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."

11/30/17

The Detective Fiction of John Russell Fearn

"Yesterday's fashion may not be today's; but it may be none worse for that. On the contrary, it may be a devil of a sight better."
- John Dickson Carr ("The Grandest Game in the World," an essay collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, 1980)
During the past two years, I have been working my through the long-forgotten, criminally neglected detective novels by John Russell Fearn, a prolific writer of science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, who has a complicated, maze-like publication history – involving a battalion of pennames and publishers. This year alone, I read nine of his detective novels and those nine titles had originally appeared under no less than seven different names. And a handful of publishers and periodicals were involved in those initial publications.

John Russell Fearn
Fortunately, reading Fearn today is no longer a labyrinthine exercise in bibliographical genealogy, because nearly all of his work has been restored to print in brand new paperback editions or ebooks. We have one man's indefatigable efforts to thank for that.

Philip Harbottle is a researcher, editor, writer and literary agent who has been tirelessly beating Fearn's drum for decades and wrote extensively on his life and work, which includes John Russell Fearn – An Evaluation (1963), John Russell Fearn: The Ultimate Analysis (1965) and The Multi-Man: A Biographic and Bibliographic Study of John Russell Fearn, 1908-1960 (1968) – which appeared alongside more general studies like Vultures of the Void: A History of British Science-Fiction, 1945-1956 (1993). So it was only a matter of time before the reviews of John Norris, Yvette and yours truly caught his attention.

Earlier this week, I received an email from Harbottle with a question to help him get into contact with John Norris, but we also bounced some emails back and forth about Fearn. Harbottle was kind enough to answer some of my questions, which gave me a better idea who the man behind all those pseudonyms actually was and granted permission to adapt the letter he had drafted for John into a guest-post for this blog.

The letter in question was littered with interesting background information on Harbottle's decades-long quest to get every single title by Fearn back into print and included an informative rundown of eleven of his more interesting detective novels. It was simply too good to allow it to languish in my inbox and had to be shared with my fellow detective-fiction addicts, because I know how famished all of your wish lists are. Particularly with the holidays ahead of us.

For the record, I only made a couple of minor alterations to the original letter in order to make it fit a blog-post format, added links and used the cover art that was supplied for this purpose by Harbottle.

So, without further ado, I'll give the floor to the man who made reading and collecting John Russell Fearn's many fictional endeavors ridiculously easy.

THE DETECTIVE FICTION OF JOHN RUSSELL FEARN BY PHILIP HARBOTTLE

I thought it was about time I dropped you a line to express my appreciation of your positive reviews of some of John Russell Fearn's crime novels, and by following your links I have been pleasantly surprised to discover a few others following your lead. However, it has been a somewhat bitter-sweet experience. 

Some seem to think they are clever to have "discovered" Fearn's crime fiction, which makes me grind my few remaining teeth. I was publishing myriads of articles and even entire books about Fearn more than 50 years ago, wherein I wrote, inter alia, "...Fearn's real potential as an author was brilliantly realised in his mystery and detective novels... Thy Arm Alone by John Slate, first published by Rich and Cowan in 1947...may well have been the best book Fearn ever wrote."

Way back in 1991, I wrote an essay about the "Black Maria" books that appeared in Maxim Jakubowski's book 100 Great Detectives, concluding: "Long out of print, and known only to collectors, the novels were recently rediscovered and successfully translated for an Italian readership. They still await an enterprising UK publisher." But despite the book appearing in both the US and UK in hardcover and paperback (not to mention winning the Anthony Award for Best Critical Work!) no one seemed to have read my article! Or if they did, they ignored it. To understand why, you need to understand Fearn's history.

