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.
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.