the comings and goings between the two houses, the intrusion of the police and the increasing hysteria of her employer. Judy Shephard herself has caught the hysteria bug once she learns that her mother has absconded with vital evidence from the crime scene. But when the knife first disappears then keeps reappearing, no one can blame her if she acts a bit on edge. Especially when Don Sutton, a man Judy has had a crush on for years begins acting suspiciously. What a mess.

Long story short: Within the next day or so, a cop who was on duty the night of the party and the murder, is found dead. Then a woman who'd shown up at the mansion wanting to speak to the Shephards is killed. Meanwhile, the knife keeps showing up, kind of like a corpse that won't go away. Three people are dead and nobody but the killer knows why. Then the story of a baby born inconveniently years ago is revealed.

This is one fine Rinehart novel. A terrific way to spend a few hours when you're in the mood for a murderous tale which will keep you guessing until the very end. It's interesting that in such a short period of time, Rinehart still manages to make the characters and scene so vivid and suspenseful. What happens next has rarely been more fun.


  1. Thanks for this. Rinehart is sadly overlooked today. Her contributions to popular literature and to publishing itself should not be forgotten.

  2. I've never read Rinehart, but of course I will have to now. That's some tight plotting, squeezing all that activity into 128 pages!

  3. Jerry House: I've liked her for ages, Jerry. Lately I've discovered that she was an even better writer than I ever gave her credit for. Thanks for dropping by and posting.

  4. Carol: Oh yes, tight as a drum. She is amazing in that respect and in a few others as well. I really enjoyed this book! If you're going to read her for the first time try THE BAT or THE YELLOW ROOM or this one.

  5. Great pulpy cover. If only they still made 'em like that.

  6. Evan: I love these old vintage covers. I try to use them in my posts whenever I can. :)

  7. Thanks for this. I think I'll try this one, as long as there isn't bigotry. A little classicism I can deal with.

    This looks good! A tightly-written, short mystery--what's not to like?

    By the way, for those who haven't read "The Thin Man," by Dashiell Hammett, it's tight as a drum, not long and excellently written. And the Charles--Nora and Nick--are just stunning.

    And this cover! This looks like a collectible item. Is this what's called a bodice ripper?

    Why is there such a hassle with covers these days? Hate to say it, but that didn't seem to be a problem years ago.

  8. Kathy: This is a good one for nice afternoon of mystery reading. It's really more of a novella.
    Although it was published separately as a paperback it looks like. I suppose 182 pages could be stretched out a bit depending on the size of the type.

    Bodice Rippers are covers of romance novels. Usually historical romances. Ha!

    I love THE THIN MAN!

  9. I checked with my library and they don't have any of her books. I'm going to have to check into a different source. If I don't get to read any of her books soon I might scream. I really, really want to get ahold of The Bat now that I know it's a book.

    As far as The Thin Man book goes, it was ok. I'll take the movie(s) over it anyday. I actually watched all of them over this last weekend.

  10. Ryan: How about inter-library borrowing? I'm fortunate that my library has a few of her books. But I'm coming to the end of what they have available. You might find some 'used' titles at Better World Books. They don't charge for shipping.

    I enjoyed both The Thin Man book and the movies.
    I just checked my mailbox and I have Raymond Chandler's LADY IN THE LAKE with Robert Montgomery. A terrific movie!

  11. I've seen Lady in the Lake, but will resee it. Movies I saw years ago don't count! It has to be recent.

    My library has a lot of Rinehart's books, but not this one. Can you recommend any others?

    With chills running down my spine, I saw they have the film of "The Bat Whispers." If it were a mystery, okay, but they list it as horror--not my scaredy-cat thing.

  12. Kathy: I watched LADY IN THE LAKE last night. I had to laugh because the movie obviously only cost 99 cents to make. NO production values whatsoever and yet I still enjoyed it.

  13. I found this very edition at a used book store in New Mexico when I was on vacation last week. I was convinced it was a re-issue of a different title and passed on it. DUMB! It's not. There are two other stories in it according to my Hubin bibliography. Did you read all three novellas?

  14. John: You should have bought it!! (That's happened to me in the past - passed on something and then later - GAK!) The middle story looked like a short story and for whatever reason, I didn't read it. But I did read the last novella: THE SECRET. (It was a Miss Pinkerton story. Good but not great.)


  16. The Bat? Just the title is giving me chills already, and I haven't even read this or seen the movie. No scary stuff for me.

    When I was a young teenager, my cousin had seen "Psycho." She told me about it: I didn't take a shower for a week, and I hadn't even seen the movie!

    No, strictly mysteries for me.

  17. Kathy: No, no, it's not a horror story. It's a good old fashioned mystery. A fabulous one! Don't miss it. :)


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