The Leading Light

"We've lost a room."
- Ronald Denham (Carter Dickson's "The Crime in Nobody's Room," collected in The Department of Queer Complaints, 1940)
Vision Sinister (1954) revived two of John Russell Fearn's popular series-detectives, Dr. Hiram Carruthers and Chief Inspector Mortimer Garth, but the return of these two characters to the printed page was not entirely spotless. The background details behind the original publication of "this long-lost impossible crime" was supplied to me by the sage of all things Fearn, Philip Harbottle.

During the early 1950s, Fearn signed "an exclusive 5 year contract" with Scion, which obliged him to deliver them two science-fiction novels every year and nothing else – legally forbidding him "to write any other kind of fiction" or work for another publisher. Only exception is that Fearn was allowed to continue writing (short) novels for the Toronto Star Weekly. A very lucrative deal for a full-time writer of popular fiction, but the downside of this "manacling agreement" is that it "put the kibosh" on the detective novels he was putting out as "John Slate" and "Hugo Blayn." Harbottle accurately described this as "a criminal act."

This contract lasted until the Autumn of 1952, when Scion was "fined for gangster obscenity" and the financial strain forced them to default on Fearn's payment. Fearn canceled the contract and briefly freelanced in all genres. Even reselling some of his older material.

Scion eventually recovered and asked Fearn to resume his old contract, but he cleverly renegotiated the terms and was allowed to write whatever he wanted, as long as he delivered them two science-fiction novels every month, which proved to be no problem whatsoever – writing all kinds of fiction for various publications and publishers. A year later the contract changed again when Scion asked Fearn to take over the editing of Vargo Statten Science Fiction Magazine. Fearn would now deliver "one issue of his magazine in lieu of one SF novel," but, more importantly, the second book in his contract were now allowed to be westerns, romances or detective novels. And only occasionally a science-fiction novel.

So Carruthers and Garth were brought back out of retirement and, as "Hugo Blayn," Fearn delivered a manuscript to Scion of Vision Sinister, but was horrified when they slapped "the Nat Karta sleaze detective label on it." A house-name that originated with Muir-Watson and was sold to Scion. The house-name was used "on more than 40 lurid American gangster novels."  On top of that, the printer erroneously placed "Phil Casey Crime Reporter Plays It Tough" as a banner headline on the front-cover. It was "a template they were using at the time on the previous Nat Karta title."

Fearn "played hell" over these mistakes and the Blayn name was restored on his next book,
The Silvered Cage (1955), but when the contract with Scion's successors, Dragon Books, expired in November, 1955, he "refused to renew it."

Like nearly all of his work, Vision Sinister drifted into obscurity upon Fearn's passing in 1960 and the only person who appears to have discussed the book in recent years is John Norris of Pretty Sinister Books. This persistent obscurity is despite two relatively recent reprints. Vision Sinister was reissued as a (limited) large-print edition by the Linford Mystery Library in 2005 and a regular paperback edition was published by Borgo Press in 2012.

So how does the plot stack up? The central problem of the plot, a witnessed murder in a room that vanishes alongside its occupants, recalled the impossibilities from two novels by two of Fearn's fellow fellows of the locked room master, John Dickson Carr – namely the visions from Paul Halter's La ruelle fantôme (The Phantom Passage, 2005) and the impossible murder from Jean-Paul Török's L'enigme du Monte Verita (The Riddle of the Monte Verita, 2007). John Norris even called the trick behind the disappearing room "the closest thing he came to matching his idol in sheer ingenuity," but with an explanation that is more in line with the scientific (locked room) stories by Arthur Porges. A writer he's perhaps closer related to than Carr

Vision Sinister begins when Cynthia Harwood takes her friend, Janice Worthing, to the photographic laboratory of her fiance, Terry Hewlett, which is located in a basement room in "a dismal neighborhood of fitfully winking gaslights and damply gleaming pavements." The door to the laboratory has a small plate screwed to it with the following message and instruction:

"Terence Hewlett, Photographer. Dark Room. Please look through Inspection Shutter and if Red Light is On there will be delay in answering door."

Cynthia drew back "a small eye-width slide set in the door" and peered through it, but what she say beyond the locked door horrified her. A slim, mid-blonde girl in an amethyst-colored evening dress is laying across a heavy table and is struggling with a man in a white overall who's towering above her. Cynthia recognizes the man as her fiance, Terry, while Janice has to see how the glittering knife he was holding is plunged into the girl. Their subsequent screams attracts the attention of the caretaker and he immediately fetches a policeman, before opening the door with a spare key, but what they find behind the locked door astonished the two women – a bare and empty room!

So "two perfectly sane young women" observed a fully equipped photographic laboratory in which a murder was committed and, while they never moved an inch from the spot at the door, the murderer, his victim and "the whole works" had simply evaporated from existence.

A short time later, the body of a young woman, clad in an amethyst-colored dress and a stab wound in the chest, is found partially buried in a place McCarthy's Slag.

The dead woman is identified as a model and amateur actress, Sandra Melbrane, who was "one of the leading lights" in a local cine club, of which Hewlett was the chairman, as well as being connected to the Yellow Room Players – a local dramatic group. So this established a link between the various characters involved, but left the police with a pretty puzzle of how she, along with her murderer, vanished from a locked and guarded basement room. Or how every piece of equipment disappeared alongside with them.

The dyspeptic Chief Inspector Mortimer "Morty" Garth is completely baffled and decides to call in the help of the ex-boffin "who looks like a bust of Beethoven," Dr. Hiram Carruthers, but his initial inspection of the basement room even puzzles him. Carruthers even briefly shows a human emotion known as self-doubt ("it surely isn't possible that I—Carruthers—can be wrong in my theory?"). Nevertheless, he slowly, but surely, pieces together an answer to the vanished room based on such clues as a curve in the wall, a broken bell and a plug socket. An this answer is as ingenious as it's original, which is both a strength and a weakness of the plot. 

I think the case-hardened armchair detective, or simply an observant reader, can discern the shapes and shadows that outline the truth. You should not have too much of a problem with identifying the murderer or this person's motive. You can probably even make a good guess as to the nature of the locked room trick, but the exact, technical, details is a different story altogether, but the fantastic illusion is certainly possible and the founding principle behind this technique has very deep roots – which extend as far back as the early-and mid 1800s. My only qualm is how this trick was introduced into that basement room. Was this really possible in the 1950s?

Anyway, the locked room trick is not the only aspect of the plot that betrayed Fearn's credentials as a science-fiction author who had a finger on the pulse of scientific and technological progress.

Fascinatingly, the story features an early model of an answering machine with a tape recorder, which is used by Carruthers to match the voice of the murderer with the person who left a message on the answering machine. A technique that involved a film projector and photo-electric equipment, which showed whether two different voice recordings were by the same person when "the jumping lines on the screen" exactly synchronized. So this book is not only a locked room mystery, but also qualifies as a scientific detective story.

Agatha Christie once said in one of her books that "crime is terribly revealing" and this is definitely the case with Vision Sinister, because the fingerprints of Fearn's personality are all over the plot and writing.

Fearn wrote Vision Sinister after he had been absent from the genre for several years, due to his contractual obligations, but upon his return, he sank his entire heart and soul into the plot. There's the elaborate, ambitiously constructed (impossible) crime and the presence of then cutting-edge technology. This really is what distinguishes Fearn's work from other mystery writers. And then there's the presence of a cine club in the story's background, which is a personal touch as Fearn himself stood at the head of a similar club (c.f. my review of Pattern of Murder, 2006).

All in all, Vision Sinister is, plot-wise, perhaps not the most perfect example of the traditional, fair-play detective story, but agree with John Norris that the sheer ingenuity of the (locked room) plot is something to be admired. And the same goes for the technological aspect of the story. Something that can only be described as visionary and the analyses of voice recordings anticipates modern-day forensic detective-series such as CSI. So, yeah, I found this to be an interesting and engrossing read for all of those reasons.

I read and reviewed three of Fearn's detective novels, back to back, but I'll be taking a break from his work for the moment. However, you've not read the last about him on this blog, because there are a ton of his titles cluttering my TBR-pile and wish list, but I'll probably save most of them for 2018. Yes, that leaves open the possibility for one before this year draws to a close. Who knows. So stay tuned.

Update 13-12-2017: Philip Harbottle emailed me to kindly point out a number of mistakes in my post, which have now been corrected. And, in my own defense, I reconstructed the back-story of Fearn, Scion and Vision Sinister from a scattershot of sources and emails. A piss-poor defense, I know, but it's the only one I have to offer.


