12/15/17

A Big Killing

"...one can sometimes do good by being the right person in the wrong place."
- Father Brown (G.K. Chesterton's "The Sins of Prince Saradine," collected in The Innocence of Father Brown, 1911)
John V. Turner's detective stories about Rev. Ebenezer Buckle, published as by "Nicholas Brady," is perhaps my favorite discovery of 2017 and the two books I read by him, The Fair Murder (1933) and Ebenezer Investigates (1934), are shoe-ins for my best-of list of this year – which will be posted at the end of this month. So I wanted to read one more of Rev. Buckle novels before the year draws to a close and picked Week-end Murder (1934).

All four Rev. Buckle titles have been reprinted by a small publishing outfit, Black Heath Editions, who recently also reissued a fifth title with the Brady byline, Coupons for Death (1944), but that one appears to be a standalone. Nevertheless, the book used to be obscure enough that when John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books finally acquired a hardcover, dust-jacketed copy he referred to it as an "amazing coup." And if that doesn't qualify as a Stamp of Authentic Obscurity, I don't know what does.

Week-end Murder is divided into six (longish) chapters and the leisurely paced opening chapter paints an interesting picture of the story's backdrop, Bellingham Bay, which plays a key role in the plot.

Bellingham Bay had been known to generations of local fishermen as Mellerton Bay, but "decay had hovered over the bay for more than a century" and only fifty of its denizens had clung to their "desolate cottages" by the time the 1920s drew to a close. By then, the once plentiful fish in the bay had retreated when a nearby town began to use it as a sewer outlet. So all that remained for the locals were the meager catchings of herring fishing and digging for the elusive lug worms, known as the "Mellerton Lugs," which were sold at "tenpence a score" to passing anglers as delectable bait and this slow decay continued until it was accelerated by the arrival of a stranger, Percival Bellingham – who bought the ground of the village and leveled the place.

The "poverty-stricken fishermen were turned out of their homes" and the public house was knocked down, but rose only three months later as a beer palace encircled by two-hundred new bungalows. Bellingham had brought "The Eden on the Kentish Coast" to fruition and it was a unmitigated disaster. And a huge financial lost.

A year later, the "Kentish Eden" had a deficit of £24,000. Bellingham had fled from the ghost town of two-hundred empty bungalows and over three-hundred angry investors. What he left behind was a crumbling promenade and the publican of the beer hall who had remained as one of the last remaining inhabitants of the bay. So the village would had been, once again, consigned to obscurity, but the arrival of a buyer once again thoroughly transformed the character of the once ancient fishing village. 
 
Mackay Saunders bought the "flock of bungalows" and the village, like all of his places, procured a reputation that made men snicker, women blush and evoked scathing comments from the judges presiding over the Divorce Courts. Saunders doesn't give a penny for Victorian-era morals and prefers that his places are "filled at week-ends by broad-minded people." So the place, under direction of its new owner, became quickly known as "Immorality Corner." A week-end resort where nobody appeared to register under their actual name or brought their own spouse with them.

Mrs. Weatherby-Weatherby Elkin "clucked like an aggravated hen" to Rev. Ebenezer Buckle about that "terrible, pestilential spot," but Buckle is not too keen on visiting the place and, when he finally decides to drop by, he immediately walks onto the scene of a crime – living up to his reputation that he and murder "grew side by side." Fortunately, Buckle is "a man who mixes homicide with horticulture."

A man who had registered under the name of Percy Emerson is shot to death inside his bungalow. The fatal shot was fired mere minutes before Buckle arrived on the scene, which gives him a golden opportunity to immediately horn in on the case and demonstrate his "skill as a criminologist." I believe fans of the pure detective stories will take joy from Buckle's initial survey of the crime-scene. As he makes a number of (astute) observations about the direction of the shot, entrance-and departure of the shooter and the fact that the victim's collar and tie are missing. Buckle later supplements these observations with a series of cryptic, seemingly unrelated, questions directed at the woman, Dolly, who had accompanied the victim to the village. These questions are in regards to a tank of rain water outside the bungalow and the wages she earned as a waitress.

This approach is what made John Norris compare Rev. Buckle to one of John Dickson Carr's well-known series-detectives, Dr. Gideon Fell, who both prefer to be enigmatic wool-gatherers with a preference to "think in solitude" – until they've reached "definite and provable conclusions." So you can almost view this short-lived series as a (missing) link between G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown stories and Carr's Dr. Gideon Fell series.

At the end of the second chapter, the story takes a sharp, 180° turn when the victim is properly identified and this revelation changes the whole dynamic of the book. Inspector Dace muttered "that finishes me" and calls in the big guns at Scotland Yard.