When Fearn died of a sudden heart attack in 1960 at only 52, he immediately fell out of print, because he had represented himself. His widow (only married in 1957) was so grief- stricken—as well as seriously ill herself—that she was unable to answer would-be-publishers' letters, with which she was being bombarded when news of his death was announced. When she recovered, she consulted her solicitor about them. Sadly, this prize chump actually instructed her to ignore or refuse all requests to reprint his hundreds of books and stories, with the sole exception of his Star Weekly Golden Amazon novels. These had been published under his own name, and contained the tagline © John Russell Fearn. The prize chump instructed her that any and all other pseudonymous work (which comprised most of his output!) could not be reprinted because she "could not prove that Fearn was their author!" So Hugo Blayn and John Slate and Vargo Statten and myriad pen names were consigned to oblivion.

It wasn't until 1969 (when I quit my local government career and became an editor myself, seeking to reprint Fearn's work) that I learned about this stupidity. I requested a personal interview, which Mrs. Fearn kindly agreed to. I was able to explain to her that her solicitor was an idiot, and that I had spent my life uncovering and proving Fearn's authorship of all his pseudonymous output. Fortunately I had earlier corresponded with Fearn—"John did talk about you" she recalled—and Mrs. Fearn eventually appointed me as her literary agent.

Thereafter she became a close and dear friend of my family. But in that "lost decade" Fearn had become almost completely forgotten, and in that pre-PC and internet era when my only tools were a manual typewriter and primitive photocopying, I had an uphill struggle to restore him to print in the UK. I was obliged to resume my local government career, and so could only work as an agent in my spare time. Much of his fiction—sf, westerns, and detective—was first restored to print in Italy, in translation, and included first posthumous publication of some unpublished manuscripts.

When Mrs. Fearn died in 1982, I learned that she had bequeathed to me all of Fearn's copyrights, in her will. Slowly, gradually, I continued to bring his work back into print. In 1996 I made the bold decision to take early retirement at 55, bought myself a PC, learned to use it and the internet, and became a full-time literary agent.

Since when I have succeeded in returning every single one of Fearn's sf, western, and crime books to print in the UK and USA, along with scores of short stories in new collections, and several posthumous collaborations. (I've also done the same for E.C. Tubb and Sydney J. Bounds, but your readers won’t wish to know that...)

Many of these books have actually been available for years, but it is only thanks to John Norris and Tomcat that they are finally being noticed. But sadly, there still seems widespread ignorance of Fearn's crime novels outside of the Black Maria, Garth/Dr. Carruthers novels, which everybody seems to think comprised the totality of his locked room/impossible crime stories. Not so! The Silvered Cage was NOT the final bow of Dr. Carruthers.

Allow me to offer your readers this further slice of information:

1: ROBBERY WITHOUT VIOLENCE

In 1957 wrote a sf detective novel called Robbery Without Violence. The basic plot was very similar to that which Fearn had used in his Garth/Carruthers novel What Happened to Hammond? Although its development was completely different, Fearn considered that Garth and Carruthers could not be the lead characters. So he renamed them as Chief Inspector Hargraves and Sawley Garson (a "specialist in scientific puzzles"—but without Carruthers' egotism and sarcasm).

It was published in Fearn's regular market, the Toronto Star Weekly, who requested Fearn (and others) to submit full length novels, which they then condensed to fit their standard format. Fearn used to send in his novels at 50,000 words; he was happy to do this because he thus had the chance of selling his uncut versions as a book later). Up to 1955, the Star novels ran at 40,000 words; from 1956 on they were reduced to 32,000 words and finally, in 1960, they were cut to only 25,000. (At that point, Fearn wrote them at a length of just 35,000.)

When I sought to have this novel reprinted, I discovered that there was a glaring plot hole because of the Star's cuts, so I had to write in a missing explanation myself! I defy anyone to "spot the join!" (note from TC: I did not spot it!) The cutting of 18,000 words rather vitiated the literary worth of the story, but the original had been destroyed, and we can just be thankful that at least the Star was giving Fearn a regular market.

Robbery Without Violence is currently available from Linford and Wildside, and is a locked room/impossible crime novel.