  1. The use of (then) cutting edge technology in crime and detection makes this stuff sound a lot like the Craig Kennedy stories of Arthur B. Reeve.

    1. You know, the comparison with Arthur Reeve is probably a very apt one and this link had not occurred to me, because Reeve is one of those writers I know about from his reputation.

    2. "Anonymous" is spot-on! I discovered that Fearn had retained a copy of a collection of the "Craig Kennedy" scientific detective stories in his personal book collection, and so was undoubtedly familiar with them. And he himself acknowledged in print that he was following in the steps of David Keller's "Taine of San Francisco". However, the closest and most direct Dr. Carruthers antecedent was his own creation, Brutus Lloyd, who featured in novelettes appearing in the US pulp Fantastic Adventures 1940-42. They are now available in book form as "A Case For Brutus Lloyd."

    3. Oops! My turn to make a mistake. Brutus Lloyd appearing in Amazing Stories (Fantastic Adventures was its sister magazine). I was in too much of a hurry to comment on Craig Kennedy--so that I also forget to complement TC on his inspired inclusion of the bust of Beethoven.

    4. Good to know that Fearn had read some of the Craig Kennedy detective stories, because this establishes an actual link between their work. And now I really want to read some of them myself. A long-standing omission that will have to be corrected in 2018.

      Glad you like the bust of Beethoven. It was an obvious inclusion.

  2. There has been some adverse comment of the Kennedy stories, but I believe this is unwarranted. The stories are often very clever and the writing is well within standards for magazine fiction of the time. For instance, he was probably the first author to use the Mafia as the villains in a story and the first to use ricin as a poison (in "The Black Hand") and the first to predict the kidney dialysis machine (and to use it in crime detection, something I have not seen to this day). If people cannot maintain an historical perspective when they read older books, they will not get much out of them.

    1. I've read about that kidney dialysis machine before and how it was pure science-fiction when Reeve imagined it, in 1915, which was, what, thirty years before that machine actually became a reality? Reeve looks to have been a true original, but I always shove him to the bottom of the list in favor of other detective stories.

      Do you have any recommendations for a Craig Kennedy neophyte, Anon?

  3. I would try The War Terror (1915) first, as it gives a good introduction to Reeves's methods. If you look in Chapter 20, "The Artificial Kidney," you find Kennedy citing the work of scientists at Johns Hopkins as the source of his information for an artificial kidney. This is undoubtedly a reference to the pioneering work of John J. Abel at Johns Hopkins. However, Abel stopped work in 1914, and work was only resumed by others in the 1940s. It was only in the 1940s that a working machine was produced. I believe that Reeves himself was a newspaper reporter, but he was sharp enough to pick up on obscure but real scientific information, figure out how such a machine could work, and then make the imaginative leap to its employment in crime fighting. Reeves excelled in the imaginative use of the application of real technology to law enforcement. He even stops for a sentence earlier in the book to tell us about the deleterious physiological effects of tobacco. Who else was doing that 100 years ago?

    This is exactly what modern detective story writers should be doing, especially considering all our modern scientific advances, but I hardly see any of that at all. They would rather do politics or give us another one of their fake historical "mysteries." They would rather laugh at Reeves than follow his example. Of course his technology is dated, it is a hundred years old. What amazes me is the sheer fertility of invention of mystery writers in general from the period 1900 to 1950. It is as though inventiveness died with the end of mass magazine publication.

    1. Thanks for your insightful recommendation, Anon. Reeve impresses me as a true pioneer in the genre and therefore surprising he's not better known today, because imagining an "artificial kidney" in 1915 really is something to brag about. I wonder if he's known among science-fiction readers. Anyway, I pulled The Terror War from Gutenberg and will get around to it in the New Year.

      "This is exactly what modern detective story writers should be doing, especially considering all our modern scientific advances, but I hardly see any of that at all "

      The problem is that, unlike the period you mentioned, fiction writers today aren't really scientifically educated or even have a passing interest in science. I suppose that's why we have so many, as you call it, fake historical "mysteries" with enlightened, modern-minded protagonists.

      I believe another problem is that a good chunk of today's professional fiction writers are English Lit majors. You simply can't expect a technically sound, or even innovative, detective story from such a crowd. They wouldn't know where to begin.