Thursday, February 24, 2011

Friday's Forgotten Books: Mr Fairlie's Final Journey

Happy Birthday, August Derleth. I was too late with this blog by two years to get on the bandwagon with the celebration of his centennial birthday, but he looks just as good at 102 as he did at 100. Don't you think? And in lieu of lighting up a century's worth of candles I offer up this review of the only Solar Pons novel in the "Pontine Canon" as his devotees like to call it.

I have been reading a lot of Derleth mystery novels and stories lately. I have noted he seems to be fairly obsessed with the "wealthy family plagued by a menacing homicidal killer" plot best exemplified by such the classic mystery novel The Greene Murder Case and in the movies by Kind Hearts and Coronets. Nearly every one of the Judge Peck novels feature this plot -– almost always with some ancient doyenne who consults the Derleth detective in order to prove that accidental or seemingly natural deaths were in fact murders. In Mr. Fairlie's Final Journey this is once again the case making it the sixth detective novel of Derleth's where I have encountered this plot. How many variations did he dream up? It's almost like a drinking game could come out of reading one of these books. Spooky remote mansion - drink! Ancient matriarch appalled – drink! Female relative as companion to matriarch – drink! Several relatives who suffered unusually violent "accidental" deaths – drink for each one you encounter. You'll be plastered by the end of a day's reading and slightly befuddled how one writer could be so lazy in his plots.

Jonas Fairlie is the Farwell family business manager. As the vigilant and highly moral overseer of the Farwell family's printing firm Fairlie has been noticing some unusual behavior among some of the Farwell members. He and Sir Charles take a trip to Scotland and when they return Sir Charles rewrites his will. Then a series of accidents send a handful of the Farwell family members to the great beyond. Jonas Fairlie suspects foul play. He was en route via train to see Solar Pons and discuss his theories when he is callously murdered with chloroform. Pons is called in by the local police when they find his calling card in Fairlie's waistcoat pocket. There is indeed a murderer at large striking down the Farwell family, but proving the accidents to be murders is problematical for the genius sleuth.

I like the Solar Pons stories, but because I have read this story numerous times before in the Judge Peck series I was impatient with it. I have memorized the formula and it's easy to identify the tricks – most of them already overused by the time this book was published in 1968. But I made my way through to the end hoping for something extra. Other than a cliffside battle between Pons and a villain that ends in a plunge to rocky seashore below (mirroring of course the Reichenbach Falls episode) there was little thrilling or exciting in this book.

I also have a problem with Derleth's penchant for writing "period" prose. The story is supposed to take place in 1937 but you never get this at all. There are cars present, but the characters might just as well be riding around in hansom cabs. The mood and writing are imbued with an Edwardian haze and the smell of gaslit lamps and the clip-clop of horses' hooves practically drift off every page. I understand that Pons was inspired by Sherlock Holmes but why set the stories in the 20s and 30s if  the characters are going to speak and behave as if they were in living in Doyle's era? Maybe I'm being picayune here, but I think Derleth fell into a Victorian/Edwardian time tunnel each time he started writing about Pons.

There is one surprise that comes in the telling, but it is saved for the final paragraphs and the "evidence" that confirmed Pons' suspicion about this secret was pretty flimsy. Derleth's clues in his novels are not often well hidden but I admit this one slipped by me. Although I did wonder why Diana Fairlie would admit to having read The Wind in the Willows aloud if she lived entirely alone. I should've made the obvious association as Pons did.  Guess it was all that tipping of the glass in the previous 172 pages.

15 comments:

  1. David here:

    The Period business was deliberate on Derelith's part, as for the plot --- he probably assumed most Pons readers would not have been that familiar with his Judge Peck novels.

    Like Sherlock Holmes Pons fares better in short form. A few stories are little minor classics of the form and some of the forays into science fiction are great fun --- where else can you have Perry Mason, Sherlock Holmes (in Pons form), and Fu Manchu in the same story?

    You have to read Pons adventures with the wink and nod they were written with --- this isn't really Sherlock Holmes --- wink wink --- see it's set in the 1930's wink wink ...

    In truth Derelith's real contribution is less as a writer than as the man who kept H. P. Lovecraft's legacy alive, created two of the most successful small press publishing houses of the 20th Century, and published some of the finest weird fiction ever gathered under one publisher's roof, keeping many writers work in print who would otherwise have been lost to us (and in attractive editions too).

    I happen to like his work, especially the Pons stories, though it is uneven, but as a publisher, anthologist, and editor he holds a unique position. Arkham alone would be enough of an achievement for most people.

    For a good sampling of his own weird fiction outside the Lovecraft vein look for HARRIGAN'S FILES from Arkham.

    102? Pehaps Cthulu and the Elder gods are protecting him.

