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.