Rev. Buckle calls in the help of his brother, Assistant Commissioner Stanley Buckle, whose familial ties has served the parson well whenever he wanted "to break through the wall of police officialdom." However, the importance of the victim's identity provided the Buckle brothers with an opportunity to collaborate on a case and the discovery of a second body, found in a garden of a vacant house in London, forces the investigators to divide into two groups. Interestingly, the shooting at the bungalow in Bellingham Bay and the murder in London are tightly linked together with little time between them, which recalls the earlier work of Christopher Bush (e.g. Dancing Death, 1931) that often hinged of the complexities of an intricately linked double murder.

Nevertheless, the London murder proves to be the weak link in a large-scale criminal operation and the Buckle brothers make quick work of tying together that second murder. They roll up practically the entire London-end of the case in record time, which places the murderer at Bellingham Bay, who's completely oblivious about what's going in London, in an ever-tighter corner.

Brady neatly fitted every component of the plot together to form a logical, entirely coherent, picture of the murders and the criminal enterprise that rested at the heart of the story. There is, however, a blemish on the story. At the end, Rev. Buckle confessed himself that it was "a most unsatisfactory case," because the pure detective-elements were lost somewhere along the way. What looked like "a mental exercise" had "deteriorated into a game of playing one human nature against another" with clues being few and far between. Rev. Buckle's deductions were primarily educated guesses that were, at times, too easily accepted as facts.

Regardless, Week-end Murder was not a bad read and how the detectives dismantled of a gang of criminals also made it an interesting read, but the overall plot simply was not as good, impressive or memorable as those Brady crafted for The Fair Murder and Ebenezer Investigates.

Sorry to have to end this review on a slightly sour note, but it is what it is and might tackle the last remaining title in this series sooner rather than later. The House of Strange Guests (1932) is reputedly a good detective novel with a locked room angle. So it's probably a better title to end this series with than Week-end Murder.

12/12/17

The Leading Light

"We've lost a room."
- Ronald Denham (Carter Dickson's "The Crime in Nobody's Room," collected in The Department of Queer Complaints, 1940)
Vision Sinister (1954) revived two of John Russell Fearn's popular series-detectives, Dr. Hiram Carruthers and Chief Inspector Mortimer Garth, but the return of these two characters to the printed page was not entirely spotless. The background details behind the original publication of "this long-lost impossible crime" was supplied to me by the sage of all things Fearn, Philip Harbottle.

During the early 1950s, Fearn signed "an exclusive 5 year contract" with Scion, which obliged him to deliver them two science-fiction novels every year and nothing else – legally forbidding him "to write any other kind of fiction" or work for another publisher. Only exception is that Fearn was allowed to continue writing (short) novels for the Toronto Star Weekly. A very lucrative deal for a full-time writer of popular fiction, but the downside of this "manacling agreement" is that it "put the kibosh" on the detective novels he was putting out as "John Slate" and "Hugo Blayn." Harbottle accurately described this as "a criminal act."

This contract lasted until the Autumn of 1952, when Scion was "fined for gangster obscenity" and the financial strain forced them to default on Fearn's payment. Fearn canceled the contract and briefly freelanced in all genres. Even reselling some of his older material.

Scion eventually recovered and asked Fearn to resume his old contract, but he cleverly renegotiated the terms and was allowed to write whatever he wanted, as long as he delivered them two science-fiction novels every month, which proved to be no problem whatsoever – writing all kinds of fiction for various publications and publishers. A year later the contract changed again when Scion asked Fearn to take over the editing of Vargo Statten Science Fiction Magazine. Fearn would now deliver "one issue of his magazine in lieu of one SF novel," but, more importantly, the second book in his contract were now allowed to be westerns, romances or detective novels. And only occasionally a science-fiction novel.

So Carruthers and Garth were brought back out of retirement and, as "Hugo Blayn," Fearn delivered a manuscript to Scion of Vision Sinister, but was horrified when they slapped "the Nat Karta sleaze detective label on it." A house-name that originated with Muir-Watson and was sold to Scion. The house-name was used "on more than 40 lurid American gangster novels."  On top of that, the printer erroneously placed "Phil Casey Crime Reporter Plays It Tough" as a banner headline on the front-cover. It was "a template they were using at the time on the previous Nat Karta title."

Fearn "played hell" over these mistakes and the Blayn name was restored on his next book,
The Silvered Cage (1955), but when the contract with Scion's successors, Dragon Books, expired in November, 1955, he "refused to renew it."

Like nearly all of his work, Vision Sinister drifted into obscurity upon Fearn's passing in 1960 and the only person who appears to have discussed the book in recent years is John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books. This persistent obscurity is despite two relatively recent reprints. Vision Sinister was reissued as a (limited) large-print edition by the Linford Mystery Library in 2005 and a regular paperback edition was published by Borgo Press in 2012.

