#572: Death in Silhouette (1950) by John Russell Fearn

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Part of the fun of this blogging collective with its focus primarily on classic style mysteries is seeing the individual enthusiasms of bloggers and commenters alike assert themselves.  To pick just three, I’ve turned into quite the most unexpected fan of Freeman Wills Crofts, Puzzle Doctor is soon to convert us all to the joys of Brian Flynn, and TomCat has derived great pleasure from the works of John Russell Fearn.  And it’s nice to share in a joy with someone, so through an uncertain combination of runic alchemy and liturgical dance, I ended up at the conclusion that Death in Silhouette (1950) would be the next Fearn for me to try, and here we are.

This is the fifth and, I believe, final book in this short series featuring Fearn’s crime-solving headmistress ‘Black Maria’, and it was written at a time when the puzzle novel was starting to decline and the first seeds of crime fiction were taking root.  As such, it’s something of a transitional novel, with a foot in each camp, and manages to do most things reasonably well until an ending that sort of comes out of nowhere and lets down both its GAD forebears and the descendants it would have in the latter genre.

The plot can be handily summed up by simple expedient of the following quote:

“I still don’t understand it.  Why should any young man suddenly decide to hang himself in the middle of celebrating his engagement?  No reason!  No motive!”

So, yes, young Keith Robinson is found hanged from a rafter in the cellar of his fiancée’s family home during their celebratory party; the door is locked on the inside, no other entrances present themselves…everyone is keen for it to be dismissed as a suicide until Maria Black, former headmistress of the betrothed Patricia Taylor, sallies onto the scene and decides to pick the situation apart.

‘Black Maria’ is a lot of fun — I’d say more so here than in Thy Arm Alone (1947), the only previous Fearn I’ve read, but I don’t remember her from that at all and so can’t compare.  There’s enough oddness about her — seeing “a tendency towards the vulgar” in a situation giving someone “butterflies in the belly”, or preferring to stay in hotels because “if I do not approve of the service I can say so” when “one cannot in all courtesy deal with one’s friends in that fashion” — to compel without it seeming forced, and enough steel in her — “Harrowing or otherwise, the truth has to be found,” she declares in the grandest of GAD traditions, while unafraid to call Pat “inhuman” for hoping that Keith’s father, the unpopular, scripture-spouting Ambrose, be the guilty party in the murder — so that she stands out.

She’s kept company by some nice, unshowy writing that offers up little memorable beyond a few character touches: the irascible Ambrose living in “an aura of austerity that would have made any Government official jealous”, man-of-all-work Horace ‘Pulp’ Martin having “earned [his nickname] through smashing jaws with his fists”, and Mrs. Taylor holding forth on a justifiable murder are three examples that will particularly stay with me.  And yet, being a work representing an era of seismic change, there are also interesting narrative ideas which are more interesting than the way they are written: the Taylor family confronting Maria with her dual roles of guest and future accuser isn’t something GAD offered up on a regular basis, the casual reference to “normal forensic technique” in the investigation of crime, the blithe confidence put in woolly ‘criminology’ like handwriting analysis and “mental aberration”…when what’s here falls down, it’s not through lack of trying.

‘Pulp’ Martin is an interesting narrative choice, too, a precursor to the Joe Pikes, Windor Horne Lockwood IIIs and others I’ve talked about before: a tough American whose “fists are powerful” and “methods shatteringly to the point” at Maria’s beck and call, ready to wade into, and win, any fight when necessary, and to do any dirty work that Fearn can find no other way to plot himself out of.  His “greenish-coloured suit, with tan shoes and a red tie” coupled with his “upstanding thatch of red hair” brought Anthony Boucher’s Fergus O’Breen to mind, but Martin is a different bird altogether, replete with tough guy slang (“Yeah, it’s a lulu.  Somebody pulled a nice job with this necktie party, Maria”) and the sort of freedom of movement and action that has saved the meandering plot of many a modern thriller.  This is no longer the age of our middle-aged spinster simply getting by on intelligence and nouse, and the change jars as much as you’d expect.