    Always nice to know that a legend still survives.

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  2. Hi, I'm Andy. (I commented below on the Fifth Tumbler, but screen name assigned was some strange combination of letters and numbers)

    I appreciate your comments on the plot "formula" of certain authors. I find it can become rather frustrating. I've accumulated a number of J. Jefferson Farjeon books, and initially enjoyed them. He has some fascinating plots, but they eventually fall into the same pattern...only the names are changed.

    I enjoyed the Solar Pons series, as they were an easy and comfortable read. I have never read any of his non-Pons books. I found your review of Man On All Fours enticing! Thanks for the great reviews!!

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  3. Darn those pesky plots! It's so hard to find one that hasn't been done to death (pun intended). Which makes characterization and dialogue all that much more important. Even the best writers frequently failed to put all three together. I'll keep reading them though, for the glimpse of the past they offer, and because every once in while you stumble across someone you haven't read who sets your brain on fire with the origniality of their work. Love hearing you guys expound on these writers.

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  4. Andy -

    Saw your comment on Fifth Tumbler - thought it was spam and nearly deleted it! I plan on reviewing more Clason books, by the way. The ones not yet re-issued by Rue Morgue -especially The Whispering Ear which is the second most difficult Clason book to track down. I wanted to go in chronological order, but maybe I'll tackle The Purple Parrot, sooner than I planned. Just for you! Yes, we take requests. (Ticket giveaways not part of the program though.)

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  5. David-

    There's already so much on Derleth, Lovecraft and the Arkham House crowd that I am just going to forgo all that on my blog. Entire websites are devoted to Arkham House and Lovecraft. It seems oversaturated to me. I'd have nothing new to add.

    I should do a post on the many noteworthy horror anthologies Derleth edited for Farrar & Rinehart. He managed to introduce all the "Weird Tales" gang to a wider audience via a leading publisher. Maybe next time FFB has an anthology theme.

    Supernatural and horror fiction is greatly lacking on this website so far. My main interest has always been detective fiction that blends supernatural elements into the story. Occult detectives (Jules De Grandin, John Silence, Miles Pennoyer) are a special interest. Time to rectify that.

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  6. [Andy]

    John, Thanks for the special treatment regarding the Purple Parrot! There are a few copies floating around, and wondered whether it was worth pursuing. Look forward to your review!

    It's great hunting down those "impossible to find" titles! It took me 22 years to obtain all the John Rhode books (only read 1/2 so far). Slowly working on Miles Burton. Wish Ramble House would do more of his difficult to find titles.

    Since you are a professional book dealer/collector, I think it is great that you are sharing your knowledge, and discussing some of those obscure authors/titles that us "commoners" could never get our hands on!!

    I also enjoy detective/supernatural-overtones type story. I thought William Hope Hodgson's short stories: Carnacki, the Ghost Finder was a fun read!!

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  7. As an unabashed Derleth fan, I am sorry to admit that this was not up to the author's standard.

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  8. I've never read much of the Pons canon, nor any more than I've been able to avoid of his attempts to Christianize Lovecraft...but I certainly have enjoyed his Real literary work.

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  9. I have the two volume boxed SOLAR PONS OMNIBUS set and have read it through more than twice (I don't have an actual count) and enjoyed each reading. I've also read as many Pons stories by Basil Copper as I've been able to find, and liked those too. Perhaps I'm not as perceptive or don't have your critical eye (ear?) for these, they just seem like darn good fun to me.

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  10. RIchard -

    Don't forget my nose! I like the stories far better. They have more weird and fanciful elements in them and as David V mentioned cameo appearances from other genre characters. This novel was pretty routine as far as traditional detective fiction goes. Plus formulaic. The only reason I'm so unfair to the book is due to reading one author's work back to back over a two week period. Like Solar Pons himself would say: "Patterns begin to emerge, Parker. Do they not!"

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  11. Never read any August Derleth. So I'm new to all this and overly inluenced by the minutia. At least I will be, once I begin reading. I've heard of Solar Pons (obviously, who could forget a name like that) and the similarities to Sherlock Holmes - my one and only.

    Thanks for this post, John. Lots for me to investigate and think about.

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  12. David Here:

    Familiar plots and formula --- one of the pit falls of genre fiction (the killer always shows up on the same page and nearly the same paragraph in Van Dine's novels). Most of us prefer to be surprised, though I do think we overlook the importance of familiarity to many of these writers and their audience.

    Quite a few readers prefered the cookie cutter to the innovative. The comfortable old shoe to the shiny glass slipper.

    John

    If you are going to be doing a few mysteries with a weird slant along the way, check out Helen McCloy's (Mrs. Brett Halliday --- Davis Dresser) THROUGH A GLASS DARKLY and MISTER SPLITFOOT. Both feature her psychologist sleuth Dr Basil Willing.

