"Yesterday's fashion may not be today's; but it may be none worse for that. On the contrary, it may be a devil of a sight better."- John Dickson Carr ("The Grandest Game in the World," an essay collected in The Door to Doom and Other Detections, 1980)
During the past two years, I have been working my through the long-forgotten, criminally neglected detective novels by John Russell Fearn, a prolific writer of science-fiction, westerns and detective stories, who has a complicated, maze-like publication history – involving a battalion of pennames and publishers. This year alone, I read nine of his detective novels and those nine titles had originally appeared under no less than seven different names. And a handful of publishers and periodicals were involved in those initial publications.
|John Russell Fearn|
Fortunately, reading Fearn today is no longer a labyrinthine exercise in bibliographical genealogy, because nearly all of his work has been restored to print in brand new paperback editions or ebooks. We have one man's indefatigable efforts to thank for that.
Philip Harbottle is a researcher, editor, writer and literary agent who has been tirelessly beating Fearn's drum for decades and wrote extensively on his life and work, which includes John Russell Fearn – An Evaluation (1963), John Russell Fearn: The Ultimate Analysis (1965) and The Multi-Man: A Biographic and Bibliographic Study of John Russell Fearn, 1908-1960 (1968) – which appeared alongside more general studies like Vultures of the Void: A History of British Science-Fiction, 1945-1956 (1993). So it was only a matter of time before the reviews of John Norris, Yvette and yours truly caught his attention.
Earlier this week, I received an email from Harbottle with a question to help him get into contact with John Norris, but we also bounced some emails back and forth about Fearn. Harbottle was kind enough to answer some of my questions, which gave me a better idea who the man behind all those pseudonyms actually was and granted permission to adapt the letter he had drafted for John into a guest-post for this blog.
The letter in question was littered with interesting background information on Harbottle's decades-long quest to get every single title by Fearn back into print and included an informative rundown of eleven of his more interesting detective novels. It was simply too good to allow it to languish in my inbox and had to be shared with my fellow detective-fiction addicts, because I know how famished all of your wish lists are. Particularly with the holidays ahead of us.
For the record, I only made a couple of minor alterations to the original letter in order to make it fit a blog-post format, added links and used the cover art that was supplied for this purpose by Harbottle.
So, without further ado, I'll give the floor to the man who made reading and collecting John Russell Fearn's many fictional endeavors ridiculously easy.
THE DETECTIVE FICTION OF JOHN RUSSELL FEARN BY PHILIP HARBOTTLE
I thought it was about time I dropped you a line to express my appreciation of your positive reviews of some of John Russell Fearn's crime novels, and by following your links I have been pleasantly surprised to discover a few others following your lead. However, it has been a somewhat bitter-sweet experience.
Some seem to think they are clever to have "discovered" Fearn's crime fiction, which makes me grind my few remaining teeth. I was publishing myriads of articles and even entire books about Fearn more than 50 years ago, wherein I wrote, inter alia, "...Fearn's real potential as an author was brilliantly realised in his mystery and detective novels... Thy Arm Alone by John Slate, first published by Rich and Cowan in 1947...may well have been the best book Fearn ever wrote."
Way back in 1991, I wrote an essay about the "Black Maria" books that appeared in Maxim Jakubowski's book 100 Great Detectives, concluding: "Long out of print, and known only to collectors, the novels were recently rediscovered and successfully translated for an Italian readership. They still await an enterprising UK publisher." But despite the book appearing in both the US and UK in hardcover and paperback (not to mention winning the Anthony Award for Best Critical Work!) no one seemed to have read my article! Or if they did, they ignored it. To understand why, you need to understand Fearn's history.
