Sunday, February 13, 2011

The Man on All Fours (1934) - August Derleth


This is the second of detective novels in a series of ten that feature Derleth's little known second series detective - Judge Ephraim Peck. Derleth is probably better known in the mystery world as the creator of Solar Pons - a Sherlock Holmes spin-off Derleth created when he wanted more Holmes tales but Doyle was not writing them. While Judge Peck shares some aspects of the Holmesian/Pontine method of detection related to physical evidence and the examination of clues he is more in the manner of the intuitive amateur sleuth popular during the late 1920s.

Here is an extremely Gothic detective novel set in a stifling mansion in northern Wisconsin. A family haunted by the deaths of two sons and several grandchildren at early ages and living under the dreaded shadow of hereditary insanity is at the mercy of a homicidal maniac who is killing members of the household. Several members of the family claim to have seen a creeping man both in the house and on the grounds. He appears to be crawling on his hands and knees each time he is seen. The unyielding matriarch seems to know more than she is willing to let on and continually withholds evidence, lies, and covers up the truth. Who is she protecting?

August Derleth, circa 1950s
Before the culprit is found four people will die and a fifth barely escapes with her life. Multiple methods of death (stabbing, gunshot, strangling) lead one to believe that the murderer is completely mad. Which member of the family has finally succumbed to the curse of their line? Or is it indeed the "creeping man" -- some weird intruder living among them? There is some nice detective work on Judge Peck's part including business with dust analysis in two locked rooms that is crucial in uncovering the truth of the creeping man's identity. The book ends melodramatically with a chase and shootout on the mansion's rooftop with some absurd action bits. For example, the 73 year-old matriarch climbing on the roof and grabbing the murderer from a stone parapet. That's some super senior!

Derleth was only 25 at the time of this book's publication. At this point in his career he was still very much a pulp writer. This book has quite a bit of Lovecraft, his writing mentor and friend, in it: the "shunned" house, the familial curse, the manner in which the insanity takes shape in those afflicted, the forbidden third floor and it's locked rooms. Derleth also tries to bury his clues, but he shows his hand clumsily in this book. The emphasis on dread and Gothicism led me to guess the identity of the murderer the instant the character was introduced.

I am in the process of reading most of the Judge Peck books and I am beginning to see themes and something of a formula to them all. A lengthier, in-depth article covering the rest of the titles in the series I own (four more of the ten) and Derleth's approach to and growth in writing detective novels will be posted here shortly.

UPDATE (Feb 15):  I corrected the date of publication. I haven't a clue what possessed me to type 1929.

5 comments:

  1. I'd never heard of August Derleth, but after reading this review and the bio of him on Wikipedia, I'll have to read some of his work. The Holmes pastiches sound interesting, and Derleth sounds fascinating. I'm so glad you're introducing me to writers I would otherwise have missed.

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  2. David Here

    Carol

    The Solar Pons pastiches are unique in that they were good enough to themselves be pastiched (by Basil Copper) and to inspire their own fan club named after Pons Praed St. Address like the Baker Street Irregulars.

    Pons and his Watson Dr. Parker may well be the single most successful pastiche ever penned, and the stories can be fun --- some damn good mysteries, and a few more playful --- including encounters with the mysterious Mr. King (Fu Manchu) and Perry Mason.

    As for Derelith, he is, of course probably most important as a founder of Arkham Press, possibly the most important such small press in genre fiction and as a champion of the work of H P. Lovecraft and the writers who influenced and were influenced by Lovecraft.

    John

    I'm not a huge fan of the Judge Peck series, but they are interesting in one way because of their tie to Derelith's most successful literary effort, his regional Saulk City work.

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  3. David again

    The Saulk City regional work is best known by it's literary nom de guerre Sac Prairie, that being Derelth's fictional version of the place he grew up in.

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  4. You two have convinced me. Off to the library (though I'm sure I'll have to order these through interlibrary loan). Thank you both for the info.

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  5. I've often wondered if these Peck tales are worth reading. I enjoyed Solar Pons (and Basil Copper) and the horror work.

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