    SPLITFOOT is an excellent mystery where the supernatural element hangs over everything (Keating chose it as one of his 100 Best), and DARKLY is something of a tour de force, on the doppleganger theme, of what is called the Janus solution. I won't give that away, save to point out one of the most successful examples in literature is Carr's THE BURNING COURT.

    I promise when you finish DARKLY you will never smell lemon verbena again without a slight frisson. If you haven't read her the other books are good too, including the WW II spy novel THE GOBLIN MARKET, again with Willing.

    And take a look at some of Sax Rohmer's Paul Harley titles (BAT WING, GREY FACE), something a bit different (and better) than the Fu Manchu books (fun as they are) and his Morris Klaw stories.

    If you have never read it Dorothy MacArdle's DARK FREEHOLD (aka THE UNIVITED) basis of the classic film with Ray Milland and Gail Russell is a full blown ghost story but features quite a bit of good detective work along the way to laying not one but two chosts.

    You also might enjoy THE HAND OF MARY CONSTABLE by Paul Gallico where his ghost busting hero Alexander Hero has to lay a ghost that threatens to warm up the Cold War --- it was an excellent made for television film with Don Murray, Ed Asner, and Ray Milland called DAUGHTER OF THE MIND.

    And though not detective stories A. Merritt's BURN WITCH BURN, Fritz Leiber's CONJURE WIFE, William Sloane's THE EDGE OF RUNNING WATER, and Jack Williamson's DARKER THAN YOU THINK are very close to the genre and fine reads.

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  13. David -

    McCloy and Basil Willing will be showing up here fairly frequently. I am trying to avoid writing about books which are very familiar or popular. Through a Glass Darkly is her tour de force work and is always talked about. I try to write about the lesser known books and point out why they should be attracting a reader rather than the sole "best" book of any author.

    I own and have read nearly every book you mention above. The only book I've never read from the many you list is McArdle's. But I have seen the movie version many times. The Uninvited has been one of my favorite movies of all time from the first time I saw it as a teenager. If I were to write about McArdle I'd probably choose The Unforeseen - although it's only marginally supernatural.

    Of Sax Rohmer's supernatural books I like Brood of the Witch Queen better than either of those you mention. Bat Wing I thought rather dull compared to the lurid and action packed events in Brood...

    A. Merritt's books will definitely show up here one of these days. Sloane and Williamson are written about often. Darker Than You Think is constantly popping up on blogs and elsewhere probably because it has been reprinted the most out of all the books you list and it's easy to get a hold of a copy to read. I thought it pretty innovative in taking the werewolf legend and adding a sci-fi origin.

    But for my money the best werewolf novel that is also a detective novel would be The Undying Monster by Jessie Douglas Kerruish. As far as I can tell it's the first novel - I say novel and NOT short story - with an occult detective AND that occult detective is the first female occult detective. Rich and detailed and much better than the movie which leaves out some of the best portions of the book including (shamefully) the fascinating character of Luna Bartendale, the occult detective who solves the mystery.

    With luck I will end up writing about some books in the occult detective area that even you have never heard of or read.

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  14. For me, Derleth's major contribution is less the Lovecraft preservation than the work he did in his own voice...and the work he preserved and touted from all the other WT and other writers his fine press published.

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  15. David here

    John

    The Keruish book is a favoritie of mine too. A remarkable book in many ways, and surprisingly the film version with James Ellison and John Howard keeps much to the detective element intact.

    If you are looking for some mysteries that are a bit unusual or not really written much about in the genre you might check out Frances Parkinson Keyes enjoyable thriller A STATION WAGON IN SPAIN (I know, terrible title --- sounds like someone's summer vacation) or her novel of murder at qala theatrical event, THE ROYAL BOX. Something different in that both are a novelist approach to genre subjects.

    Most of the too few occult sleuths have been done to death (and considering the subject afterlife) I grant. Alexander Laing, if not obscure is too little known now, and while McCloy is certainly given her due, I think many newer readers likely wouldn't know her --- or only by name.

    A couple of Eden Phillipots thrillers as Harrington Hext fit the bill, and certainly some of Russell Kirk's work, though his best, THE OLD DARK HOUSE OF FEAR is not supernatural.

    Francis Gerard of the Sir John Meredith and the continuation of Edgar Wallace's Sanders books often touched on the occult or near occult and did one very good stand alone werewolf novel. Geoffrey Household's THE SENDING is a small masterpiece of an occult novel.

    Then there are John Blackburn's excellent mix of the supernatural and spy genre's like THE RING OF ROSES or THE SCENT OF NEW MOWN HAY, and veering even more into gothic science fiction John Creasey's Dr. Palfrey.

    But I look forward to being surprised.

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