Sunday, August 10, 2008

Cornerstone: The Bellamy Trial
by Frances Noyes Hart.

Note: This continues my occasional series on the Haycraft-Queen Cornerstone list (those mysteries deemed essential by Howard Haycraft and Ellery Queen).

"We're all so everlastingly canny and competent and sophisticated these days, going mechanically through a mechanical world, sharpening up our little emotions, tuning up our little sensations— and suddenly there's a cry of 'Murder!' in the streets, and we stop and look back, shuddering, over our shoulder—and across us falls the shadow of a savage with a bloodstained club, and we know that it's good and dangerous and beautiful to be alive."—Frances Noyes Hart, The Bellamy Trial 5-6

As today is the birthday of Frances Newbold Noyes Hart, it's fitting to discuss her terrific novel that appears on the Cornerstone list, The Bellamy Trial (1927). Taking place entirely in the courtroom, the case involves a beautiful woman found dead in a cottage; her husband and a female friend, both accused of killing her; and the friend's husband, who is believed to be the victim's lover. Assorted ex-fiancés, family members, colorful servants, and other witnesses parade to the witness stand, appearing reliable and unreliable by turns, as prosecutor and defense attorney indulge in courtroom pyrotechnics and the weary judge attempts to maintain order. Particularly fine are Hart's portrayal of the circus atmosphere of a notorious trial and her characterization of a jaded male reporter and his dewy-eyed female counterpart at the "Philadelphia Planet" (Hart's father, Frank Brett Noyes, was the publisher of the Washington Star. Planet/star—get it?). The writing is elegant and suspenseful, although I guessed the perpetrator, and the book ends with éclat.

Hart (1890–1943) served as an overseas YMCA canteen worker during World War I and earned second prize for her short story "Contact" in the O Henry Memorial Prize competition in 1920. The Bellamy Trial is dedicated to "my favourite lawyer Edward Henry Hart"—her husband—and is based on New Jersey's Hall-Mills murder case, which also influenced F. Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby. The Bellamy Trial is out of print in the United States—a distinct crime, in my view. I'm looking forward to my next read, Hart's Halloween mystery Hide in the Dark (1929), in which a coterie of bright young things revisits the site of a mutual friend's death 10 years later.

About the photo: Frances Noyes, bet. 1910 and 1920. Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, reproduction number LC-DIG-ggbain-11227.

No comments: