Not All That Glitters is Gold

"So many out-of-the-way things had happened lately, that Alice begun to think that very few things indeed were really impossible."
- Lewis Carroll’s Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865).  
I always put in an effort to compose a preface for the reviews published here, because I prefer a quick warm up to jumping in cold, but the problem with critiquing out-of-print and un-heard of detective stories is that, once in a while, you come across a writer whose name is completely encrusted with the stains of time – making it somewhat of a trial to find info to write a proper introduction.

Joseph Bowen is one of those unremembered names whose memory has been slowly obnubilated with grime and dust, as one decade succeeded another, and the only part of the man's legacy that is still legible is his name on the cover of The Man Without a Head (1933). Its story takes place in the sleepy village of Taos, situated in New Mexico, where a local boy, named Manuel Cortina, who holds the position of deputy sheriff, is confronted with a brutal murder by decapitation in the sealed and dilapidated home of one of the towns most eccentric citizens.

The ill-starred, but necessary, victim in this yarn is Edward Ponsonby, who, in a far and forgotten past, was one of the more important men in the region and entertained well-positioned individuals at his home, but, as the years brought the unwelcome comforts of a coffin closer, the man and his house fell into decline. Ponsonby's weakened position within the community also made way for rumors and the most persistent one is that he has a hoard of stolen gold stashed away, somewhere in his crumbled down abode, but his own behavior also fans the fires of town gossip as he's involved with two of the local women – one of them a bootlegger and the other married with a second lover on the side.

Suspects aplenty, you would say, when the deputy sheriff of Taos, who's holding the fort in absence of the sheriff, finds himself confronted with not only the decapitated and mutilated remains of Ponsonby, but also with the problem of how the murderer gained access and fled the scene of the crime with a door that was locked from the inside and windows that were covered with undisturbed cobwebs – not to mention the fact that a half-savage guard dog roams freely about the premise. Unfortunately, after this tantalizing problem is set-up, it begins to deteriorate until it resembles the crumbling, ramshackle home of the victim.

Bowen gently picks up the entire premise he had set-up over the course of fifty pages and discourteously dumps it in the trashcan, when, shortly after the reader has passed the halfway mark, Manuel Cortina receives a note from his colleagues that tied the fingerprints on the blood-spattered axe to Thomas Jenkins – one of the four miners left alive who reputedly brought their stolen gold to Ponsonby. You see, rumor has it that he betrayed them, even sullied his hands with blood, in order to keep all that gold and pitted the four men against one another and this ended with a prolonged jail sentence for Jenkins.

Of course, this clumsy attempt at hoodwinking the reader has given the entire game away and even a novice can make an educated guess at what really happened.

SPOILER (select to read): the plot of this book basically rips-off and sews together the solutions of Conan Doyle's The Sign of Four (1890) and The Valley of Fear (1914), which Bowen, perhaps subconsciously, confirmed when he referenced Sherlock Holmes towards the end. No other fictional detective is mentioned, except for the maverick detective.

Admittedly, I was expecting a surprise like that from the outset, but the manner in which Bowen approached the plot, and bungled it, just screams sheer incompetence and this only got worst when he decided it was finally time to let the reader in on the secret of the tightly locked front door of the murder house. One of the few good parts in this book were the descriptions of the rundown house that was completely inaccessible from the outside, but this only made it more of a let down when Cortina came up with an uninspired, run-of-the-mill solution and not a very original one at that! If you're a writer and you want to insert a locked room in your mystery, but insist on explaining it away with a routine method, at least give it a novel twist (c.f. Anthony Boucher's The Case of the Solid Key, 1941).

As a reviewer who loves detective stories, I always try to accentuate one or more positive attributes of a bad or average mystery novel, be it a cast of well-drawn characters or a clever locked room trick, but I can't think of a single really good thing in this case – and this also put an emphasis on all of its short comings such as the unconvincing characters and setting (with exception of the house, but we only get a good look at it at the beginning of the story).

Well, now that I think of it, there's one positive thing I should mention and that is that Joseph Bowen, in spite of all his bungling and short comings, had his heart in the right place. I think he genuinely wanted to write a baffling detective story in which the sleuth shares all his clues with the reader, as they close-in on the truth with each passing chapter, but, in the end, his best was simply not good enough.

So no recommendations this time, I'm afraid.


  1. I think there are three main kinds of bad-- the "oh my goodness you had so much promise" kind of bad, the "I hope the author burns in hell" kind of bad and the "wait... I read that book???" kind of bad. One is a celebration of the worst in the genre, one is a tragic downfall, and the other is a celebration of mediocrity.

    Based on your review, I'm not entirely sure where this book would fit in, but I'm glad to report that Mount TBR's mass has remained constant over the last five minutes. (Purchasing Kindle books will do that to ya.)

  2. Read this and disliked it intensely. I sold it as quick as I could and didn't even care if I made a profit on it. Every time I see copies of it for sale I groan remembering what an awful reading experience it was.

  3. @Patrick:

    I have read the book and I am not sure, either, where I would fit it in. It's just a bad story, but not a particular funny, interesting or enraging kind of bad. Bad and bland would perfectly sum up this book.


    In a twisted kind of way, I'm grateful for writers like Gilbert Adair and David Marsh – who wrote atrocities truly worthy of our bile. As bad as Bowen's The Man Without a Head is it's a minor masterpiece compared to Marsh's Dead Box.

  4. I have this! Guess I will move to the bottom of the "to read" pile (that's a very big pile!).

  5. Just checked on Dead Box and its author who I'd never heard of. It's "published" by iUniverse, the first of the digital vanity press outfits to hit the internet back in the late 90s. No wonder it was awful.

  6. The book I reviewed here was bad. Ramsay's The Stranger Room was awful. Adair's The Act of Roger Murgatroyd was one of the biggest catastrophes mankind had to endure since WWII. Marsh's Dead Box was just dried-up brain barf scrapped and held together with a soft cover. ;)

    And the worst thing is that it was recommended by someone on the GAD group as something out of a Bill Pronzini story.