A closed circle situation, not to be confused with the locked room mystery, is a trope beloved of Golden Age detective readers and, in its purest form, confines its cast of characters to a single location, such as a country house or train, which are often cut-off from the outside world – traditionally due to a freak blizzard or an ungodly rainstorm. Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None (1939) made the lonely, isolated island an emblematic setting for closed circle detective stories. Or, at least, that's the perception.
Over the years, I've come to regard the isolated island setting more as a staple of the Japanese shin honkaku (neo-orthodox) movement than of the Western, Golden Age detective story.
The Kindaichi Case Files series is littered with these tiny, isolated islands, where grisly deeds are done, but you can find them in practically every anime-and manga detective series like Detective Academy Q and Case Closed – a notable example is "The Koshien Murder Case" from the latter. But even among the translated novels there are three classics, Yukito Ayatsuji's Jakkakukan no satsujin (The Decagon House Murders, 1987), Alice Arisugawa's Koto pazuru (The Moai Island Puzzle, 1989) and NisioisiN's Zaregoto: Kubikiri saikuru (Zaregoto: The Kubikiri Cycle, 2002).
On the other hand, I can only think of a handful of (truly good) Western examples with an isolated island setting from the genre's golden era: Anthony Berkeley's Panic Party (1934), Robin Forsythe's Murder on Paradise Island (1937), Agatha Christie's Evil Under the Sun (1941), Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Seven Sneezes (1942) and Herbert Brean's The Clock Strikes Thirteen (1954). So I'm glad to report that I can now add Harriette Ashbrook's Murder Makes Murder (1937) to the list!
Murder Makes Murder opens in 1921 with a passel of newspaper reporters en route to the Long Island estate of a multi-millionaire, Thaddeus Culver, on the shore between Brooklyn and Montauk.
Thaddeus Culver is a "president or director of some twenty-odd corporations in the chemical world" and has the astronomical sum of $50,000,000 to his name, which, adjusted for inflation, is close to $650,000,000 in today's money – making him quite a catch. However, Culver was "a notorious bachelor" and the world was surprised when he married, at the age of sixty, his widowed housekeeper, Mrs. Sarah Martineau. And legally adopted her five-year-old daughter, Elise. This meant that his sister and nephew, Mrs. Florence Anson and Maxwell, lost "a big slice" of that multi-million dollar pie.
The next two chapters skip eleven years ahead and Culver has passed away. Mrs. Culver and Elise, who has become a budding poet, live a reclusive existence on an island somewhere off the coast of Maine. A stroke forced Mrs. Culver to return to their Long Island estate, but, when Elise meets a charming young man, she promptly tells her daughter to pack her bags. And they return to Hallett Island. Finally, the story moved forward, to 1936, Elise has garnered recognition as an emerging poet with a slim volume, entitled Sky Song, but, more importantly, she's secretly engaged to her New York publisher, Hamish Hurd – a friend of playboy and amateur detective, Spike Tracy. Tracy is going to be his best man when he marries Elise on the Maine island in a few days time.
Hallett Island is a small, wooded island with Mrs. Culver's estate and a tiny village, whose only connection to the mainland is a ferry, but the wedding guests arrive on the island around the same time as a big storm. There are things going on the normally quiet, peaceful island that will prove to be a sinister prelude to brutal and shocking murder.
A few days before the wedding, Mrs. Culver came stumbling back from her evening walk in the woods, scared and shivering, after which she ordered her personal maid to lock up the house at night. Something that had not been necessary before. Somehow, the newspapers got wind that something was about to happen and "a swarm of reporters" tried to get to the island, but the storm prevented them from making the crossing. Only one of them was brave, or stupid, enough to steal a boat and make the dangerous journey. So the stage has been set!
On the eve of her wedding, a ruthless murderer entered Elise's bedroom and goes to town on her with a pair of scissors in a frenzied attack, but why would anyone want to butcher the lovely, kindhearted and innocent poet? Someone had seen "a ghostly figure" coming out of Elise's bedroom in the middle of the night and it had left a trail of muddy tracks that mounted a stairway, which led up to the third step from the top and then "vanished in thin air." Sadly, this aspect is not treated as a full-fledged impossible crime and the explanation pretty disqualifies it as such, but the rest of the story is as engrossing as it's baffling.
An observant reader, who pays close attention, is able to catch a glimpse of the truth early on in the story, but complete, fully-realized picture will probably elude them until very late into the story when they're in possession of all the known facts – only for Spike to turn around to a spring a surprise on them. A well-done twist with an original and powerful motive as the coup de grâce!
My only misgiving is Ashbrook waited until the last acceptable moment to divulge two relatively important pieces of information. Not late enough to make it unfair, but they took their time in getting to the reader. More importantly, this little smudge didn't weaken the plot or took anything away from the strong ending.
I've mentioned in my review of The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933) that Ashbrook was a mystery writer from the Van Dine-Queen School, as A Most Immoral Murder (1935) can testify to, but The Murder of Sigurd Sharon and Murder Makes Murder stand much closer to Helen McCloy. There's more emphasis on the psychological than the physical clues and they just struck me as something McCloy could have written. Just compare The Murder of Sigurd Sharon with Through a Glass, Darkly (1950) or Murder Makes Murder with The Man in the Moonlight (1940). I wonder if this has anything to do with Spike being away from usual stomping ground. So my next read is probably going to be one of Ashbrook's New York set mystery novels (likely The Murder of Cicely Thane, 1930).
So, all in all, Murder Makes Murder is a cleverly constructed, but very human, detective novel filled with tragic characters, anxiously kept secrets, obsession and a shockingly original motive. A highly recommendable detective novel. One that has left me seriously baffled why Ashbrook was so thoroughly ignored or dismissed in her days. She was great!