Friday, September 9, 2011

FFB: Jack Mann & His Occult Detective Gees

Cover artwork by Rudolph Belarski
E. Charles Vivian was a prolific British writer who wrote detective novels, espionage thrillers, adventure stories and supernatural thrillers. Under the pseudonym "Jack Mann" he gave us Gregory George Gordon Green, or as he is known to his friends "Gees," a private investigator who had a habit of stumbling upon mysterious crimes and murders that had supernatural origins. He appeared in eight books and only one of them was a straight crime novel. The other seven touched upon ancient curses, shape-shifters, the practices of a Druid cult, Viking legends, Egyptian reincarnated princess, Atlantean witchcraft and other visitors and entities from other dimensions.

I especially like Maker of Shadows (1938) set in Cumberland, in the northwest corner of England now known as Cumbria. Here Gees must do battle with a powerful warlock who might easily have stepped out of the pages of a book by Sax Rohmer. He is descended from a mythical race Mann created called the Azilians. Like the Picts of ancient Scotland the Azilians are a pagan people of pre-medieval times. But they deviate from the Picts in their religion devoted to "the Unnamed" – a demon goddess who brings the worshipper all he or she desires. The supernatural content in the book is less familiar and trite than found in some of the other books.

Take, for example, Grey Shapes (1937) which for me seemed like a complete rip-off of The Door of the Unreal by Gerald Biss. The entire first half of Mann's book from the sheep mutilations to the strange relationship between the father and daughter and the finale are nearly exactly the same in each book. The Door of the Unreal (1919) is considered a classic of its type but I really shouldn't mention anything of the plot for fear of ruining each book. Written almost twenty years earlier than Mann's Grey Shapes there is a strong case for plagiarism that few critics have ever pointed out. Having previously read Biss' book before Mann's I found nothing new about Grey Shapes, wasn't surprised in the least by anything, and was dumbfounded by the transparent similarities in the two books.

Illustration by Virgil Finlay for Maker of Shadows as serialized in Argosy

from the DJ collection at the Supernatural Fiction Database
Nightmare Farm (1937) is another unusual treatment of the supernatural in a detective novel. This is more along the lines of a ghostbuster adventure complete with haunted house and grisly material horror in one of the best scenes towards the end of the novel. Gees must solve a murder or two and exorcise some evil spirits trapped in the haunted farmhouse.

The Glass Too Many (1940) is sequel of sorts to The Maker of Shadows in that it also deals with a descendant of Mann's completely made-up "lost race" of the Azilians. There is also some more lurid business as in Maker of Shadows with ritual sacrifice in the catacombs beneath an ancestral home and some impossible poisonings that John Dickson Carr might envy. Gees is hired to discover who might be poisoning a British lord. He has started to tremble and shake uncontrollably just like a parlor maid had weeks earlier. Five weeks after her tremors she attacked another maid in a homicidal rage and was sent off to an asylum. As part of his investigations Gees, along with young Claire, discover an underground altar where very recently someone had been burning hallucinogenic herbs as part of a ritual to "the Unnamed."

At one time seven of the eight Gees books were easily found in used bookstores in the reissued formats from Bookfinger. Several years ago I found a bunch of the Bookfinger editions for $15 each. Sometimes it was possible to find one or two for under ten bucks. But as usual with scarce books of this type that are in demand the prices have skyrocketed. Luckily, Ramble House has issued affordable trade paperbacks. Only The Kleinert Case has proven to be elusive. It was the only title not reissued by Bookfinger and to date remains a truly rare title in the Gees series. I have never seen a copy in my lifetime, though there seem to be a few copies in public libraries in the United States.  I doubt they circulate though.

UPDATE: Several months after I originally posted this article I learned that Ramble House has reissued all the Gees books including The Kleinert Case. What a boon to Jack Mann collectors! It is currently the only affordable edition of that extremely rare title. I suggest Jack Mann and E. Charles Vivian fans make their way to the Ramble House or amazon.com and buy a copy pronto.

The Gees Books by Jack Mann
*Gees’ First Case (1936)
*Grey Shapes (1937)
*Nightmare Farm (1937)
*The Kleinert Case (1938)
*Maker of Shadows (1938)
*The Ninth Life (1939)
*Her Ways Are Death (1940)
*The Glass Too Many (1940)

*Available in trade paperback editions from Ramble House.

4 comments:

  1. MAKER OF SHADOWS appears on Karl Edward Wagner's essessential horror novel list.

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  2. Wow...Mann got away with it, clearly...and got handsome illustration for his novel under primary discussion! (wonder how much other plagiarism he did)

    Did your spellchecker turn Bookfinder into Bookfinger? Though Bookfinger sounds like a useful service..."holding your place for over sixty years..."

    Fascinating stuff, and if you and Wagner recommend, I think an eBook, at least, is in order...

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  3. Todd -

    Bookfinger is the correct name for the publisher of the re-issued hardcover editions of Jack Mann's books. I guess it wasn't clear that I was talking about a publisher. Go here for a brief history of Bookfinger, how they came about and what they specialized in re-issuing. They started with rare and hard to find Sax Rohmer titles and moved on from there.

    A close reading of A. Merrit's books might turn up other copycat plots in the Gees series. But I don't want to start any rumors.

    Maker of Shadows is a pretty good example of what can be done with an occult detective in a traditional mystery novel. The Glass Too Many is not as successful because it seems like so much rehash. I have yet to read Her Ways Are Death (although I've owned a copy for over a decade) which has some Merritt-like Viking business and a wicked sorceress and is supposedly the best of the eight books.

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  4. No, you were clear; I read your text too quickly to make the necessary inference.

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