When Fearn died of a sudden heart attack in 1960 at only 52, he immediately fell out of print, because he had represented himself. His widow (only married in 1957) was so grief- stricken—as well as seriously ill herself—that she was unable to answer would-be-publishers' letters, with which she was being bombarded when news of his death was announced. When she recovered, she consulted her solicitor about them. Sadly, this prize chump actually instructed her to ignore or refuse all requests to reprint his hundreds of books and stories, with the sole exception of his Star Weekly Golden Amazon novels. These had been published under his own name, and contained the tagline © John Russell Fearn. The prize chump instructed her that any and all other pseudonymous work (which comprised most of his output!) could not be reprinted because she "could not prove that Fearn was their author!" So Hugo Blayn and John Slate and Vargo Statten and myriad pen names were consigned to oblivion.
It wasn't until 1969 (when I quit my local government career and became an editor myself, seeking to reprint Fearn's work) that I learned about this stupidity. I requested a personal interview, which Mrs. Fearn kindly agreed to. I was able to explain to her that her solicitor was an idiot, and that I had spent my life uncovering and proving Fearn's authorship of all his pseudonymous output. Fortunately I had earlier corresponded with Fearn—"John did talk about you" she recalled—and Mrs. Fearn eventually appointed me as her literary agent.
Thereafter she became a close and dear friend of my family. But in that "lost decade" Fearn had become almost completely forgotten, and in that pre-PC and internet era when my only tools were a manual typewriter and primitive photocopying, I had an uphill struggle to restore him to print in the UK. I was obliged to resume my local government career, and so could only work as an agent in my spare time. Much of his fiction—sf, westerns, and detective—was first restored to print in Italy, in translation, and included first posthumous publication of some unpublished manuscripts.
When Mrs. Fearn died in 1982, I learned that she had bequeathed to me all of Fearn's copyrights, in her will. Slowly, gradually, I continued to bring his work back into print. In 1996 I made the bold decision to take early retirement at 55, bought myself a PC, learned to use it and the internet, and became a full-time literary agent.
Since when I have succeeded in returning every single one of Fearn's sf, western, and crime books to print in the UK and USA, along with scores of short stories in new collections, and several posthumous collaborations. (I've also done the same for E.C. Tubb and Sydney J. Bounds, but your readers won’t wish to know that...)
Many of these books have actually been available for years, but it is only thanks to John Norris and Tomcat that they are finally being noticed. But sadly, there still seems widespread ignorance of Fearn's crime novels outside of the Black Maria, Garth/Dr. Carruthers novels, which everybody seems to think comprised the totality of his locked room/impossible crime stories. Not so! The Silvered Cage was NOT the final bow of Dr. Carruthers.
Allow me to offer your readers this further slice of information:
1: ROBBERY WITHOUT VIOLENCE
In 1957 wrote a sf detective novel called Robbery Without Violence. The basic plot was very similar to that which Fearn had used in his Garth/Carruthers novel What Happened to Hammond? Although its development was completely different, Fearn considered that Garth and Carruthers could not be the lead characters. So he renamed them as Chief Inspector Hargraves and Sawley Garson (a "specialist in scientific puzzles"—but without Carruthers' egotism and sarcasm).
It was published in Fearn's regular market, the Toronto Star Weekly, who requested Fearn (and others) to submit full length novels, which they then condensed to fit their standard format. Fearn used to send in his novels at 50,000 words; he was happy to do this because he thus had the chance of selling his uncut versions as a book later). Up to 1955, the Star novels ran at 40,000 words; from 1956 on they were reduced to 32,000 words and finally, in 1960, they were cut to only 25,000. (At that point, Fearn wrote them at a length of just 35,000.)
When I sought to have this novel reprinted, I discovered that there was a glaring plot hole because of the Star's cuts, so I had to write in a missing explanation myself! I defy anyone to "spot the join!" (note from TC: I did not spot it!) The cutting of 18,000 words rather vitiated the literary worth of the story, but the original had been destroyed, and we can just be thankful that at least the Star was giving Fearn a regular market.
Robbery Without Violence is currently available from Linford and Wildside, and is a locked room/impossible crime novel.