But there’s fun to be had in watching in unspool, especially when Fearn has the apparently clear-cut solution the reader is constructing explicitly discussed at about the two-thirds mark.  Sure, it’s wrong because what is revealed comes as something of a large pill to force down — the type of plot Fearn writes here belongs about 15 years in the past, where the prevailing wind of the time would have carried it closer to the finish line — but that grand old tradition is nicely observed nonetheless, along with a few handy tropes to tick off on your bingo cards.  And, on a purely personal level, I delighted in a few instances of linguistic desuetude: the anachronistic spelling in “What I have seen here must first jell”, and the fact that I learned a new-old word in “chorine”.  Yeah, this sounds like I’m reaching for positives, but regular readers — hello, Mum — will know how much this sort of thing pleases me.

It’s interesting, too, to read a book that comes out so strongly against the piously religious, which feels again like a societal reaction where most GAD seemed to keep faith off the page and quietly in the background.  And so for all its interesting points, the flaws that drag it down — that convenience of the solution (though ‘convenience’ really isn’t the word), the fact that a central character seems to descend into babbling contraction to justify many of their actions come the final stages — are just a little too hard to ignore.  Fearn is motivated by some good concepts and has to stand across a divide that makes his job much harder, and I’ll definitely look to see if there’s another book of his that takes my fancy, but on the evidence of these first two books I’m not yet ready to declare a fealty to match TC’s ardour.  I can well believe that the sporadic urge to read another of Fearn’s second-string takes on the impossible crime will arise within me, however, so I look forward to seeing where things go from here.

~

See also

TomCat @ Beneath the Strains of Time: So the plot of Death in Silhouette offers a genuine detective problem, but where the book really excels is the double-barreled solution that manage to co-exist simultaneously. One part of the solution is very clever and complex, which might not even have worked. Something that is fully acknowledged, but then the Merrivalean cussedness of all things general intervenes and throws an alternative explanation into the works. A solution that is simpler and far more elegant than the previous one, which may disappoint some readers, but it works.

13 thoughts on “#572: Death in Silhouette (1950) by John Russell Fearn

  1. …I’m not yet ready to declare a fealty to match TC’s ardour.

    Fearn is a second-stringer with visible pulp roots and somewhat of an acquired taste, but you were perfectly fair here and glad you found it a more enjoyable read than Thy Arm Alone. You’re right Death in Silhouette is a transitional novel. I think mystery readers with an interest in social history will appreciate this (largely) traditional locked room mystery is set in a modest, middle class family and showing the popularity of pulp magazines in Britain at the time. A pulp magazine even has a part to play in the solution. This is one of the reason why I have grown so fond of Fearn.

    You said the ending, sort of, comes out of nowhere, but I remember the second-half of the solution, the part that actually worked, was clued. Or at the very least hinted at. I loved how Fearn used these two solutions simultaneously. One needlessly complex and risky, while the other is simplistic bordering on disappointing, but I think it worked. I don’t remember another locked room mystery that used a double solution like Fearn did here.

    I can well believe that the sporadic urge to read another of Fearn’s second-string takes on the impossible crime will arise within me, however, so I look forward to seeing where things go from here.

    The Five Matchboxes! Fearn wrote it as an homage to Carr, but reads like a proto-Paul Halter. So you might fall in love with Fearn when he’s in full fanboy mode. However, if you want to see Fearn elevate himself above second-string status, you have to read Pattern of Murder. One of my all-time favorite inverted mysteries.

    By the way, have you read my follow up post on lost detective stories from two weeks ago? Fearn is sadly well represented on the list of lost manuscripts.

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    • His pulp roots I don’t mind at all — the invention in Thy Arm Alone was great, and something you feel only a pulp writer would have the guts to try; what got me was how slow the whole thing was…which you’d never expect to say of someone with pulp sensibilities! Thankfully, things improved here, with there almost being enough plot to fill the pages; I’m grateful for your guidance on where to try, since I would like to find at least one of his books I could get genuinely enthusiastic about.

      The second half of the solution…meh, maybe it’s hinted at, but I don’t think Fearn really sells it. For those two things to have been happening simultaneously you need to commit to certain aspects of the plotting, and I’m not sure he does, at least partly because the era he’s writing in is no longer rewarding such plots (or is, at least, putting less of an emphasis on them). Still, knowing a solution was coming that couldn’t be the one the reader has been building up in their own mind — because the author discusses is with a quarter of the book left — is always fun.

      And The Five Matchboxes it is — my thanks once again. Hopefully by the end of the year, but I did just come into a bunch of books, and already have more than a few waiting on Mount TBR, so no promises 🙂

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        • No. Here, a man is found murdered in a locked room and five empty natch boxes are found on the desk, each with a small hole forged in one side. Also, the police received advance warning of the impending murder. So, similar to The Ten Teacups !

