Wednesday, December 1, 2021

The Calloused Eye by Ethel Loban (1931)



About the author: Ethel Grace Loban (née Harris) (1892-1985) was born in Toledo, Ohio and died in Los Angeles. Here is her genealogical information. Not much is known about her as an author, she is not listed in Wikipedia nor Fantastic Fiction. Who's who in California (Volume 1942-43)  states "Writer of books published by Doubleday-Doran Co., short stories in various magazines. Collier's, Ladies' Home Journal, etc." 

This title was published by The Crime Club, and was reprinted in the Collier Front Page Mystery collection (fourth series).  The title is from a Chinese proverb that eyes, like hands can become calloused, and not see clearly. Another title is Signed in Yellow (Crime Club). It is possible earlier titles were published under her maiden name (Ethel Harris).

Major characters:
  • Miss Fern Matthews, a nurse, and our narrator
  • John Glace, patriarch of the family, Fern's patient
  • Dr. Jack Glace, his son
  • James Glace, his son, a wealthy broker
  • Minerva, his daughter, an opera singer
  • Hazel Golightly, his daughter by a second marriage
  • Gerald Golightly, Hazel's husband, an actor
  • Dr. Hugh Abbott, Fern's fiancé
  • Withers, an attorney
  • Leong Fat, leader of the Chinese servants
Locale: Colorado

Synopsis: Nurse Fern Matthews (our narrator) takes a job caring for a patient in a Colorado mountaintop retreat owned by the Glace family. The family consists of the patient, John Glace, who has tuberculosis and is a drug addict; along with his sons Dr. Jack Glace and stockbroker James Glace, and his daughter Minerva Glace, an opera singer. The family employs a large number of Chinese servants.

Fern settles in to the household to care for John Glace, who alternates between being chatty and being uncontrollable. Fern cares for him in the daytime and early evening. Overnight Leong Fat, a Chinese servant, stays with him. 

John's daughter by a second marriage, Hazel Golightly, arrives unexpectedly with her husband, actor Gerald Golightly. They have run out of money and need help from the family. There is tension, as the Glace siblings have never accepted their father's second marriage (performed in China by a customary rite) as legitimate; nor Hazel as their legitimate half-sister.

On the night following their arrival, Fern discovers someone has administered morphine to John, stabbed him with a dagger, and made off with his stash of valuable emeralds.

Review: This book reminded me of two other settings: First, the nurse protagonist/narrator is similar to Mignon Eberhart's Nurse Sarah Keate, although unlike Sarah Keate, this nurse doesn't do anything to solve the mystery (she relies on fiancé Dr. Hugh Abbott for that). Second, the Agatha Christie-like picking off of the guests one by one in an isolated location (although not completely isolated, there is a rough mountain road leading to the retreat).

Nurse Fern is hired to care for a patient who doesn't need much care (and even has his son, a doctor, in residence anyway) . She is strictly in a reactive role to the mayhem constantly unfolding around her. Much of her efforts consist of patching up the various victims, as well as tending to all the others who tend to faint each time someone gets attacked.

There is use of a derogatory term for persons of Chinese ancestry. Although the Chinese are denigrated by some of the characters, their roles are reasonable and done well - particularly of those working in the kitchen. It is claimed there are 22(!) Chinese servants but we only meet five or six. Leong Fat serves as their unquestioned leader, and drops his affected pidgin-English speech when it is challenged, and reverts to perfect educated speech.

Be sure to visit The Mystillery for my mystery reading challenges!

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