"I notice while all people are agreed as to the variety of motives that instigate crime, very few allow sufficient margin for variety of character in the criminal. We are apt to imagine that he stalks about the world with a bundle of deadly motives under his arm, and cannot picture him at his work with a twinkle in his eye and a keen sense of fun, such as honest folk have sometimes when at work at their calling."- Loveday Brooke (C.L. Pirkis' "The Black Bag Left on the Doorstep," collected in The Experiences of Loveday Brooke, Lady Detective, 1894)
John Russell Fearn has been discussed on this blog before and noted in those previous posts how incredible prolific he was as a writer of science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, published under a small army of pen names, but surprisingly, he also penned a series of adolescent detective stories for teenage girls – using the byline of "Diana Kenyon." The stories originally appeared in a monthly magazine, titled Girls' Fun, during the late 1940s.
The protagonist is Miss Victoria Lincoln, "a lady detective," who's introduced to the reader as a perfectly precious thing. A young college graduate who excelled at almost everything in school and you could find her name "on practically every plaque in the school hall." After she graduated, her rich parents helped her pursue a career as a private investigator and opened a office for her in Regent Street, in London, which came with a big paragraph in the newspaper to announce she was open for business.
So you can say Miss Victoria Lincoln is pretty much a Mary Sue at heart. Thankfully, she's not one of those insufferable, overbearing characters and keeps to her role as investigator without displaying any pesky habits or annoying character-traits – which ensured the stories were readable and fun. Something I feared would not be the case after reading the first pages of the opening story.
There are, as far as I can tell, sixteen short stories in this series that were written by Fearn. However, the character of Miss Lincoln looks to have been the property of the magazine, because I also came across a series-listing that catalogs a clump of additional stories written mostly by Hilary Ashton and Vera Painter. But only a small selection of stories that were penned by Fearn appear to have been collected after their original magazine publication.
The Haunted Gallery: The Adventures of Miss Victoria Lincoln, Private Detective (2011) collects six of the sixteen short stories that Fearn wrote and they were written in the tradition of Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes and his contemporaries. Some of the stories, like the first one, definitely shows they were written with the Great Detective in mind.
I'll try to run through them as fast as possible and attempt not to bloat this blog-post to the same monstrous size as most of my reviews of short story collections. But no promises.
The first story gave this collection its book-title, "The Haunted Gallery," which takes place at a "lovely and historic old pile of Bartley Towers" that had "a cloak of gloom," sorrow and mystery draped over it ever since its owner, Professor Marchant, passed away, but ever since his passing someone has been paying nightly visits to the locked gallery – which housed the late professor's collection of antiques and curios. Every night, this intruder would smash a valuable antique to smithereens on the floor. And then there's "a ghostly female form in white draperies" who's been witnessed gliding around the place.
So the niece of the professor, Caroline Gerrard, and his former secretary, Dorothy Mannall, who felt "responsible for the safety of the collection" decide to call in outside help to put a stop to the intruder. Gerrard and Mannall have both attended Shelburne College and they recall a particular talented student, Miss Victoria Lincoln, who became a private detective. She came up with an interesting, two-pronged solution to the problem: one pertained to the person who opened the gallery door at night and how that related to the ghostly figure, while the other half revealed who smashed the precious antiques and why.
This double-layered solution struck me as an amalgamation of the plots from Sax Rohmer's "The Case of the Tragedies in the Greek Room," recently reprinted in Miraculous Mysteries: Locked Room Murders and Impossible Crimes (2017), and a well-known story from Conan Doyle's The Return of Sherlock Holmes (1904). No idea whether Fearn had those stories in mind when he wrote this "The Haunted Gallery," but the result is a decent enough story of this sort and a good introduction to the main-characters.
Note for the curious: Miss Lincoln recruits one of the characters, Caroline Gerrard, to become her personal assistance, once she finishes her final term at college, which she does in the third story.
The second story, "The Clue of the Blue Powder," is a mild dame-in-danger tale and begins when Lincoln meets a young woman, named Anne Seymour, standing forlornly at the little train station of Denbury. Seymour ask Lincoln where she can get a taxi, or "a pony and trap," so she can get to Riverdale Hall, but Lincoln offers her a ride and even decided to stay the night at the country house when discovering a message chalked on her suitcase – warning her to "keep away from the green room." This green room is Seymour's old nursery and the persistent threats makes Lincoln suspect there's something about the room that's very important to someone in the house.
So not a bad read at all, but the plot is nothing special and will probably prove itself to be quite a forgettable yarn.
The third story in this collection, "The Thief of Claygate Farm," is a personal favorite and marks the arrival of Caroline Gerrard to take her position as Victoria Lincoln's assistance, which had been offered to her in the opening story. Gerrard immediately has to accompany her new employer to a farm in Esher, Surrey, where Professor Lynch rented Claygate Farm as a place where he could safely store his collection of antiques and curios. Several attempts had been made to break into his London home, but the burglar is a persistent one and looks to have been more successful getting in, and out, of the farmhouse, because rings and pendants keep disappearing as if by magic – taken from "a locked room one by one."