2. THE MAN WHO WAS NOT

Fearn's next Hargraves/Garson novel was an absolute humdinger, and entirely original—it positively bristled with locked room/impossible crime murders! But it was so complex that the Star rejected it, deciding they would not be able to successfully cut it. Whereupon Fearn promptly rewrote it, essentially unchanged, but reinserting Garth and Carruthers! Sadly, he was unaccountably unable to find a book publisher. I found both 50,000 word manuscript versions in Fearn's effects. When I had the book reprinted, I took the decision to use the Sawley Garson version.

The Man Who Was Not is currently available from Linford and Wildside, and is a locked room/impossible crime novel, par excellence.

3. ACCOUNT SETTLED

This is a "stand alone" novel, first published as a Paget Books paperback in 1949. Paget were already running westerns as by "John Russell Fearn" so they made the decision to publish this as by "John Russell." Consequently it remained completely unknown for many decades until I discovered it. Even Bob Adey had never seen a copy and was unaware of its locked room credentials until I presented him with one a few years ago! It is perhaps the rarest of all his books. I restored Fearn's full name when I had it reprinted.

Account Settled is a terrific fun mystery, with a science fiction flavour, but the (many!) locked room/impossible crime elements are all "straight." It is currently available from Linford and Wildside. (note from TC: can any of you guess which title by Fearn has shot up, like a rocket, on my wish list?).

4) SHATTERING GLASS

Fearn created a fascinating psychiatrist detective in his character "Dr. Castle" for this 1947 Star Weekly novel. It was published as by "Frank Russell" to distinguish it from his regular John Russell Fearn "Golden Amazon" sf novels for the Star. This murder mystery may not be impossible crime, but it is unusual and is strongly recommended. It was reprinted unchanged as a 1953 Brown Watson paperback in 1953. It is incredibly rare. But the good news is that it is currently easily available from Linford and Wildside, under Fearn's own name.

5) REFLECTED GLORY

This second "Dr. Castle" novel was written many years later, and unaccountably remained unpublished during Fearn's lifetime. The 50,000 word manuscript was discovered in his effects. I actually believe this may be his best novel—better than Garth and Black Maria. Whilst not exactly impossible crime, it has a wonderful creepy atmosphere and the plot revolves around psychological quirks and flaws in the characters. It has my highest recommendation.

Reflected Glory is currently available from Linford and Wildside.

6) THE TATTOO MURDERS

This was originally published as Murder's A Must by Fearn, by Muir Watson as a 1949 paperback. It is extremely rare, but is worth trying to chase down because of its superb cover by the great Reina Sington. Well worth the probable high price, because this is a very entertaining and efficient murder mystery. Not impossible crime (and also NOT "hardboiled" either) it is none the worse for that.

The Tattoo Murders is currently available from Linford and is shortly to appear from Fearn’s newest publisher, Endeavour Press. The Wildside edition is now out of print but can still be found on the net

7) THE FOURTH DOOR

This was another "one off" 1947 Star Weekly novel, originally as by Frank Russell. It has some of the same creepy/psychological atmosphere of the "Dr. Castle" novels and some impossible crime sub-texts. The writing is not so polished as in Reflected Glory because it has been cut from 50,000 to 40,000 words. (Once again I had to write in extra "missing" text to cover a plot hole created by the abridging) but the novel is notable enough to have been picked up by Audible.com, and makes very good listening.

The Fourth Door is currently available from Linford and Wildside.

8) LIQUID DEATH

This is a fun-read SF detective thriller with some impossible crime elements. It was first published by Modern fiction in 1953 under their "Griff" house name. Scarce and expensive.

The novel is available from Thorpe, and is shortly to be reprinted by Fearn's newest publisher, Endeavour Press. An earlier Wildside edition is now out of print, but second hand copies will be available for some time on the net. The Wildside edition is worth getting, however, because it is a "double size" book, also containing a collection of Fearn's early short crime stories from diverse hard to find sources—principally Thrilling Mystery Stories, which are very entertaining rationalized supernatural stories.

