Every month on Past Offences we look at the crime fiction of a particular year. This year we went way way back to 1907, chosen for us by RogerBW. Not an easy year (witness the small number of titles) but still some interesting works – and we even managed some spooky titles for Halloween.
I was first past the post this month with my review of Robert Fraser’s Three Men and a Maid, which describes a love triangle, a duel to the death, and the pursuit of an innocent man.
The Squire’s cousin James Courthope has one eye on inheriting his lands and the other on Marjorie. He has high hopes of the Squire’s liver packing it in early, planning to swoop in to pick up the inheritance and the maid. The Squire’s idiotic duel plan threatens to leave James impoverished on a permanent basis, and stuck with Marjorie’s envious and plainer sister Hannah instead. He has to act. Skulduggery ensues, with the upshot that an innocent man looks like a murderer, not helped by his fleeing the scene of the duel.
I followed the Fraser with the roguish adventures of a Gentleman Burglar:
The stories of Arsène Lupin concern the activities of a gentleman thief, bothering the French authorities with his dazzling crimes, but as often as not on the side of the angels. He first appeared (as Arsène Lopin) in 1905 in the magazine Je sais tout, but the stories were first collected in 1907. Lupin went on for 28 more titles by Leblanc (a mix of novels, short story collections and plays). Aside from being a daring and acrobatic thief, he is also ‘the man of a thousand disguises: in turn a chauffer, detective, bookmaker, Russian physician, Spanish bull-fighter, commercial traveler, robust youth, or decrepit old man’.
A rather more turgid French classic from 1907 is Gaston Leroux’s The Yellow Room, a book I found pretty tedious – and RogerBW also found it problematic.
I’m used to detective stories in which the evidence is made available to the reader and he’s challenged to understand it as well as the detective did. That’s not the case here: much of the evidence is not mentioned at all, or mentioned without the detail that makes it evidence, and I think the reader will not be able to solve the details of the crime before it’s explained. On two separate occasions, Rouletabille mentions a particular phrase to someone in order to get them to cooperate, but the reader has no idea of where he might have got it from. It’s less a game of “see how well you can do” and more “see how clever I am”.
There were many reviews of R. Austin Freeman’s The Red Thumb Mark (in fact I think it has the greatest concentration of reviews of any Crimes of the Century book so far). It’s fair to say that opinions about this classic of scientific detection, which hinges on the evidence of a single bloody thumbprint, are, erm, mixed.
The Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel probably liked The Red Thumb Mark least:
Probably one of the most tedious books that I’ve read in a long time, with pages and pages about fingerprint science. There are two other books that spring to mind to compare it to. One is Nine – And Death Makes Ten by Carter Dickson, which also involves some fingerprint jiggery-pokery. That takes a paragraph to explain what’s going on and, to be honest, is at least as convincing as the pages and pages presented here. The other one is, coincidentally, Shot At Dawn by John Rhode, my most recent read, which contains passages about rifle ballistics and the effects of tides. While these are longer (although not as long as in this book) they are much more readable.
Kate at crossexaminingcrime was a little politer in her thoughts on The Red Thumb Mark.
Freeman is not an author new to me, in fact if I ever wrote a black list for authors I want to avoid at all costs, he would probably feature on it.
Well maybe not politer.
Freeman can’t really write it in an interesting manner, or at least not consistently. This is particularly problematic at the trial part of the narrative. Alternatively there are moments when it is quite interesting to hear about the science behind the defence’s case at the trial, simply because before this point the reader has been withheld from Thorndyke’s thoughts and to some extent his actions. It is not surprising that one character likens him to a famous magician duo, Maskelyne and Cooke.
Bernadette at Reactions to Reading took more of an issue with the stylistic appproach of The Red Thumb Mark:
It wasn’t just Jervis’ over-the-top adoration of the novel’s hero that had me wondering if R. Austin Freeman was actually a pseudonym for a female writer (perhaps a teenage one). The whole text was pretty melodramatic and Jervis in particular was swooning over more than just his chum. He falls rather heavily for Juliet Gibson, a friend of the Hornby family, after knowing her for all of a nano-second. Juliet possesses many fine qualities and “…was in nowise lacking in that womanly softness that so strongly engages a man’s sympathy” but poor Jervis has to hide his emotions (from her, not from the reader) for reasons of honour.