2. THE MAN WHO WAS NOT
Fearn's next Hargraves/Garson novel was an absolute humdinger, and entirely original—it positively bristled with locked room/impossible crime murders! But it was so complex that the Star rejected it, deciding they would not be able to successfully cut it. Whereupon Fearn promptly rewrote it, essentially unchanged, but reinserting Garth and Carruthers! Sadly, he was unaccountably unable to find a book publisher. I found both 50,000 word manuscript versions in Fearn's effects. When I had the book reprinted, I took the decision to use the Sawley Garson version.
The Man Who Was Not is currently available from Linford and Wildside, and is a locked room/impossible crime novel, par excellence.
3. ACCOUNT SETTLED
This is a "stand alone" novel, first published as a Paget Books paperback in 1949. Paget were already running westerns as by "John Russell Fearn" so they made the decision to publish this as by "John Russell." Consequently it remained completely unknown for many decades until I discovered it. Even Bob Adey had never seen a copy and was unaware of its locked room credentials until I presented him with one a few years ago! It is perhaps the rarest of all his books. I restored Fearn's full name when I had it reprinted.
Account Settled is a terrific fun mystery, with a science fiction flavour, but the (many!) locked room/impossible crime elements are all "straight." It is currently available from Linford and Wildside. (note from TC: can any of you guess which title by Fearn has shot up, like a rocket, on my wish list?).
4) SHATTERING GLASS
Fearn created a fascinating psychiatrist detective in his character "Dr. Castle" for this 1947 Star Weekly novel. It was published as by "Frank Russell" to distinguish it from his regular John Russell Fearn "Golden Amazon" sf novels for the Star. This murder mystery may not be impossible crime, but it is unusual and is strongly recommended. It was reprinted unchanged as a 1953 Brown Watson paperback in 1953. It is incredibly rare. But the good news is that it is currently easily available from Linford and Wildside, under Fearn's own name.
5) REFLECTED GLORY
This second "Dr. Castle" novel was written many years later, and unaccountably remained unpublished during Fearn's lifetime. The 50,000 word manuscript was discovered in his effects. I actually believe this may be his best novel—better than Garth and Black Maria. Whilst not exactly impossible crime, it has a wonderful creepy atmosphere and the plot revolves around psychological quirks and flaws in the characters. It has my highest recommendation.
Reflected Glory is currently available from Linford and Wildside.
6) THE TATTOO MURDERS
This was originally published as Murder's A Must by Fearn, by Muir Watson as a 1949 paperback. It is extremely rare, but is worth trying to chase down because of its superb cover by the great Reina Sington. Well worth the probable high price, because this is a very entertaining and efficient murder mystery. Not impossible crime (and also NOT "hardboiled" either) it is none the worse for that.
The Tattoo Murders is currently available from Linford and is shortly to appear from Fearn’s newest publisher, Endeavour Press. The Wildside edition is now out of print but can still be found on the net
7) THE FOURTH DOOR
This was another "one off" 1947 Star Weekly novel, originally as by Frank Russell. It has some of the same creepy/psychological atmosphere of the "Dr. Castle" novels and some impossible crime sub-texts. The writing is not so polished as in Reflected Glory because it has been cut from 50,000 to 40,000 words. (Once again I had to write in extra "missing" text to cover a plot hole created by the abridging) but the novel is notable enough to have been picked up by Audible.com, and makes very good listening.
The Fourth Door is currently available from Linford and Wildside.
8) LIQUID DEATH
This is a fun-read SF detective thriller with some impossible crime elements. It was first published by Modern fiction in 1953 under their "Griff" house name. Scarce and expensive.
The novel is available from Thorpe, and is shortly to be reprinted by Fearn's newest publisher, Endeavour Press. An earlier Wildside edition is now out of print, but second hand copies will be available for some time on the net. The Wildside edition is worth getting, however, because it is a "double size" book, also containing a collection of Fearn's early short crime stories from diverse hard to find sources—principally Thrilling Mystery Stories, which are very entertaining rationalized supernatural stories.
