I’m aware that The Six Queer Things (1937) was the seventh and final novel to be published by Christopher St. John Sprigg following his death in the Spanish Civil War, but — having read two of his previous books — its contents belie its status as his final work, marking it out more as an apprentice effort from an earlier stage in his career. Both Death of an Airman (1934) and The Perfect Alibi (1934) sit more comfortably in the Golden Age milieu, where Queer Things is replete with details and developments that would have thrilled the late Victorians but impressed a crowd drunk on Agatha Christie, John Dickson Carr, and Ellery Queen to a decidedly less marked degree.
Which is not to say it’s a bad book at all, just a slightly confused one. The first third, in which youthful, hot-headed Marjorie Easton accepts a job as a “research assistant” to spiritualist Michael Crispin and his sister Bella in order to escape the clutches of her parsimonious uncle, is delightful. Sprigg has a brilliantly light touch with character and tone — that uncle, Samuel Burton, is capable of an “icy and hateful” rage “which made the few people who roused it anxious not to rouse it again” — and he weaves a merry spell around the happenings at Crispin’s seances. From the ever-knitting, middle-aged Mrs. Threpfall whose warm, materteral common sense is so welcoming to Marjorie, to the carefully neutral Dr. Wood who attends purely as an observer, things get grounded in normal, relatable people before the spirits start emerging and ghostly messages from beyond the grave convince Marjorie of Crispin’s talents.
It’s all relayed in a very casual, light-on-detail manner — not for Sprigg the febrile urgency of Rim of the Pit (1944) by Hake Talbot — that’s all the more effective for how Marjorie’s ‘gentleman friend’ Ted Wainwright finds the setup when he attends the seances incognito:
He hadn’t expected anything like this. It was all damned funny, and, in a curious way, convincing. One knew there must be trickery in it all; and yet, somehow, one couldn’t quite see where the trickery came in. Everyone seemed so dead earnest. For the first time Ted realised he was up against something real and dangerous, and also understood at last why Marjorie had been taken in by it.
When Marjorie disappears and Ted ends up accused of a murder he didn’t commit, the stolid, sensible Detective Inspector Charles Morgan enters the scene and brings with him a hefty dose of Good Old-Fashioned Common Sense. A routine man in the Inspector Joseph French mould, Morgan is about as impressed with the spiritualist chicanery (er, spoilers?) as Ted and goes about trying to establish the meaning the six unusual objects found locked in a drawer while, parallel to this, Dr. Wood and Ted attempt their own investigations into Marjorie’s fate.
It’s at this point that the callowness of the hand holding the pen starts to make itself felt. While elements of hoary Sensation tropes have crept in here and there — overheard conversation like “I’m in danger from one or two other quarters. This will help clear it up”, the Threatening Caller Who Mysteriously Vanishes, and the world’s unlikeliest snake — the plot mostly leans into the Spooky Events angle and drops a superb surprise at the end of chapter 5 (don’t read the contents page, by the way, or the chapter titles if you can help it — whoever wrote those needs shooting). Then, despite this book coming at the tail end of a decade-long attempt to show how this emerging genre should be attempted, Sprigg leaps back to the 1850s with a series of highly readable events of nevertheless such groaning, creaky, melodramatic vintage as to render the whole thing in terms of parody.
And, were Sprigg willing to commit to such an approach it might work. But instead the tone flips and oscillates wildly, with Marjorie is trapped in a tale of sub-Gothic HIBKery that comes both too late and too early for the Woman in Peril fashion it promotes, and everyone else in an up-to-date scientific examination of chemical actions and, on Morgan’s part, intelligent speculation about how things may not be as they appear. And even in this second style, we’re robbed of a lot of what the Golden Age provided: Morgan’s questions about the eponymous sextet are answered almost immediately he begins investigating each one, and the impossible poisoning — a nifty, Croftian trick — is resolved because a man who has “never been accused of having undue imagination” makes a speculative leap of Olympic proportions and lands on the precise dime that unlocks it all.
There’s evidence of some good attempts at clewing, but it’s all also a little garbled. The First Thing is there purely so as to provide a revelation later, and serves no other purpose in the scheme that I could see, and the means by which Morgan procures fingerprints of a suspect is obvious but so badly explained on page I had to read it four times before I understood. There’s also a disappearance from a locked room that’s not really explained, right? I mean, you could argue that it can be pieced together from what you must necessarily believe happened, but you’re never actually told that’s how it was done. Equally, so many of the effects that are achieved in the seances are never explained — crucial when Marjorie herself is apparently the one to achieve them, but also just interesting because loose hints are thrown out (the photograph, say) but never addressed head-on. It’s frustrating, knowing that so much of the simple work isn’t done for you.
But, as I say, it is well written and easy to read, and contains some delightfully bitter moments like police surgeon Dr. Tremayne’s railing against wealthy doctors, or this lovely description of a key location:
The name of the cottage was romantic — Nightingale Roost — but the place itself turned out, when the inspector’s car stopped in front of it, to be one of the pink asbestos-roofed bungalows with which the green and pleasant land of England is slowly being covered, wherever land values are still low and communications bad. It had a lonely, weary air, as if the reproachful spirits of ex-servicemen, who had attempted to make poultry farming pay in it and had failed, still hung over its roof.
Interesting, too, is the use of the slang term “splits” to refer disparagingly to policemen (a new one to me), and the apparent revelation — and surely, surely this is an anachronism — that the leaves of a book would still need to be cut before it could be read.
This emerges, then, as a frustrating read: great delivery of uneven content that isn’t an attempt to develop the genre in the way it initially seems. The thrall of the past is strong in this one, and Sprigg seems to not have the confidence to break free of it, trapped in an attitude of obeisance that does not become an author of six previous novels. Sprigg remains a fascinating prospect, however, and I look forward to reading more of him in due course; I’m sure many of his contemporaries would be green with envy to know he was fully in print some 85 years after his death — let’s hope my next encounter finds him on firmer ground.
TomCat @ Beneath the Stains of Time: [A] suspensefully written, solidly crafted story of detection and suspense, dripping with sinister gloom, which successfully transplanted the anxious, Gothic-style damsel-in-distress to the genre’s Golden Age. The Six Queer Things certainly is not your typical, traditionally-styled impossible crime novel, but turned to be a surprisingly good and rewarding read.
Darrell @ The Study Lamp: While at this point the book has moved from the occult set-up to the mystery storyline, the novel changes direction again, adding scenes of gothic romance and a criminal conspiracy storyline. I was a bit disappointed when the mystery investigation gave way to these elements and the shift in focus rendered The Six Queer Things not entirely satisfying … However, the mystery still manages a few surprises.