So how does the plot stack up? The central problem of the plot, a witnessed murder in a room that vanishes alongside its occupants, recalled the impossibilities from two novels by two of Fearn's fellow fellows of the locked room master, John Dickson Carr – namely the visions from Paul Halter's La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005) and the impossible murder from Jean-Paul Török's L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of the Monte Verita, 2007). John Norris even called the trick behind the disappearing room "the closest thing he came to matching his idol in sheer ingenuity," but with an explanation that is more in line with the scientific (locked room) stories by Arthur Porges. A writer he's perhaps closer related to than Carr

Vision Sinister begins when Cynthia Harwood takes her friend, Janice Worthing, to the photographic laboratory of her fiance, Terry Hewlett, which is located in a basement room in "a dismal neighborhood of fitfully winking gaslights and damply gleaming pavements." The door to the laboratory has a small plate screwed to it with the following message and instruction:

"Terence Hewlett, Photographer. Dark Room. Please look through Inspection Shutter and if Red Light is On there will be delay in answering door."

Cynthia drew back "a small eye-width slide set in the door" and peered through it, but what she say beyond the locked door horrified her. A slim, mid-blonde girl in an amethyst-colored evening dress is laying across a heavy table and is struggling with a man in a white overall who's towering above her. Cynthia recognizes the man as her fiance, Terry, while Janice has to see how the glittering knife he was holding is plunged into the girl. Their subsequent screams attracts the attention of the caretaker and he immediately fetches a policeman, before opening the door with a spare key, but what they find behind the locked door astonished the two women – a bare and empty room!

So "two perfectly sane young women" observed a fully equipped photographic laboratory in which a murder was committed and, while they never moved an inch from the spot at the door, the murderer, his victim and "the whole works" had simply evaporated from existence.

A short time later, the body of a young woman, clad in an amethyst-colored dress and a stab wound in the chest, is found partially buried in a place McCarthy's Slag.

The dead woman is identified as a model and amateur actress, Sandra Melbrane, who was "one of the leading lights" in a local cine club, of which Hewlett was the chairman, as well as being connected to the Yellow Room Players – a local dramatic group. So this established a link between the various characters involved, but left the police with a pretty puzzle of how she, along with her murderer, vanished from a locked and guarded basement room. Or how every piece of equipment disappeared alongside with them.

The dyspeptic Chief Inspector Mortimer "Morty" Garth is completely baffled and decides to call in the help of the ex-boffin "who looks like a bust of Beethoven," Dr. Hiram Carruthers, but his initial inspection of the basement room even puzzles him. Carruthers even briefly shows a human emotion known as self-doubt ("it surely isn't possible that I—Carruthers—can be wrong in my theory?"). Nevertheless, he slowly, but surely, pieces together an answer to the vanished room based on such clues as a curve in the wall, a broken bell and a plug socket. An this answer is as ingenious as it's original, which is both a strength and a weakness of the plot. 

I think the case-hardened armchair detective, or simply an observant reader, can discern the shapes and shadows that outline the truth. You should not have too much of a problem with identifying the murderer or this person's motive. You can probably even make a good guess as to the nature of the locked room trick, but the exact, technical, details is a different story altogether, but the fantastic illusion is certainly possible and the founding principle behind this technique has very deep roots – which extend as far back as the early-and mid 1800s. My only qualm is how this trick was introduced into that basement room. Was this really possible in the 1950s?

Anyway, the locked room trick is not the only aspect of the plot that betrayed Fearn's credentials as a science-fiction author who had a finger on the pulse of scientific and technological progress.

Fascinatingly, the story features an early model of an answering machine with a tape recorder, which is used by Carruthers to match the voice of the murderer with the person who left a message on the answering machine. A technique that involved a film projector and photo-electric equipment, which showed whether two different voice recordings were by the same person when "the jumping lines on the screen" exactly synchronized. So this book is not only a locked room mystery, but also qualifies as a scientific detective story.

Agatha Christie once said in one of her books that "crime is terribly revealing" and this is definitely the case with Vision Sinister, because the fingerprints of Fearn's personality are all over the plot and writing.

Fearn wrote Vision Sinister after he had been absent from the genre for several years, due to his contractual obligations, but upon his return, he sank his entire heart and soul into the plot. There's the elaborate, ambitiously constructed (impossible) crime and the presence of then cutting-edge technology. This really is what distinguishes Fearn's work from other mystery writers. And then there's the presence of a cine club in the story's background, which is a personal touch as Fearn himself stood at the head of a similar club (c.f. my review of Pattern of Murder, 2006).

All in all, Vision Sinister is, plot-wise, perhaps not the most perfect example of the traditional, fair-play detective story, but agree with John Norris that the sheer ingenuity of the (locked room) plot is something to be admired. And the same goes for the technological aspect of the story. Something that can only be described as visionary and the analyses of voice recordings anticipates modern-day forensic detective-series such as CSI. So, yeah, I found this to be an interesting and engrossing read for all of those reasons.

