"...that which is clearly known hath less terror than that which is but hinted at and guessed."- Hugo Baskerville (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's The Hound of the Baskervilles, 1902)
Thomas W. Hanshew and Mary E. Hanshew were a husband-and-wife writing tandem who, just like G.K. Chesterton and R. Austin Freeman, wrote and published a part of their detective fiction during the first two decades of the previous century – placing them in that important group of mystery writers who bridged the Gaslight Era with the genre's Golden Age. The Hanshews have been floating around my wish-list, like a bunch of earth-bound souls, for an eternity and they were condemned to spend time there for two solid reasons: they were childhood reading of John Dickson Carr and their work covered four pages in Robert Adey's Locked Room Murders (1991).
So I finally decided to eliminate one of their books from my monstrous, ever-expanding to-be-read list.
Thomas and Mary Hanshew's unconventional, pulp-style protagonist is Hamilton Cleek, who has a reputation of being "The Man of the Forty Faces," which refers to his uncanny ability to alter his facial appearance. It's a talent that gave him a reputation of an unrivaled master of disguise, but radically altering your appearance by contorting the facial muscles seemed to border on the supernatural ability of a shape-shifter – like Mystique from Marvel Comics and the X-Men movies. Cleek only has to pull a face to look either like a nineteen-year-old or middle aged man, which is an amazing "mobility of feature" and a gift he shared with "at least one notorious criminal of history." A reference to Arsène Lupin from the criminal fancies of Maurice Leblanc or a premonition of Edogawa Rampo's Kaijin nijuu mensou (The Fiend with Twenty Faces, 1936)?
Anyway, the facial flexibility of Cleek seems like a gross exaggeration of such a talent, but it makes for a fun, old-fashioned, if pulpy, story, which is an apt description for The Riddle of the Frozen Flame (1920).
The Riddle of the Frozen Flame is a late entry in the series and probably a solo effort on the part of Mary Hanshew, because her husband passed away in 1914, but she appeared to have retained his name on the covers of the later books. Presumably, this was done for the sake of name recognition. The reason for picking this post-1914 title, instead of The Man of the Forty Faces (1910), which was the starting point of the series, was for the intriguingly sounding impossible situations – concerning ghostly lights and a lack of footprints on a plot of soggy marsh land.
Hamilton Cleek is found in the opening of The Riddle of the Frozen Flame in the office of Mr. Maverick Narkom, "Superintendent of Scotland Yard," where learns about a puzzling rash of burglaries in bank buildings. The burglars never touched a single banknote or bond, but every ounce of gold was taken and they never left a single "clue to settle down upon."
However, the general cussedness of things refuses to give them any time to seriously consider the problem as it throws an apparent paranormal puzzle in their lap.
A gentleman, by the name of Sir Nigel Merriton, is described as a "bit of a toff," but "a fine upstanding young man" who "returned to England after twelve years of army life in India" to occupy to the ancestral seat of his family – a gloomy and ghost-ridden place called Merriton Towers. Sir Nigel became the lord of that manor, often referred to as "the loneliest spot in England," when his uncle inexplicably disappeared. But mysterious, unexplained disappearances are not all that uncommon in the district.
During his first night at Merriton Towers, Sir Nigel noticed "a sort of unearthly fireworks display." A host flicking and dancing lights that "hung on the edges of the marsh grass" like "tiny lanterns swung there by fairy hands." The baleful butler of the place, Borkins, warns his master that the "frozen flames," as the villagers call them, sprang from a supernatural source and consume everyone brave enough to venture across the Fens when the sun has settled down for the night. There's been "cases by the score" of people who vanished "off the face of the earth as clean as though they'd never been born" and the disappearances coincide with the appearance of new light in the sky.
Well, the local legend has all the earmarks of an old wives' tale, but there's someone who's willing to test the veracity of the frozen flames.
Sir Nigel hosts an old-fashioned dinner party, during which "champagne ran like water and spirits ran high," in celebration of his engagement to the woman of his dreams, Antoinette Brellier, but there's the proverbial specter at the feast – a one-time rival of Sir Nigel for the affection of another woman when he was still a teenager. The name of this former rival is Dacre Wynne and he stakes fifty pounds that he can come back safely, which should "dispel the morbid fancies" from their "kindergarten brains," but the legend lives up to its reputation. Wynne staggers slightly drunk into the marshes and only left behind a trail of zigzagging footprints, which end in a patch of charred grass and there were no marks disturbing the soft ground around it. He had simply vanished into thin air!
The explanation for the miraculous disappearance of Wynne did not satisfy Adey, which he called "fairly weak," but I felt a bit kinder towards it. Yes. It's true that the solution hardly broke any new ground, but I never considered it as a possible answer to a no-footprints scenario that occurred outside in the middle of a soggy marshland. So I have to give credit for how the trick was handled that even in the 1920s was shopworn, moth-eaten and extremely dated. The explanation for the supernatural lights had a rather naturalistic explanation, somewhat reminiscent of some of the stories from L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace's A Master of Mysteries (1898), which was one of the first collections of impossible crime stories.
Anyhow, the involvement of Cleek spells doom for the young Lord of the Manor, because the bodies he uncovers in the marshes bear incriminating evidence, which point in his direction and leads to his inevitable arrest – cumulating in a trial. It plunges Cleek in a race-against-time to disprove the evidence he dug up himself and clasp the manacles around the wrists of the actual murderer. This leads him to literally descend into the criminal underground, uncover a connection with the bank burglaries and rush back to the courtroom for some Perry Mason-style theatrics.
As you can probably guess, the story becomes progressively pulpier towards the end of the book. However, I did not entirely dislike the overall story as you can probably gauge from this review. The story was haunted by the shadows from the Gaslight Era and owned some debt to The Hound of the Baskervilles, but I found that to be rather charming aspect of the book – especially he portion recounting the events at Merriton Towers. As a result, the overall plot tended to bow more to the pre-Golden Age crime stories, but was pleasantly surprised to discover there was a genuine hint tucked away in the opening chapter that pointed in the direction of the murderer.
I guess that sounds rather meager to warrant this carefully positive review, but I had purposely lowered my expectations, because I had read the full-length novels in this series were very dated and difficult to read. Short stories were recommended as the preferred entries in this series. So I was torn between this book and one of the short story collections, which one of them consists almost entirely of impossible crimes, but I was intrigued by the titular flames and the impossible scenario. I could not be really disappointed to find a half-decent, if dated, story that harked back to one of my favorite Sherlock Holmes stories. I'll definitely return to this series in the near future by taking a peek at that miracle filled collection of short stories.