9) DON'T TOUCH ME
This is a hardboiled gangster thriller first published by Modern Fiction in 1953 under their "Spike Gordon" house name. Expect to pay through the nose if you can find a copy! A quite entertaining "crime noir," it was considered notable enough to have been picked up by Audible.com.
Don't Touch Me is currently available from Linford and Wildside.
10) ONE WAY OUT (with Philip Harbottle)
This is a "straight" detective novel about how an innocent man becomes a murder suspect and is forced to go on the run, that was unfinished at the time of Fearn's death. His final detective novel. On the very last page was a very brief cryptic scribble by Fearn to himself, setting out his thoughts on how it finished. Unfortunately I could not make head nor tail of it, and so the manuscript remained unpublished for more than 20 years. Then, suddenly, I woke up one day with an interpretation of what the notes could have meant! I immediately set to work and within a few days I had completed the novel! It was sent to Thorpe and Wildside and immediately accepted and published by them, and is still available.
11) PATTERN OF MURDER
Fearn's original title on this unpublished manuscript was Many A Slip and he had actually bylined it as by "Hugo Blayn" when he submitted it to the successors to his old UK hardcover publisher in 1957. Unaccountably it was not accepted—God knows why, maybe because the lending library markets were dying out then, and UK genre publishers were tightening their belts.
The story is one of Fearn's very best (it might even be better than Reflected Glory) because he was writing directly from his own life-experiences, so that it is completely authentic.
This is a murder story set inside a cinema. (During the war, Fearn himself worked as a Chief projectionist in a cinema, as part of his war service, having been graded C3 and unfit for active service). It has an entirely original authentic scientific plot behind the murder, which would have certainly qualified it as an "impossible crime." However, Fearn inverted the plot—anticipating Columbo by several decades—by revealing the modus operandi early on. The suspense derives from how the hero painstakingly uncovers the method and unmasks the murderer.
There is no surviving record of it ever having been submitted anywhere else, until I sent the manuscript to Robert Hale in 1982 (incidentally, along with The Man Who Was Not). Editor John Hale wrote back to say that both stories were "quite good" and that he really would have liked to publish them—but had reluctantly decided against it, because "the author's name is not known." Bah! Humbug! (Ironically, nearly 20 years later, I would sell John Hale some 20 of Fearn's western novels!)
Needless to say it was snapped up by, and is currently available from, both Linford and Wildside. On no account should this one be missed! (note from TC: this one is on my TBR-pile and might be one of my next reads... unless Account Settled overtakes it).
So there you have my top-of-the head selection of some of the best (not all) of Fearn's still largely "unknown" crime novels. I hope it might just interest you.
There are numerous new collections containing all of Fearn's remaining short crime stories, but I don't suppose any of your readers would be interested, as most of them are interspersed with sf stories…
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I would like to append Harbottle's list with two titles that did not make the cut or was mentioned, but deserve to be considered for your wish list: Except for One Thing (1947) is an excellent inverted detective novel with battle-of-wits between the police-inspector and the murderer and an under appreciated locked room novel, Death in Silhouette (1950), which has a splendid have-your-cake-and-eat-it-too solution.
So now we have gotten that out of the way, I would like to express my gratitude for all the time and hard work Harbottle has put into preserving Fearn's literary legacy. Fearn was one of the earliest followers (read: fanboy) of my favorite mystery writer, John Dickson Carr, whose influence can often be found in his impossible crime fiction (e.g. the locked room solution in The Five Matchboxes, 1948).
More often than not, Fearn attempted to bring a new idea, or approach, to the impossible crime genre (e.g. previously mentioned Thy Arm Alone) and that's what attracted me to his work, but only this week have I come to appreciate the time and work that went into making them accessible to a world-wide audience – as well as giving me a glimpse of the man who wrote them. A man who must have been an absolute treasure to have had as a friend.
All of this has completely expunged my recent disappointment over Robbery Without Violence and moved two of the titles mentioned by Harbottle to the top of my to-be-read pile, but before I'll get around to that I'll have special review planned for one my fellow locked room addicts. But that's for the next post. So see you all on the flipside!