I read and reviewed three of Fearn's detective novels, back to back, but I'll be taking a break from his work for the moment. However, you've not read the last about him on this blog, because there are a ton of his titles cluttering my TBR-pile and wish list, but I'll probably save most of them for 2018. Yes, that leaves open the possibility for one before this year draws to a close. Who knows. So stay tuned.

Update 13-12-2017: Philip Harbottle emailed me to kindly point out a number of mistakes in my post, which have now been corrected. And, in my own defense, I reconstructed the back-story of Fearn, Scion and Vision Sinister from a scattershot of sources and emails. A piss-poor defense, I know, but it's the only one I have to offer.

12/10/17

Clockwork Vengeance

"I think there are certain crimes which the law cannot touch, and which therefore, to some extent, justify private revenge."
- Sherlock Holmes (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's "The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton," collected in The Return of Sherlock Holmes, 1905)
On the last day of November, I hosted a guest-blog by Philip Harbottle, titled "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn," which detailed his untiring, decades-long trek that lead to the republication of Fearn's entire body of work and recommended eleven of his detective novels – two of his recommendations specifically caught my fancy. I've already reviewed Pattern of Murder (2006) and was not letdown by either the authenticity of the cinema setting or the quality of the plot.

The second title that caught my eye was Account Settled (1949), because yours truly is a predictable hack of the first water who has already tagged close to 350 blog-posts with the "locked room" toe-tag. What about The Man Who Was Not (2005), you ask? A story that "positively bristled" with impossible crime material and comes across as S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1928) as perceived by Paul Halter. Don't worry, I already added that one to the pile and will be covered in a future review.

Account Settled was originally published under one of Fearn's least subtle pennames, "John Russell," but this did not prevent the book from remaining "completely unknown for many decades" until Harbottle rediscovered it and presented a copy to the late Robert Adey – who had been "unaware of its locked room credentials." I've a little surprise regarding that meeting between Adey and Harbottle at the end of this review (don't peek!). Anyway...

Account Settled is without doubt one of Fearn's pulpier crime stories, but without the plot dissolving into hackery as was, sadly, the case with Robbery Without Violence (1957).

The tale is a diverting and highly readable potboiler bubbling over with cut-throat business practices, betrayal, brutal reprisals and a number of inexplicable murders. However, it takes two-thirds of the book to get those impossible crimes and they only play a minor part in the overall plot. So keep that in mind when you decide to dip into this one.

Rajek Quinton had been "a master-watchmaker since the age of twenty" and left his native country of Switzerland behind in order to sell his world-altering invention in the United Kingdom. Quinton has found "a way to make matter pass through matter" by forcing "the atoms to obey magnetism," which neutralizes their "normal obstructive power" and designed a "self-sinking atomic bomb" – which means that the bomb can "go anywhere, through anything, and remain hidden." Until the time-fuse fires it. A terrifying weapon that could bring any country in the world "to its knees in twenty-four hours."

Quinton had attempted to contact the War Office, but there was such a delay that he decided to make an offer to a well-known financier, Emerson Drew, who stands at the head of the Drew Financial Trust. Drew is definitely interested in this "colossal invention" and exchanges a signed receipt for the blueprints, which he wants to have looked over by the head of his own scientific research department, Bruce Valant. And Valant doesn't need much time to confirm Quinton's claims.

Drew is not only the head of a mighty finance company, but also the leader of a small, shadowy cabal of tycoons who have no qualms when it comes to, as they call it, "a necessary extermination."

This tiny, tight-knit, group of industrial moguls consists of the financier himself, Joseph K. Darnhome of Darnhome Metals Corporation and Marvin de Brock of Independent Atomics. Drew's private chauffeur, Douglas Brant, is employed to do the dirty work and is ordered to take Quinton out of the picture and ensure his body is never found or identified – leading to a gruesome attempt on the watchmaker's life. Brant disfigured Quinton's face with nitric acid and pushed him into a quagmire at the bottom of an abandoned mine-shaft. However, Quinton is not dead and he will come back to haunt all of them.

And in the meantime, their assumed murder has kicked up more dust then the group had intended to happen. Quinton has a sick daughter, Jaline Quinton, who comes to Drew's office to ask what happened to her father and she finds an unexpected ally in Drew's private-secretary, Janet Kayne. Together they go to Scotland Yard and speak with Chief Inspector Poole (the same Poole as Henry Wade's series-detective? I like to think so!), but talking to the Yard turns out to have deadly consequences. Miss Quinton vanishes and Drew orders Brant to remove Kayne from this plane of existence, but then the disfigured Quinton returns from the dead and takes out Brant.

These deaths leaves Drew with two vacancies in his personal staff, which are filled by Joyce Sutton, who bears an uncanny resemblance to the missing Jaline Quinton, and a man by the name of Peter Maxton – who's actually Larry Clarke of the Special Branch of the Metropolitan Police. Clarke and Sutton begin to work together in an attempt to gather evidence against the three men. They try to accomplish this by installing a spy-window, using the then brand new "X-ray glass" (polarized one-way glass), in Drew's private-office.

