Katie Warren resides in a large Victorian mansion as a live-in guest of Mina Petrie, a wealthy dying widow. One evening, in the midst of thick fog, Katie and her companion Paul accidentally strike and kill another house guest named Charlotte with Mina's car. The author's description of the bump as the tires roll over the body resonates with the reader and Katie, who consistently hears and plays back this memory repeatedly in her mind. In shock, Katie and Paul return to Mina's house and call the law.
Inspector Crafft, who is either a descendant from Africa or Asia (the author describes him distastefully as “a wiry little brown man”), arrives later to interview Katie to determine details of the accidental death. In doing so, Crafft begins to assemble a suspect list that suggests Charlotte was murdered. While readers, and Katie, seem to think this was simply an accident, Crafft (the star of the show) suggests otherwise. As the clues begin to mount, pointing to various motives regarding dying Mina's will, another person is found dead.
This sort of whodunit was very common even by the “early” 20th century. It places the emphasis on an investigation of various house guests in a large cavernous dwelling that typically revolves around an inheritance. What makes or breaks these elementary stories is the writing, and Eberhart possesses extraordinary storytelling talents. Her writing is dependent on atmosphere, character development, and a slow, brooding pace that may or may not please impatient readers. One memorable scene involves Katie and a cat peering into a dark room after hearing footsteps. It's such a simple scene that doesn't culminate into anything crucial to the story, but the description, atmosphere, tension, and surreal terror is orchestrated in a superb way. It's uncanny how well Eberhart could paint a room in stark black yet still deliver colorful characters.
As an investigative, procedural mystery in a “locked room” type of story, The Dark Garden totally delivers. If you love a slow-burn with an emphasis on character development and tight atmosphere, then this book is an absolute must-read. Eberhart was really something special.