Going Mental

"I see a possibility that real evil is at work here."
- Prof. Niccolo Benedetti (William L. DeAndrea's The HOG Murders, 1979)
John Russell Fearn's The Man Who Was Not (2005) was written on the heels of Robbery Without Violence (1957) and was supposed to be second installment in his Dr. Sawley Garson series, but the plot was "so complex" that the Toronto Star Weekly rejected it on account that the story could not be properly condensed – making it unsuitable for magazine publication. So the story was rewritten with a two different series-characters at the helm, Dr. Hiram Carruthers and Chief Inspector Garth, but Fearn was unable to find a publisher for the book.

Consequently, the finished manuscripts collected dust for more than 45 years until Philip Harbottle found both 50,000 word manuscripts in Fearn's effects. Harbottle succeeded in finally getting the book published and he decided to go with the Sawley Garson version, which is my only real qualm with the story. I would definitely have preferred Carruthers and Garth as the lead characters.

The Man Who Was Not was described by Harbottle as "an absolute humdinger" and "entirely original." A story that "positively bristled" with locked room murders and impossible crimes! I can say that the story, above all else, is a pure pulp (c.f. Account Settled, 1949). Pulp with the capital P.

The premise of The Man Who Was Not is the gradual extermination of the entire Dawson family by an apparently omniscient murderer, who can predict the time of death of his prospected victims, which he tells them about over the telephone. One by one, the Dawsons receive a telephone call from "a soft, mellow voice" telling them they will "die at precisely nine o'clock tonight" and the calls end with a cold "good bye" – all but one of the deadly predictions were on the money. And the murders become progressively more impossible as the killer works his way down the list of family members.

Gerald Dawson is the twenty-six-year-old son of Sir Robert Dawson, "the eminent surgeon," received the first telephone call, but he brushed it off as a prank. However, his car crashes at exactly nine o'clock sharp! The second person to receive the foreboding telephone call is his sister, Trudy, but she had the common sense to call in the police. Unfortunately, they are unable to save her life as she drops dead at, once again, exactly nine o'clock. Someone had fed her stiff dose of slow working poison!

A third telephone call informs Sir Robert Dawson of his imminent demise, but that call was intercepted by the police. They not only managed to capture the murderer's voice on tape, but they were also able to locate "the telephone kiosk" from which the call was made. And there the police bumped into the first genuine locked room mystery of the story.

1950s telephone kiosk (no WiFi)
Elmington Crescent is the location of the telephone kiosk and happens to be place where a squad car is "permanent duty" to enforce speeding laws. So they couldn't have asked for better witnesses and the policemen on duty had been in sight of booth since lunchtime, but they swear that nobody had used it at the time the call was made – which is a technical impossibility. This telephone-trick is repeated a second time later on in the story and is not the only locked room situation in the book.

Sir Robert Dawson is placed under police protection and the men stationed inside his home watch him like a hawk.

So when Sir Robert decides to take a bath, they search the bathroom and place guards in front of the door and underneath the window. Sir Robert is all alone inside a bathroom, bolted from the inside, with guards posted at the two only points of entrance or exit – ensuring that nobody can get to him. Nevertheless, the police is forced to batter down the bathroom door when Sir Robert fails to give a sign of life and what they find inside is the third body of the case.

Chief Inspector Hargraves of Scotland Yard decides this is one impossible murder too many and calls in the help of a scientific consultant, Sawley Garson, who has a reputation as "one of the Yard's most brilliant backroom boys." Garson previously appeared in the extremely disappointing Robbery Without Violence (1957) and he struck me as a bland, stripped-down copy of Dr. Carruthers, but here he was merely a colorless character who simply acted as the Great Detective. I think it helped tremendously that the scientific aspects of the plot remained within the realm of possibilities instead of venturing into science-fiction territory.

I do believe Fearn got ahead of the times when he mentioned a certain object "no larger than a good-sized matchbox," but (amazingly) the part about speech synthesis was within the scientific capabilities of the 1950s. Fearn uses these technological innovations to pit Garson and Hargraves against a ruthless killer who's "a product of the modern age." So the technological plot-strands are, as usual, the highlight of any Fearn detective novel, but The Man Who Was Not is not just a scientific detective novel. The book is largely a pulp thriller and that brings a minor problem to the table.

The murderer is not only well versed in science, but also possesses a particular talent explaining his omniscience when it comes to predicting death. An explanation that's incredible hackneyed and pulpy. I eternally groaned when reading the first chapter, when we got a strong hint about the true nature of this predictive power, but (admittedly) Fearn handles it as best as you could hope for. Actually, he handled it better than a much more respectable mystery writer, Clyde B. Clason, who (inexplicably) used a similar, hackneyed explanation for one of his locked room novels. So there's that. I'm just not a fan of it.

But, on a whole, The Man Who Was Not is a fun, unusual and very pulpy detective-cum-thriller novel with a handful of (semi) impossible crimes thrown into the mix. So this really was sundae with sprinkles for readers who love impossible crime fiction. You should not expect a stone-cold classic, but a quick, fun read that races you through an utterly bizarre murder case.

On a final note, in one of my previous Fearn posts, I noted how the plot-description of The Man Who Was Not struck me as S.S. van Dine's The Greene Murder Case (1926) as perceived by Paul Halter. You can definitely say that the book reads like a cross between The Greene Murder Case and Halter's Les sept merveilles du crime (The Seven Wonders of Crime, 1997). You can even give the story a Van Dinean book-title (The Dawson Murder Case), but, while reading, the story began to remind me of Edwin Balmer and Philip Wylie's Five Fatal Words (1932), which shares some interesting similarities with The Man Who Was Not – such as warning messages preceding each death and a killer targeting a single family. Five Fatal Words also has a death inside a bolted bathroom with the same cause of death and similar kind of solution! And to top it all of, the authors of these two detective novels are better known for their science-fiction stories. So I thought that was interesting enough to point out.

Well, that's the first review for 2018 and we're off to a (relatively) good start!

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