What did I think of it? I quite liked it.
Jose Ignacio at A Crime is Afoot was one of two reviewers of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, a book I’ve always admired for its portrayal of seedy and desperate anarchists in Victorian London.
The story is based on a real event, a bomb explosion in Greenwich Park, close to the Observatory, on 15 February 1894. However the action in the book takes place in 1886 and revolves around the family of Adolf Verloc. Adolf and his wife Winnie have no children of their own, but Winnie finds an object of quasi-maternal affection in her brother Steve, a young man with a certain mental disability, who also lives with them together with Winnie’s mother.
Verloc is a secret agent who, despite his lack of competence for the task, is commissioned to blow up Greenwich Observatory. Sergio at Tipping My Fedora continues in his review of The Secret Agent:
It is very far from a straightforward genre piece, though it includes several murders, secret societies and even a police investigator, in the form of Chief Inspector Heat. But this is a story about criminality, alienation and isolation in society and finds little that is good – making this a powerful but pretty downbeat piece (like pretty much all of Conrad’s work). But Conrad is always extraordinarily penetrating in his study of damaged, haunted people and in this works also displays a clever shaping of narrative that will appeal to mystery buffs I think – the timelines switch around at points, so that we are shown the aftermath of the bombing before we understand its full extent for the Verloc family, generating great suspense and so making the unfolding tragedy dig even deeper.
A more schlocky approach to international intrigue now. Jason Half enjoyed E. Phillips Oppenheim’s The Avenger, originally published as Conspirators, which details the adventures of a chap called Herbert, and offers a:
…mix of elements popular in literature at the time, including international intrigue, mysterious murders, and headstrong damsels who still need some help from the men who fall in love with them to avoid scandal and social ruin. If the prose and dialogue are a little formal and genteel, they are also admirably accessible when contrasted with other fiction of the time. To my delight, I found Oppenheim’s storytelling engaging and his narrative pacing and structure worthy of a contemporary Hollywood screenwriter, which surely goes a long way to explain his popularity with readers.
John at Pretty Sinister Books looked at some suitably Halloweeny titles, beginning with his reading of Ernest G. Henham’s The Feast of Bacchus:
a remarkable work of fiction not only for its lush writing and unusual plot, but for the meticulously detailed characters, some of whom act as archetypes. Dr. Berry is the antiquarian of the novel obsessed with the past, especially ancient Greek history and culture and is the voice the reminds everyone that the past is inescapable. Maude Juxon represents the quickly fading conventions of the superficial woman who marries for money and regards rearing children as a tedious task better suited for nannies than real mothers. Flora Neill is the embodiment of “the New Woman” who dares to flout traditional views like marriage being the only recourse for women’s happiness. Mr. Price serves as the voice of all who fear the advances of technology, machinery and science, to the break down of modern civilization and all they hold dear. Take all of these people and add in the Gothic notion of the house as living entity with a sinister influence (a word repeatedly used throughout the text) and you have the makings for an unusual haunted house story that melds metaphysics with philosophy and satirical commentary on the March of Progress.
John followed up with a collection of Algernon Blackwood stories: The Listener.
The seven stories, two of them of novella length, present a variety of unusual approaches to the traditional ghost tale, as well as one story of crime, all incorporating Blackwood’s interest in the power of the imagination and the psychological triggers that make his characters susceptible to other worldly encounters. In many of his tales the narrators and protagonists inadvertently summon the creatures and ghosts by simply thinking about the possibilities of the strange and eerie circumstances they find themselves in.
JJ at The Invisible Event considered two ghostly stories from his Ye Olde Book of Locked Room Conundrums:
‘Plague of Ghosts’ by Rafael Sabatini and ‘The Mystery of the Flaming Phantom’ by Jacques Futrelle — both of which, by sheer coincidence, happen to concern hauntings and/or the appearance of vengeful and ghostly figures threatening presumably some sort of nasty comeuppance if those present don’t get orf my laaaaand. I trust that it spoils nothing to reveal that such otherworldly manifestations in detective fiction are always the work of some waggish cad, not always necessarily predisposed to some odious means or intent, but always at the end unmasked by the phlegmatic common sense of our detective.
Thanks to everyone who braved 1907, next month I’m setting the time machine for 1975…