9) DON'T TOUCH ME

This is a hardboiled gangster thriller first published by Modern Fiction in 1953 under their "Spike Gordon" house name. Expect to pay through the nose if you can find a copy! A quite entertaining "crime noir," it was considered notable enough to have been picked up by Audible.com.

Don't Touch Me is currently available from Linford and Wildside.

10) ONE WAY OUT (with Philip Harbottle)

This is a "straight" detective novel about how an innocent man becomes a murder suspect and is forced to go on the run, that was unfinished at the time of Fearn's death. His final detective novel. On the very last page was a very brief cryptic scribble by Fearn to himself, setting out his thoughts on how it finished. Unfortunately I could not make head nor tail of it, and so the manuscript remained unpublished for more than 20 years. Then, suddenly, I woke up one day with an interpretation of what the notes could have meant! I immediately set to work and within a few days I had completed the novel! It was sent to Thorpe and Wildside and immediately accepted and published by them, and is still available.

11) PATTERN OF MURDER

Fearn's original title on this unpublished manuscript was Many A Slip and he had actually bylined it as by "Hugo Blayn" when he submitted it to the successors to his old UK hardcover publisher in 1957. Unaccountably it was not accepted—God knows why, maybe because the lending library markets were dying out then, and UK genre publishers were tightening their belts.

The story is one of Fearn's very best (it might even be better than Reflected Glory) because he was writing directly from his own life-experiences, so that it is completely authentic. 

This is a murder story set inside a cinema. (During the war, Fearn himself worked as a Chief projectionist in a cinema, as part of his war service, having been graded C3 and unfit for active service). It has an entirely original authentic scientific plot behind the murder, which would have certainly qualified it as an "impossible crime." However, Fearn inverted the plot—anticipating Columbo by several decades—by revealing the modus operandi early on. The suspense derives from how the hero painstakingly uncovers the method and unmasks the murderer.

There is no surviving record of it ever having been submitted anywhere else, until I sent the manuscript to Robert Hale in 1982 (incidentally, along with The Man Who Was Not). Editor John Hale wrote back to say that both stories were "quite good" and that he really would have liked to publish them—but had reluctantly decided against it, because "the author's name is not known." Bah! Humbug! (Ironically, nearly 20 years later, I would sell John Hale some 20 of Fearn's western novels!)

Needless to say it was snapped up by, and is currently available from, both Linford and Wildside. On no account should this one be missed! (note from TC: this one is on my TBR-pile and might be one of my next reads... unless Account Settled overtakes it).

So there you have my top-of-the head selection of some of the best (not all) of Fearn's still largely "unknown" crime novels. I hope it might just interest you.

There are numerous new collections containing all of Fearn's remaining short crime stories, but I don't suppose any of your readers would be interested, as most of them are interspersed with sf stories…

Phil Harbottle

- - -

I would like to append Harbottle's list with two titles that did not make the cut or was mentioned, but deserve to be considered for your wish list: Except for One Thing (1947) is an excellent inverted detective novel with battle-of-wits between the police-inspector and the murderer and an under appreciated locked room novel, Death in Silhouette (1950), which has a splendid have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution.

So now we have gotten that out of the way, I would like to express my gratitude for all the time and hard work Harbottle has put into preserving Fearn's literary legacy. Fearn was one of the earliest followers (read: fanboy) of my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr, whose influence can often be found in his impossible crime fiction (e.g. the locked room solution in The Five Matchboxes, 1948). 

More often than not, Fearn attempted to bring a new idea, or approach, to the impossible crime genre (e.g. previously mentioned Thy Arm Alone) and that's what attracted me to his work, but only this week have I come to appreciate the time and work that went into making them accessible to a world-wide audience – as well as giving me a glimpse of the man who wrote them. A man who must have been an absolute treasure to have had as a friend.

All of this has completely expunged my recent disappointment over Robbery Without Violence and moved two of the titles mentioned by Harbottle to the top of my to-be-read pile, but before I'll get around to that I'll have special review planned for one my fellow locked room addicts. But that's for the next post. So see you all on the flipside!