A keeper? Definitely!
I don’t know why I like this book so much, when parts of it are just plain silly. Maybe reviewing it will help me to figure that out.
It’s midway through the Great Depression, probably the fall of 1935, or just possibly 1936. Meg O’Hara is slowly starving. She grew up wanting for nothing, under the care of her uncle Professor Postlethwaite. But a few years ago, she married Robin O’Hara: a brave man, a secret agent, a cruel husband. She was ready to ask for a divorce when Robin disappeared a year ago. His boss Colonel Garrett has assured her that he’s dead.
If Robin is dead, she can inherit whatever money he had. She can (maybe) go back to her uncle. And she can find out what’s in the secret package Robin left at his bank, with directions that no one was to open it unless he was dead. Meanwhile, she’s existing by gradually selling off everything she owns for what money she can get.
But every time she gets ready to have Robin declared dead, another mysterious message appears…strips of paper on her floor spelling out “I AM ALIVE”, a leaf with holes pricked through it spelling out “alive”, and similar unlikely inconclusive signals. So Meg – one of the greatest TSTL heroines ever, some of the time – refuses to act.
But that’s okay, because Bill Coverdale (who has been in love with Meg forever) is back from Someplace In The World, and he’s active enough for both of them. Bill won’t let Meg’s uncle get away with being too absent-minded to send her some money, either, even if the Professor has shut himself up in a locked house on a walled island to write a definitive refutation of that idiot Hoppenglocker.
In no time, Meg is staying in the Professor’s house (though she never manages to see her uncle, only his maddening secretary Miss Canning). At least she has almost enough to eat there…but what’s food when people are suddenly stealing your letters and planning to murder you?
At the last moment, Meg discovers she can be brave and tricky (and can hide on top of the furniture, too!). She can jump out of windows, swim lakes, and run through the swampy, brambly woods for her life. Bill can force his way through locked gates and dodge bullets and leave important messages that will bring the police just when they’re most needed. And the criminals? They’re too good to waste; Patricia Wentworth will recycle them for another story. (No, I haven’t blundered into spoilers, or not serious ones. I haven’t told you who the main criminal is; and by the time you read a couple of Wentworths from the thirties, you will have met the repeating criminal mastermind in this book at least once. Wentworth got a good decade of use out of this one villain.)
Dead or Alive is kind of goofy. But it’s energetic. And it also features two of my favorite minor Wentworth characters, the cleaning lady Mrs. Thompson and her upwardly mobile daughter Beatrice. Agatha Christie would have used them for comic relief. Wentworth gives us two working class women who – even if they are in a 1930s mystery – insist on having their own value taken seriously.
And Bill and Meg end the story with their arms around each other. And the Professor’s happy, too; he’s settled Hoppenglocker.