New Mystery: Remembering Nebraska’s forgotten “whodunit queen”
By Carson Vaughan, Flatwater Free Press
March 24, 2023, 7 a.m. ·
When reporter Eva Mahoney arrived in Valentine in 1930 to profile America’s next great mystery novelist, she found Mignon Good Eberhart in a “pleasant little home,” struggling to visualize her next murder.
Bewitched by her new surroundings, the big skies and grassy dunes, the author had contrived a remote hunting lodge in the Nebraska Sandhills as the site for her fictional crime. It had log doors, “a great, deep fireplace made of native, unfinished rock,” Eberhart wrote, and a hodgepodge of antique pewter lamps, a quirk of the cabin’s late owner, a prominent trustee from the fictional city of Barrington.
“Naturally they don’t give much light, so I can employ darkened corners and shadows to heighten the horror,” she told Mahoney.
None less than Gertrude Stein would later crown her “one of the best mystifiers in America.”
Eberhart would publish a mind-boggling 59 novels, nine which would become movies. She would win the highest awards of the mystery genre and earn monikers like “America’s Agatha Christie” and “America’s Whodunit Queen.”
But in 1930, half-finished with her third mystery novel and under contract with a major New York City publisher, the floor plan didn’t work – not quite.
“I don’t know how I’m going to have it architecturally correct and still be able to obstruct the view from that balcony,” she told Mahoney. “My husband has promised to come to my aid with a set of blueprints.”
He did. Months later, she finished the book, her first and only set in the Sandhills, “the most extraordinarily desolate place I had ever seen in all my life,” her narrator begins.
Now, 93 years after its publication, the Nebraska Center for the Book has chosen “The Mystery of Hunting’s End” – blueprints and all – for its 2023 One Book One Nebraska program, which encourages Nebraskans to read a single book connected to the state.
Less studied than Mari Sandoz; less sentimental than Bess Streeter Aldrich; more playful than Willa Cather; Eberhart landed somewhere beyond, or perhaps behind, Nebraska’s literary giants.
But if ever there was an Eberhart revival, this is it. The University of Nebraska Press has reissued “The Mystery of Hunting’s End” for the first time in over a decade.
“A complete and wonderful surprise,” said Clark Whitehorn, editor of Bison Books, the University of Nebraska Press’ trade imprint. “Unlike Willa Cather or Mari Sandoz, Eberhart has been overlooked by most readers today, so we’re delighted.”
Eberhart’s childhood home still stands on North 48th Street in Lincoln, newly inhabited by a young couple with four kids. The family didn’t know that within its walls, one of the world’s top-grossing mystery writers learned to read and write and transpose her fertile imagination to the page.
Born July 6, 1899, Eberhart grew up in University Place, then a Lincoln suburb named for Nebraska Wesleyan. She read Louisa May Alcott, Charles Dickens and Cather. And with her older sister, she played with paper dolls. For Lou, the game was finished when she’d cut out and dressed her own, writes Rick Cypert in his 2005 biography. But young Mignonette was just getting started. She wrote her dolls’ backstories and futures in the pages of her father’s old ledger books.
In 1915, she enrolled at Nebraska Wesleyan. She caught typhoid fever and spent part of her sophomore year at St. Elizabeth Hospital – an environment, Cypert says, that would figure prominently in several of her novels.
She never graduated. She took a job at Lincoln City Libraries. There, she caught the eye of a “handsome blonde giant” named Alanson Eberhart, an University of Nebraska engineering student. He showed up at the library again the next evening. And the evening after that. By the time he graduated, she said: “He had a degree and me.” Shortly after their 1923 wedding, they moved to Chicago, where Alanson took a job with U.S. Steel. Before the decade’s end, they’d move two dozen times.
“Let no woman whose heartstrings are inextricably entangled around a hearthstone marry an engineer,” she once wrote, “unless, indeed, it be a portable hearthstone.”
By 1925, they were back in Nebraska, chasing Alanson’s work through the Sandhills.
She started her first novel while Alanson built a bridge in Niobrara; fleshed it out while he built another in Newport; and polished the final draft in Valentine. Doubleday quickly accepted “The Patient in Room 18.” By 1929, Eberhart was a best-selling crime novelist, her portrait splashed across newspapers nationwide. Her follow-up, “While the Patient Slept” won the $5,000 Scotland Yard Prize for “best detective story of the year.”
When Mahoney, a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, visited, Eberhart was despairing over her third, “The Mystery of Hunting’s End.” Triggered by what genre enthusiasts call a “locked-room murder,” the novel stars Nurse Sarah Keate, Detective Lance O’Leary and a cast of cagey socialites snowbound in a remote hunting lodge. Poison. Pistols. A plaintive collie and a missing toupee.
“I’m scared to death about the success of my next book,” she said.
Mahoney, a reporter for the Omaha World-Herald, had come to Valentine for a hint of the macabre, to catch a twisted mind in the act. Instead she encountered a nervous 31-year-old with a “blond-gold” bob and a plaintive collie at her feet. She was “slender” and “starry-eyed” and repulsed by the hallmarks of her chosen genre.
“Mrs. Eberhart declares frankly that she would jump out of her skin if someone suddenly exploded a paper sack beside her; would promptly swoon at the sight of blood and scream lustily if confronted with one of her fictional situations.”
Mahoney found an artist in the clutches of imposter syndrome; a novelist still uncertain of her craft despite a one-two blockbuster debut. Eberhart seemed uncomfortable with the writer she’d become.
“Please remember that I am a beginner in the writing field,” she begged Mahoney. “Right now I feel very humble when I think of the work of such writers as Willa Cather.”
But the longer the two of them spent there in Valentine, the more Eberhart shed her homegrown humility. She diagnosed her genre’s growing popularity as a “reaction against the stern realism of war and the morbid, introspective post-war fiction.” She praised the mystery story as “just what it claims to be.”
“It has no literary pretensions,” she said. “It is a game between author and reader.”
Critics from Manhattan to the Sandhills soon praised “The Mystery of Hunting’s End,” Eberhart’s third best-seller in a row.
“If you must enjoy your insomnia, read ‘The Mystery of Hunting’s End’,” raved a Chicago Tribune critic. “Not since A. Conan Doyle’s ‘Adventures of Sherlock Holmes’ have I read a mystery story with such avid relish."
She was only getting started. She and Alanson returned to Chicago, where she launched into her fourth novel, “From This Dark Stairway,” another hospital whodunit. She toured Europe and settled briefly in the Alps, inspiring her sixth, “The White Cockatoo.” Still chasing Alanson, she moved again: to Connecticut, New Jersey and New York City, too.
“She has her hair done by the man who attends to the duchess of Windsor, wears beautiful clothes, is chic and charming,” wrote Fanny Butcher, an old friend, in 1947, “but has her sensible little mental feet on the ground of Lincoln, Nebraska, even when the physical ones are dashing down Park Avenue.”
She divorced her blond giant. She married him again. All the while, through the Depression and World War II, the moon landing and Vietnam, she kept writing, eight and half pages a day, every day.
“I seat myself at the typewriter and hope, and lurk,” she told Publisher’s Weekly in 1974. “When an idea appears, I leap on it with all fours and hold it down till I’ve mastered it.”
She wrote roughly a novel a year for 60 years straight. Her books were translated into more than 20 languages and devoured by some pretty important fans.
“I find it incredible that some people still rather sneer at mysteries,” she told PW. “A man I know…was tactless enough to remark to me that nonfiction – what he called ‘serious’ literature––was edging out novels and mysteries. So while I don’t think of myself as a name-dropper, I found an opportunity to mention the enchanting afternoon I spent cruising the Potomac on the Sequoia with President Truman, one of my readers.”
Eberhart died on October 8, 1996. It was hardly a mystery: she was 97 years old, with a broken hip and a dwindling roster of family and friends. One of them, in a plot twist befitting her novels, was best-selling historical fiction writer John Jakes, who’d devoured her work as a kid. When he purchased a home in Greenwich, Connecticut, in the early 1980s, he didn’t know that Eberhart, that “Olympian writer-being” from his youth, whose byline “inspired me to write fiction of my own,” lived a few houses down.
He knocked on her door. She threw him a party. They remained friends until the end. Unable to attend her memorial service, he prepared a written eulogy instead:
“Mignon’s last years were not kind to her, and so I see a certain blessing in what we observe here today,” he wrote. “I won’t remember that so much as I’ll remember her kindness, her laughter, the fun we had gossiping about editors and agents and the state of publishing….
“She was, to use a shopworn but appropriate phrase, a fine lady who will be greatly missed.”
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