However, what endeared this story to me was not a clever or original impossible situation. On the contrary. The problem of the locked barn house is explained with one of the oldest tricks of the trade. What made me like this story is how the false solution was used. The only opening in the locked room was "a small fanlight" set high in the far wall and this immediately made me suspicious of the pet jackdaw, Kim, that belonged to a farm boy, Tom Derry, who were both introduced at the start of the story. Only problem is that the possibility of the bird being the thief was eliminated halfway through the story and this meant they had to clear the bird's good name by finding the actual thief.
A very good and amusing short story that's actually a better introduction to the main characters than the opening story. Only drawback is the mundane explanation for the locked barn house, but that can easily be forgiven by everything that was written around it.
The fourth story of the lot, "No Shred of Evidence," can best be described as a Sherlockian tale with a classical, Golden Age-style plot and is easily the best item in this collection. I suspect this story will prove to be favorite with many of the more seasoned mystery readers.
Lincoln and Gerrard are traveling to St. Hilda's College for Girls, in Somerset, where the music teacher, Edsel B. Baxter, has gone missing and left behind a disturbing note telling that he had decided to end his own life – intending to do it in such way that his "body never will be found." But when the question his housekeeper, Lincoln and Gerrard learn that there were many suspicious anomalies in the life of the missing music teacher. One of them is that he looked remarkably slimmer when he wore his pajamas, while another concerned a pronounced limp that disappeared when he was (heard) pacing around his room.
So this makes for a typical Holmesian problem that enters Golden Age territory when the body of a man is found dangling from a tree branch in the leafiest corner of a small forest, but the victim is not the missing music teacher! As noted, this story will probably be best appreciated by seasoned armchair detectives, because the plot is a traditional one and surprisingly mature (see motive) compared to the earlier stories in this collection. Plot-wise, this is easily the best one of the lot.
The penultimate story, "The Visitors Who Vanished," can only be taken seriously when read as a spoof of the genre, because the story is borderline ridiculous with an explanation that plays on an exaggerated cliché outsiders have of classic detective stories. A cliché that never fails to make me cringe whenever it actually turns up in a detective story.
Lincoln and Gerrard are engaged by Mr. Graham West, a well-known art dealer, who had a silver statuette of a horseman stolen under seemingly impossible circumstances. One evening, someone who was pretending to be Professor Garston, a famous sculptor, called on West and was alone for less than a minute, but when West returned the study was deserted and one of his statuettes had vanished – only problem is that the entire house was either locked from the inside or had people mooning about the place. A stranger simply could not have left the house, in less than a minute, without being seen.
Obviously, the explanation hinges on a disguise and this makes it very apparent how the vanishing act was done. Something that would have been slightly more acceptable had Fearn picked a different kind of culprit. So not exactly the gemstone of this volume.
Finally, we have the story that closes this collection, titled "From Beyond the Grave," which has perhaps the most original plot of all six stories and only the second one that deals with a murder.
Lincoln and Gerrard are asked by Miss Mary Reid to prevent the murder of her beloved sister, Margaret, who's engaged to Sir Robert Carson, but Miss Reid suspects Sir Robert is only interested in Margaret's money. She's even convinced he murdered his previous wife, Lady Enid, who supposedly fell overboard from a Channel steamer and her body was never recovered. Miss Reid did some detective work of her own and believes the poor woman never set foot aboard the steamer, but was murdered "at some point en route" and the body had been hidden somewhere along the road, which makes it crystal clear how the case can be solved – namely by finding the place where the body had been stowed away.
A very well-written, good and, above all, a fun story to read. The highlight of the story is without doubt the trap that was laid for the murderer, which saw the murder victim stir from her makeshift grave and disturb her murderer's peace of mind. I might be remembering this wrong, but certain aspects of the plot appeared to be anticipating Agatha Christie's 4.50 from Paddington (1957) by nearly two decades.
However, my memory might be playing tricks on me, because it has been eons since I read 4.50 from Paddington. In any case, "From Beyond the Grave" perfectly served its role as a memorable closing act to the overall collection.
All in all, The Haunted Gallery is an attractive collection of short stories that are either playfully innocent or deadly serious. Only the second story attempted to do a bit of both. But whether the stories are playful or serious, the plots clearly showed they were written for a younger audience, because all of them come with training wheels on. So they only pose a challenge to young neophytes, but the bright-eyed innocence of some of these stories might warm the hearts of the more jaded readers of crime-and detective fiction. Personally, I was warmed by the third one, which is a wonderful yarn in every sense of the word. I did not even care by the standard locked room trick that was used. The rest of the story was too good to disqualify it on a technicality.