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by Constance and Gwyneth Little
Rue Morgue Press, July 2002
152 pages
ISBN: 0915230488

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

Nursing student Norma Gale is working the night shift at an unnamed hospital near New York when an ax murderer pays a deadly visit to her contagion ward. The victim is Miss Aggie Dana, a German measles patient who, along with her brother William, had recently insisted on being admitted to the hospital. Miss Dana's physician, Dr. James Lawrence, had not deemed the admittance necessary, but Miss Dana had a habit of getting her own way, and this time was no different. After demanding to know the names of the other patients on the ward, Miss Dana had gone out of her way to aggravate them all by singing "John Brown's Body" over and over again at the top of her lungs. When she's hacked to death with a hatchet, it's presumed that another patient, Jason Caddock, simply had enough of Aggie Dana's off-key wailing.

But the murders don't stop when Caddock is hauled off to jail. Neither does the singing. William Dana, a tad slower on the draw than his sister, first demands possession of Aggie's mysterious carpetbag, then takes to singing his own rendition of Miss Dana's song. Norma Gale finds herself running from room to room, answering patient complaints and closing transoms to block out the annoying sound. Miss Gale is a bit short on patience, especially since fellow student nurse Linda Beardsly is William Dana's niece, and should be solving this problem herself. But Linda is too caught up in a romance with scarlet fever patient Ad Miller, a thirty-year-old playboy with the looks of a Grecian god, to bother with Uncle William's singing. The Danas' only other relative, Linda's cousin Gavin, is seldom seen, but when he does visit the ward, it's more to argue with Linda than to visit Uncle William.

Aggravating Norma even more than William's singing and Linda's flirtations are the brazen remarks of Dr. James Lawrence, a seemingly engaged man who spends most of his time lounging about the contagion ward making eyes at her. While Lawrence at times appears to be romancing the young woman, at other times he seems to suspect she's the killer. A bump on the head that leaves the student nurse seeing stars convinces the doctor that she's an ally and not an ax murderer, and he then reveals to Norma what he knows about the Danas. Added to the information she's gleaned from a journey to the Dana residence, Lawrence's revelations lead Norma to deduce the killer's identity. Gathering concrete proof is another matter altogether, and only with the help of the police are Norma and Lawrence able to finally solve the case.

Written in 1942, The Black Thumb is an amusing mystery featuring a plot, a setting, and a cast of characters that could never be repeated today. Gone are the contagion wards of yesteryear where patients could be locked in their rooms at the whim of hospital personnel. Gone too are the days when doctors wandered the halls smoking cigarettes and flirting with staff members. Last but not least, gone are the times when unsupervised student nurses manned the night shifts of countless institutions as part of their educational development. Feisty Norma Gale with her sassy comments to patients would be out on her ear in no time flat in "the-customer-is-always-right" atmosphere of today's modern hospitals. Dr. Lawrence would be equally out of place, as would be George, the orderly, and Benny, the beat cop assigned to guard the ward. But all fit in nicely with the period in which the book is written. If readers can forget Cromwell and Garrison for a while and allow themselves to be transported sixty years into the past, they may well enjoy the unorthodox methods of both the medical profession and the police as described by the Little sisters. Taken as a comedy -- black though it may be -- the story is entertaining. The killer's confession may be too long-winded for some, but even that can be forgiven given the engaging nature of the characters. Those who enjoy stories from the not-too-distant past will appreciate The Black Thumb as an example of the clever work of two very literate ladies of mystery.

Reviewed by Mary V. Welk, August 2002

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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