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  2. You let this off a bit better than I thought you would, although you haven’t exactly left me rushing out to get it either. I can kind of imagine what this might be like after my last few Fearn reads, and I notice that you don’t focus on any of the elements that might have tipped the balance.

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    • He’s a, frankly, boring writer. His prose when not actively describing interesting events — all the descriptions of things, and the placement of things relative to other things, and the commonplace actions that are required to fill out the written medium — he lapses into a drudgery that’s so uninspired I’d almost believe he just copy-pasted the general settings from one book to the next. So it’s difficult to get too excited about how he writes, and the book as a result come off a little plain and flat in the memory.

      But, well, he does also have good insight on the changes in GAD, as mentioned above: the setting is weirdly uncommon (a working class family home for an impossible crime?!?), the dwelling on aspects of the Outsider nature of the detective (especially when the family start to suspect that they’ve openly welcomed into their midst the person who will deliver their destruction), and the outright criticism directed at the one religious character’s pious ways (his son calls it “self-centred bigotry” at one stage). So there’s change in the air, and the failings of this as a plot are tempered by the insight it offers historically.

      So, no, I can’t say that I was desperate to get anyone to rush out and read it, but there’s a lot here for anyone interested in the development of the genre. Possibly more for history nerds than puzzle nerds, but much to enjoy if there’s a mix of those two within you 🙂

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      • He’s a, frankly, boring writer.

        Now you’re being unfair. You’ve only read two of his novels and didn’t dislike the second one. So there’s no reason why, a year from now, you too will be calling Fearn your favorite second-stringer. Trust me. I haven’t been wrong yet.

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        • That’s fair, I’m working off a small sample size. But hopefully it’s understood that I’m coming from a position of limited awareness — I’m not able to make such a claim with any authority. I’ll happily rescind this evaluation should more reading result in a change of opinion 🙂

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        • I will jump in to defend Fearn as well because calling him a “boring writer” is both inaccurate and undeserved. Also I think your characterization of pulp writers as “exciting” is ill informed. Many of them aren’t good writers at all, but lots of them were prolific. They wrote for money and their paychecks were determined by the amount of words in the story not so much the quality of the writing. So they wrote fast and overloaded the stories with padding in order to get a bigger paycheck. Not a lot of thought was put into word choice or style. Anyway, while I don’t find many of books all that well plotted (he shows his hand all too often in his attempts to misdirect and some of his clues are obvious rather than cleverly planted) his imagination is something to marvel at the more you read his work — especially those that are classified as scientific mysteries and rely on technology and physics. Also, he can be damn entertaining. TomCat and I both enjoyed PATTERN OF MURDER which is one of his better plotted novels and gives a fascinating insight into how a movie theater is run. I will put in a good word for FLASHPOINT! also which has now replaced THY ARM ALONE as my favorite of his detective novels. I liked most of the Dr. Hugo Carruthers books (the detective in FLASHPOINT!) because my guilty pleasure is reading GAD mystery novels with an irascible and stubborn a–hole detective. And in FLASHPOINT! we see Carruthers show his deeply hidden romantic side in his attempt to bring together two of the young characters in the story.

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      • I found it interesting that the bits that you did seem to enjoy about Death in Silhouette dealt with the insight into the transitioning time period. My limited experience with Fearn has always left me with this strange feeling of “was this really written by someone in the 40s/50s or is this some elaborate prank by a writer from the 90s?”

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        • I don’t think he’s trying to raise awareness of the transitioning genre, if it helps. I think he’s just writing something that accidentallies itself into revealing a lot about the genre going through The Change.

          And I can see how that sort of approach could lend itself to badly-researched 90s historical fiction; the more refined settings and attitudes of the Golden Age seem to be ripe for little more than cozy parody these days, because the complexities of that era are too manifold to begin to get into and communicate well. Thus, come forward a few decades, throw in a few things about rationing or shortages, set it in a terraced house and be sure to give the men practical jobs and mention how the women either stay at home or are doing something drudgery-adjacent…jackpot!

          Fearn seems to write in this style, but it’s just how he writes (again — disclaimer, etc — based on the two tonally very similar books I’ve read). It’s uncanny, but I can totally see where you’re coming from.

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