Where the story becomes really interesting is when Quinton lures Drew, Darnhome, De Brock and Valant to a remote house he has converted into a giant death trap for the purpose of extracting his revenge.

The doors in the house are electrically sealed. The windows are blocked with steel shutters and even the walls and floor are steel-lined. So the place pretty much resembles "a steel box." After they dined in the strange house, they find a note by Quinton stating that it's his "avowed intention" to destroy all of them, "one by one," which makes for a situation that strongly reminded me of Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning's The Invisible Host (1930). I would not all be surprised if Fearn had Bristow and Manning in mind when he wrote the last portion of Account Settled, because the way in which Quinton deals out death is very reminiscent to the many murders in The Invisible Host.

Anyway, two of the murders are of the impossible variety: one of them has "a dagger buried to the hilt between his shoulder blades" in a gloomy, dimly-lighted, but deserted, hallway bare of any hiding places. 

So nobody appears to have been in a position to deliver the fatal dagger thrust. Another member of the party is found strangled to death behind the locked door of a bedroom. As said previously, these two impossible murders only form a minor part of the overall plot and were quickly dispelled. The death in the locked bedroom is almost immediately solved.

Nevertheless, you have to admire Fearn for waving away the "hoary, hackneyed melodrama" of hidden panels and secret passageways. The explanations are without question pure, undiluted pulp, but perfectly acceptable within the confines of this particular story. I also want to add that this is what, more or less, I had hoped to find when I cracked open Kate Wilhem's Smart House (1989). Fearn succeeded, where Wilhem failed, without the use of (somewhat) modern computers!

Naturally, the danger infested house also provides an exciting ending for the two innocent characters, Clarke and Sutton, who were caught in between Quinton's desire for revenge and his victims.

On a whole, Account Settled is a diverting pulp-thriller with an and-then-there-were-none ending that included two fairly original impossible crimes, which makes for a great tag-along read. Yes, this is a book that you should read without your deerstalker on, because there's nothing here for the ardent armchair detective to solve. You just have to sit back and read how a group particularly nasty, high-class criminals get their long deserved comeuppance.

Lastly, I promised a little surprise earlier in this post concerning the meeting between Adey and Harbottle.

During their first meeting at Adey's home, Harbottle presented him with his spare copy of Account Settled, which he called "a vintage locked room" that Adey and "all his stateside pals like Doug Greene" had never seen or heard of. Adey also had two items in his collection Harbottle missed in his collection: a long-sought after title, Lonely Road Murder (1954), which Fearn had written under the Brown Watson house name of “Elton Westward.” Secondly, there was a book with a cover by his favorite artist, Ron Turner, which he has since reused for the Wildside Press edition of Account Settled. Here's the photograph of that exchange (taken by Harbottle's daughter): 

Robert Adey & Philip Harbottle

Just one more thing, I know some of you are probably sick and tired by now of us fanboying around Fearn, like a gaggle of internet fangirls in heat, but a package arrived recently with another one of his locked room novels. So... I'm definitely going for the hat trick. After that, I'll even try to review some non-locked room mysteries again. ;)

12/7/17

Turn of the Screws

"The perfect crime cannot exist because of these little unexpected factors."
- Miss Maria Black (John Russell Fearn's One Remained Seated, 1946)
John Russell Fearn was a prolific, full-time writer, who dabbled in a medley of genres, but, as busy as he was, he always found the time that could be carved out of his writing schedule and redistributed those precious hours to his cherished hobby – homemade movies and the cinema. Fearn was "the proud owner of a 9.5 film projector" and used to show silent, black-and-white movies from the 1920s to his friends at his home. I suspect those friends were a part of the cine-club he had founded.

A club of early movie buffs who made and acted in their own (homemade) film productions, which included a silent movie, titled Unfinished Journey, based on a long-since lost manuscript by Fearn about "an impossible murder on the railway." Lamentably, only "a few pages of the script survive." Fearn was also "an inveterate cinema goer in the 30s" and patronized the cinema twice a week. A habit, or character-trait, he passed on to one of his literary children, Miss Maria Black, who even investigated a murder at her local cinema in One Remained Seated (1946).

I would not be surprised if Edna May Oliver's portrayal of Stuart Palmer's Miss Hildegarde Withers influenced the creation Miss Maria Black. After all, Fearn probably saw the movie adaptations of The Penguin Pool Murders (1931) and Murder on the Blackboard (1932) in the thirties. I commented on the possible connection between Miss Withers and Miss Black in my review of Black Maria, M.A. (1944).

Arguably, the most important chapter in his life as a film whizz and cinema-goer came during the darkest days of the Second World War. 

