Thursday, March 31, 2011

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Maria Black, M.A.

John Russell Fearn was a prolific science fiction and detective story writer who penned numerous books under a variety of strange pseudonyms each name signaling the genre in which he was working: Hugo Blayn, Spike Gordon and Dennis Clive for crime thrillers; Volstad Gridban, Vargo Statten, and Thornton Ayre for sci-fi pulp; John Slate for the detective novels featuring Maria Black; and many others. In some cases he blended sci-fi elements or, more accurately, scientific detection into his mystery novels.

After several years of languishing in the limbo of out-of-printdom nearly all of Fearn's books have been reprinted, albeit in large print format. They can be found as part of the Linford Mystery Library, published by F.A. Thorpe in England. Luckily, the books are now being reissued under Fearn's real name. The publisher along with Philip Harbottle, Fearn's literary executor, did a remarkable job of gleaning the detective and crime fiction from of the purely sci-fi works. Though there are still a few detective novels which blend both genres and defy categorization as one or the other.

Maria Marches On is the second book in the Maria Black series written under the "John Slate" pseudonym. Slate’s mysteries featuring this headmistress of a Rosewell College for Young Ladies school border on the scientific detective category but only barely so. This one is also a quasi-impossible crime, a subgenre of the detective novel that Fearn dabbled in almost as much as John Dickson Carr, Clyde Clason and Anthony Wynne. Unfortunately, Slate’s mysteries are fairly transparent from the get-go and some of the murderers are fairly obvious by around the midpoint of the book. His clues are not well hidden in his descriptive passages. On the contrary -- they stick out like sore thumbs. The reader keeps waiting for some character other than Black to notice them. Still, there is no dismissing the telling of the story and his intricate plots. Fearn can write an entertaining tale despite his faults in construction and misdirection.

Maria Black is a colorfully drawn, imaginatively realized character. She holds the reader’s interest and carries each story to its satisfying conclusion. A no-nonsense, tough woman with a near perverse interest in the criminal mind, Black has a mathematics background (she teaches the subject at her school) but is also well versed in physical sciences, notably biology and chemistry. She will often do a little research to fill in gaps in her knowledge or even dabble in experiments in the school lab to prove her theories.

In Maria Marches On she investigates the hanging death of a newly enrolled student who was found dead in a clearing in the woods outside the school grounds. Nearby, two schoolmates are discovered unconscious and barefoot lying next to the tree where the body is strung up. The method of the crime is what’s most puzzling, the criminal is not. The quasi-impossible aspect is that the ground surrounding the victims (both dead and unconscious) shows no sign of being trampled and gives the appearance that the killer escaped into the air or climbed into the trees. A subplot involves a formula for a secret explosive that has been tattooed onto the dead girl’s arm using an ink visible only under ultraviolet light.

Other books in the Maria Black series also feature impossible crimes. The first book in the series, Black Maria, M.A., is a locked room mystery in which she travels to America to solve the murder of her own brother. One Who Remained Seated deals with a man found stabbed in a movie theater yet no one was sitting or seen anywhere near him. The corpse in Thy Arm Alone is found burnt to a crisp in a convertible automobile on a lonely road in the countryside. The car is not damaged at all, but the man's face is destroyed and most of his upper body has suffered extreme burns. The killing in Thy Arm Alone is one of the most bizarrely executed and ingeniously planned murders in all of detective fiction. I have yet to read a book employing the same murder method. It is unusual and imaginative ideas like this that make the Maria Black books worth tracking down and reading.

The Maria Black Detective Novels
Black Maria, M.A. (1944)
Maria Marches On (1945)
One Remained Seated (1946)
Thy Arm Alone (1947)
Framed in Guilt (1948)
Death in Silhouette (1950)

6 comments:

  1. Ha! The premise of One Who Remained Seated sounds exactly like the plot a few of us were playing around with last year – and Patrick even worked the solution, I proffered, into a short story.

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  2. By the way, the Maria Black books are also available in normal editions, from the Wildside Press, and lots of his other detective novels, too.

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  3. John...you're doing it again. Adding to my already way too long TBF list. There's no way on earth I'm going to find and own all the books on that list. But a new-to-me "academic mystery" series....those are going to the head of the class!

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  4. Oooh, yeah. A crime-solving scientist/teacher? Definitely ahead of her time. On the list she goes.

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  5. I can't believe someone beat me to my impossible murder in a theatre idea! Back to the drawing board...

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  6. James here. The Maria Black stories I have read are fast-paced and make for quick fun reads. The detective in 'Framed in Guilt' actually is one Superintendent Henshaw, not Maria Black -even though it was originally published as by John Slate. The plot concerns a solicitor's clerk who is discovered on the floor of his employer's locked office with a knife stuck in his back. It is worth looking for too and was one of the titles reprinted in large print.

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