The Case-Book of the Black Monk

"The real secret of magic lies in the performance."
- David Copperfield 
The 1933 September issue of Pearson's Magazine printed a story by Vincent Cornier, entitled "The Stone Ear," which interposed Barnabas Hildreth (a.k.a. "The Black Monk") of the British Secret Services into the Grandest Game in the world, where they would've languished in literary obscurity – until a certain editor of Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine began to republish the series in 1946.

One half of the Ellery Queen penname, Frederic Dannay, called Barnabas Hildreth "one of the great series of modern detective stories," and while I don't agree entirely, I can understand where Dannay was coming from and there's definitely appeal in the feral imagination of the author. Cornier's elaborate, almost baroque, writing style in itself adds a layer of mystique to plots that were cloaked in an air of mystery to begin with. The Black Monk's case-book is filled with astonishing problems reminiscent of those faced by John Bell (L.T. Meade and R. Eustace's A Master of Mysteries, 1898), but the scientific approach to clear up some of the impossibilities also called Arthur Porges' The Curious Cases of Cyriack Skinner Grey (2009) to mind and Cornier may have influenced Porges.

However, Cornier's explanations are often steeped in arcane knowledge of (pseudo) science or strand in a twilight area between mystery and science-fiction, which is where I disagree with Dannay. You have to be a polymath in order to solve the stories that are actually solvable! That being said, if you want something out of the ordinary in your crime fiction, you can hardly go wrong with The Duel of Shadows: The Extraordinary Cases of Barnabas Hildreth (2011) – another "Lost Classic" from Crippen and Landru.

The opening story, "The Stone Ear," was a nice introductory to the characters as Ingram relates his first brush with murder alongside Barnabas Hildreth, who looks into the sudden death of a relative, Sir Roger Amistead. After his retirement from the bench, Sir Roger wrote his unpublished memoirs and there's a chilling tale for a final chapter when dies of an apparent heart attack at the exact moment that precious goblet of glass vanished from his hand. A well-written story with an intriguing premise, but with the kind of explanation that leaves fans like me very dissatisfied.

"The Brother of Heaven" is a member of the Chinese tong, who turns up dead inside an abandoned warehouse at the Thames, stabbed to death, with an unsettling lack of guilty footprints surrounding the body. The only clues are a peaceful expression on the victims face and orchids. One of the more conventional stories in this collection and not all that bad with exception for the no-footprints situation, which is an answer that usually laughed away in other stories when it’s suggested.

A Doylean treasure hunt is at the heart of "The Silver Quarrel," in which Pagan imagery carved in an elephantine-sized table in a priory room holds the key to finding the hiding place of a family treasure that belonged to a now extinct noble bloodline. Hildreth helps a physician locating the treasure and I tended to like this one. The next story, "The Throat of Green Jasper," also deals with treasures, looted this time from an Egyptian burial chamber that lay undisturbed in the sands for ages, until it was plundered and a curse swept the continents – purging everyone from the Anglo-American expedition that violated the tomb. This could've easily been the best of the Egyptian curse mysteries from the 1930s, if it had not wandered from that terrain.

"The Duel of Shadows" is a pure scientific detective story with a wonderfully imaginative premise: a man settles down in an easy chair, in front of a cozy and crackling fire place, when he's struck by a bullet that was discharged once before and that was more than 200 years ago in a duel – making it slowest bullet on record. But the most rewarding part of this story, is that you don't need Hildreth's arcane knowledge to figure the general idea behind the shooting. "The Catastrophe in Clay" opened equally promising, reporting the discovery of a what appeared to be the body of a gold encrusted creature that some mistook for the remains of a God, but degenerated into a story with an authentic super villain and a secret weapon.

In "The Mantle That Laughed," an old sea captain is trying to sell an item he procured during an expedition of the uncharted regions of Mexico, a golden cloak that’s a thousand years old and has the power to laugh, but does it also has the power to kill? A similar problem faces Hildreth in "The Tabasheeran Pearls," which are the deadly inheritance of a Japanese pearl merchant who westernized hara kiri when he shot himself, however, neither of them left a lasting impression on me despite their interesting subject matter. I guess I missed the game element that are usually present in these type of impossible mysteries and that the explanations often feel dated and/or hokey doesn’t help either. "The Gilt Lily," first published in 1938, is a great example of this. There's a leakage of information at Whitehall and relays on the same device used in C.N. and A.M. Williamson's "The Adventure of the Jacobean House," a short story from 1907!

Luckily, there was improvement in the final two from this collection. "The Monster" is tale of two twins, a small village, animal mutilations and something the law can't touch – even if it maims and kills. It even has a twist on a twist that you were expecting and one that was reworked by Ellery Queen in one of their novels.

"Oh Time, In Your Flight" is the shortest of the lot, but also one of the better stories, plot-wise, in which Hildreth has to break an alibi to solve the murder of a friend and it has been suggested that Frederic Dannay, who collected volumes of poetry, gave this story its title – because Cornier was known for his affinity with the great poets of yore. The personal connection between the victim and Hildreth, like was the case in the opening story, also makes it nice story to round out this volume.

Verdict: I liked most of them as stories, but not as detective stories. So, for me, The Duel of Shadows was a mixed bag of tricks.

No comments:

Post a Comment