Fearn was declared medically unfit for combat and began to work at an aircraft factory in order to contribute to the war effort, but an opportunity landed in his lap during the second year of the war when a befriended cinema manager had began to lose projectionists "like wildfire" to the war-machine – eventually offering the position of (chief) projectionist to his well-known patron. Needless to say, Fearn was only an amateur with his roots in the silent movie era and had to spin the manager a tall tale about his experience, but the bulk of the technical work came down on the shoulders of his invaluable assistant. A sixteen-year-old trainee projectionist, Robert Simms, who ran the projection room once the door closed behind them.

This cross-generational relationship could have been a problematic one, but Fearn "freely confessed his lack of knowledge" of the modern equipment and was only too happy to allow Simms to be in charge behind the scenes. Simms recalled that the eccentric author was "utterly disarming" and they got along "like a house on fire." And added that, while he ran the projection room, Fearn often entertained "the staff with his astonishing feats of prestidigitation." Fearn was also an amateur magician and a member of the Magic Circle. No wonder I like the man so much! 

You can find more details of Fearn's time as chief projectionist at Blackpool's down-market Empire cinema in Philip Harbottle's introduction to his science-fiction novel The Voice of the Conqueror (1954). 

So you can say safely state that Fearn was an experienced amateur when it came to film in all of its aspects and his knowledge, as well as his personal experiences, turned up several times in his work. I already referred to One Remained Seated and noted in my review of the book, which dates back to February of this year, that the story is fairly unique where its background is concerned, because at the time I only knew of two detective novels that (partially) took place inside a cinema – namely P.R. Shore's obscure The Death Film (1929) and the fourth victim in Agatha Christie's The ABC Murders (1936) was murdered inside a movie theater. However, I have learned since then that Fearn penned a second detective novel with a cinema as setting. And it's an absolute gem!

Last week, Harbottle had a guest-post on this blog, titled "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn," in which he recommended the posthumously published Pattern of Murder (2006) and provided a back-story to the book that had existed as an unpublished manuscript for almost half a century! 

Fearn had originally titled the manuscript Many a Slip and was bylined as by "Hugo Blayn," which he had previously used for his Dr. Hiram Carruthers and Chief Inspector Garth novels, but the manuscript was rejected by his old UK hardcover publisher in 1957 – presumably on account of the shrinking lending library market and "publishers were tightening their belts." Thankfully, the book eventually got published, under its brand new title, by the Linford Mystery Library and Wildside Press. 

Pattern of Murder is a very well-written, shrewdly plotted inverted detective story that can stand comparison with the best titles of this particular form of crime-fiction. Specifically the technical aspects of the plot are incredibly clever and the murder itself can be considered an impossible crime.

The story's antagonist, whose cunning mind and impulsive actions drive the plot, is the chief projectionist at the Cosy Cinema, Terry Lomond, who has been making money on the side by "buying and selling substandard movie equipment" – all of it property of the cinema. It's "quite a racket with some projectionists" and netted him a tidy sum of two-hundred pounds. Foolishly, he gambles his profits away at the horse races, when he over heard a hot tip, but the horse (with the great name Pirate's Cutlass) came in second. And worst of all, Terry phoned in his last-minute bet to his bookie and the money he now owed him got pick-pocketed at the racetrack. So he's now two-hundred pounds in the hole and no apparent means to scrap the money together.

Once "a chap starts going on the wrong track" he has "a habit of getting deeper in" and Terry is running down that track like the devil was on his tail.

Terry happened to be present in the owner-manager's office when the head cashier, Madge Tansley, put away a cash-box containing over two-hundred pounds and surreptitiously obtained the safe combination. So he decided to stage a burglary at the cinema, but Murphy Law's is dogging his every step and is practically caught in the act by one of the usherettes, Very Holdsworth. However, she isn't exactly squeaky clean herself and this, initially, compelled her into silence. Only problem is that the burglary places the second projectionist, Sidney "Sid" Eldridge, in an awkward position and Vera told Terry she would not allow Sid to take the fall for his crime. And this placed him on a road of no return. 

As an usherette, Vera always occupies a tip-up seat fixed to the paneling at the side of the staircase during screenings. This position allowed her to see people approaching up the second half of the stairs, but Terry notices that the rearmost house-light hung directly over the tip-up seat and muses that if a house-light globe came down it would hit Vera dead on – which gave him a terrifyingly brilliant idea. I won't go into exact details, but the basic is that he would "loosen the screws to danger point" and uses vibrations to give the screws a final turn. And bring down the house-light globe at the exact moment of his choosing. A truly diabolical scheme! 

I've debated with myself whether it would've been better had Fearn plotted Pattern of Murder along the same lines as his other excellent inverted mystery novel, Except for One Thing (1947), which showed the reader who the culprit was, but not how the crime was committed or what had happened to the body. This approach would have turned the book into a full-blown impossible crime story, because Terry was in the projection room with Sid when the globe came crashing down and the light-fixture was bare of any traces of sabotage. Only thing Terry had to do was loosening the screws and use sound-manipulation to do the rest. There would have been a scintillating array of clues to help you pick apart the how of the murder. 

On the other hand, part of the attraction of the story is that the reader is shown every step Terry takes towards his own doom and the preparations for this apparently perfect murder is the absolute highlight. You get to see the germ of the idea form, watch the experiments and fine-tuning of the plan. And, finally, appreciate the less-than-perfect execution of the plan, because (of course) something almost goes wrong and Terry's intervention would provide another clue to Sid that not all is what it seems.  

You see, Sid was very fond of Vera and becomes convinced there was more to her death than a mere accident. Slowly, he begins to piece together the aforementioned clues, which consist of a sliver of glass, a vandalized sound-track and a doctored film, but the gem-stone clues are the patterns in the dust discovered on the top of a still-case – a "queer beauty of circles, whirligigs and crescents." All of them perfectly formed.  

As you probably deduced from my description of the plot, the last chapter ends with a final confrontation between Terry and Sid, but how that pans out is something you'll have find out yourself. Only thing I'll say is that (IMHO) the ending could have been more powerful had Terry, sort of, gotten away with it. The manager-owner of the cinema, Mark Turner, knew of Terry's criminal tendencies and sworn to "shift heaven and earth to get rid of him." So after his confrontation with the second projectionist, Terry should have been turned out on his ear into the rainy darkness in a way that would make the reader say, "yeah, you got away with murder, but what have you got to show for it?" That being said, the ending Fearn went with was not bad at all. And neatly cleaned everything up for the characters who were left behind. I just thought the ending was a little bit standard for such an excellent and original crime novel.

So, all in all, Pattern of Murder is an ace crime novel with an authentic background and an inventive murder method, which qualifies as an impossible crime, showing that the author was as adept at writing (character-driven) inverted mysteries as he was at (plot-focused) tales of detection. I recommend this one without hesitation and as a particular treat for fans of the inverted detective story. 

Just a heads up for my next post... I'm going to take a stab at another title that was recommended by Harbottle in his guest-post from last week.

12/4/17

The Honey Hole

"Seems to have put a curse on the fishing, that woman."
- Dr. Roberts (Harriet Rutland's Bleeding Hooks, 1940)
A semi-regular item on the blog of my fellow locked room addict, JJ, is "A Little Help for My Friends – Finding a Modern Locked Room Mystery for TomCat," which comprises, as of this writing, of four blog-posts covering a sundry of impossible crime fiction from the past thirty years – like Elliott Roosevelt's Murder in the Oval Office (1989) and Robin Stevens' First Class Murder (2015). So it was about time I returned the favor and cast a line of my own in the dark, murky waters of the contemporary crime-fiction.

The title I reeled back in happened to fit another semi-regular blog-item by JJ, "Adventures in Self-Publishing," in which he looks at writers who decided to circumvent the barrage of rejection slips and simply published their own work. Admittedly, JJ did uncover a couple of interesting self-published authors and hope to have found him a name that can be added to his list.

Michael Wallace is a public relations and publications consultant, with a background in journalism, who has been an avid fly-fisher for the past thirty years and got hooked himself on detective stories when he read Agatha Christie's Murder in Mesopotamia (1936) at the age of 12. Wallace worked his two passions into an ongoing series of fly-fishing themed mystery novels about his aptly named series-character, Quill Gordon, who's also a veteran angler. Yes, the fact that he shares his name with a famous fishing-fly is acknowledged.

Wash Her Guilt Away (2014) is the second title in the Quill Gordon series and is billed as a mystery about "a seemingly impossible crime." Needless to say, I was skeptical about this self-published detective novel, but there were a couple of promising indicators that gave me hope.

Firstly, Wash Her Guilt Away opened with the statement that the story had been written "in the spirit of John Dickson Carr" and inferred from this that Wallace had a refined taste when it came to detective stories. Secondly, there's a "Notice to the Reader," which assures that the "descriptive and detailed passages about fly-fishing" are for the benefit of those who fish, enjoy the outdoors or want to learn about the pastime, but readers who do not fall in those categories are free to skip past them – as they're not "germane to the solution" and do not contain any "vital clue." So that suggested Wallace was also aware of the concept of clueing. And that's not always a given with modern-day crime writers.

I should also point out that Wash Her Guilt Away, unlike the preponderance of self-published books, has actual production values. The cover looks fairly professional and they made a nicely put-together video trailer, but, more importantly, an editor went over the text and "caught hundreds of mistakes." So that helped the overall readability of the story and in particular the buildup to the murder during the first half of the book. Yes, this is one of those detective novels with a slow fuse.

Anyway, my impression was favorable enough to go ahead and take the plunge with this self-published mystery novel, but did it live up to the promise? Let's find out!

Wash Her Guilt Away takes place in early May of 1995 and the setting is Harry's Riverside Lodge, "a legend in Northeast California," which was originally owned by Harry Ezekian until his passing in the late-1970s, but up till then the fishing resort was a popular "getaway destination" and rich, powerful men flocked the place during its heyday – rarely with their own wife at their side. A veritable honey hole!

However, the place steadily declined when his son, Bob, took over the place and locals began to whisper that his restless wife had started a coven of witches in the vast woods surrounding the area. So one day she picked her suitcase and simply left, but not without leaving an ominous note, which placed a curse on the place ("there will be no love at Harry's..."). A year later, Bob took a small boat down the river and "blew his head off" with a shotgun. After Bob's suicide, the place passed through half a dozen owners, but none of them were able to cling on to the place for longer than two seasons. And by then, Harry's had lost all of its illustrious glory and splendor. 

A real-life "Quill Gordon"

Quill Gordon had vowed never to return to the rundown resort, but Harry's had reopened under new owners, Don and Sharon Potter, which got recommended to the long-time angler by a friend and decided to give the place another chance. And dragged along one of his friends and fellow fisherman, Dr. Peter Delaney.

Gordon and Delaney are among the first guests of the season, which also includes a member of the Oakland City Council, Rachel Adderly, who's there with her husband, Stuart Bingham, who's a museum director. There a two friends, Alan Sakamoto and Drew Evans, who work in Silicon Valley for a software company. The most important ones are the elderly Charles van Holland and his much younger (second) wife, Wendy, who's "quite the personality" and has a restless personality that begged for trouble – which gave her a talent for making enemies. She even got into a cat-fight with one of the girl's working there, April.

Naturally, this becomes a problem when the increasingly worsening weather throws this group of people ever closer together and the consequences of this will prove to be fatal.

One morning, Wendy's body is found inside her log cabin, strangled to death, but the problem is that the windows were all locked and the chain-lock only the door was secured from the inside. The murder coincided with an unexpected snowfall and the cabin was surrounded by a blanket of snow, which showed no footprints going or out of the crime-scene. It's "an impossible murder inside a locked room."

The solution to the impossible murder is two-pronged: how the murderer managed to leave behind a crime-scene that was locked up from the inside hardly breaks any new ground and the experienced armchair detective should be able to figure out how that part of the locked room trick was accomplished. But this part of the trick also laid bare a weakness of the overall plot. Gordon remarked towards the end that knowing how it was done told him who had done it, which is absolutely true in this case, but the solvable locked room problem also functions as pretty much the only clue you'll get to help you figure out the murderer's identity. Only other real hint you get is a discrepancy in the time of death. However, I'll admit that the anomaly in the time of death is nicely tied to the (simplistic) locked room trick and would probably have worked better had it been used in a short story format.

The third book in the series
On that account, I have to remark that the book, or rather the plot, felt closer to the short (impossible crime) stories by Edward Hoch than the locked room novels by Carr. The locked cabin with the time-of-death distortion is a trick he would have pulled and even the detective has a name that's in line with many of Hoch's series-characters (e.g. Simon Ark, Harry Ponder, Nick Velvet, Ben Snow, etc).

Anyway, there's also the apparent impossibility of the absent footprints in the snow that surrounded the log cabin and Gordon labeled it "a neat little trick."

Well, I'll give Wallace this much: the no-footprints method is certainly an original one and, personally, never came across it before, but there's a good reason why a relatively simple trick, like that, has never turned up before it. It's an extremely silly one and felt completely out-of-place between the pages of this novel. I suppose it could work in a madcap mystery where every character is as mad as a hatter, but here it simply did not work. The stage was all wrong for it.

You can compare this to the equally unusual, almost daffy, explanation for the impossible footprints in Samuel W. Taylor's "Deadfall," collected in The Realm of the Impossible (2017), but it worked (better) because the stage had been properly set for it.

I feel somewhat divided on Wash Her Guilt Away. It was a pleasant enough read and the overall quality was far better than one would expect from a self-published novel, but, on the downside, the plot hardly posed the challenge I had hoped from the plot-description – especially the double-pronged impossibility. So you should not pick this one up with too high of an expectation, because this is (sadly) not the next Carr. Regardless, it can still be enjoyed for a nicely worked out, leisurely paced mystery novel with a locked room chugged in for good measure. 

Yes, I know this is a very wishy-washy conclusion, but, despite its short comings, I did not dislike the book as a whole. 

I'm not sure whether JJ would appreciate the story, as a whole, but no doubt he'll award points to Wallace for not shoving his book on the open market with the interference of an editor. And the wholehearted attempt to write in the spirit of the great mystery writers of the past is also something to be appreciated and encouraged.

On a final, semi-related note, I reviewed two fishing-themed mystery novels in the (recent) past: Vernon Loder's Death by the Gaff (1932) and Harriet Rutland's superb Bleeding Hooks (1940). I would also like to point your attention to my previous review of Szu-Yen Lin's Death in the House of Rain (2006) and the guest-post from Philip Harbottle about "The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn."