Friday, September 30, 2011

FFB: The Weird Picture - John R. Carling

The 1st American edition
w/pictorial boards depicting Rivoli
I doubt anyone among our regular readers knows of or has read anything by John R. Carling. He belongs to the long faded school of Romantic fiction that also houses the works of George Barr McCutcheon, Jeffery Farnol and Arthur W. Marchmont among many others. These particular books are characterized by high melodrama, complex action-oriented plots, young lovers at odds with each other, and a florid prose style firmly rooted in their time period. While many Edwardian and Victorian writers can seem rather contemporary to 21st century readers Carling and his ilk belong to the past. If you willing to transport yourself back over one hundred years these books can be an entertaining, though sometimes intermittently cumbersome, read. The Weird Picture (1905) is one of the few exceptions free of boring passages in an era that was increasingly turning away from excessive melodrama in favor of realistic domestic drama. It's a book I was surprised to discover was on an equal with many of the potboiler thrillers of today.

Frank believes he spies his brother in Dover
(art by Cyrus Cuneo)
The book opens with the disappearance of George Willard on the eve of his wedding to Daphne Leslie. The novel is narrated by Frank, George's brother, who for years has also been in love with Daphne. Frank is confused and disturbed by his brother's having taken flight. Confused because he is sure he has seen George in Dover as he was disembarking from the boat train. Disturbed because later on the train home he shares a compartment with a mysterious veiled woman who is carrying George's monogrammed valise. The woman is mute and cannot explain how she came to be carrying the suitcase, but Frank pursues her to a boarding house. When the door is answered by an old Italian man he tells Frank there is no woman living in the house and no one answering George's description lives there either. Is that enough mystery for you? Wait there's more.

Daphne receives a letter from George in which he apologizes for his ungentlemanly behavior of the day before they are to be married. He says "terrible circumstances" have forced him to give her up. He cannot marry her nor ever "hope to look upon [her] face again. Do not seek me, you will never find me." So Daphne, Frank and Daphne's father Gerald do what anyone would do. They go off on a whirlwind tour of Europe. Forget George's melodramatic vanishing and self-imposed exile. Just dismiss his claims and the mystery of it all. Better to be distracted with the delights of a continental tour than bear up and discover the truth, right?

Daphne is visited by a mysterious figure
(art by Cyrus Cuneo)
It is in Rivoli, Switzerland that the story takes an even stranger twist. The trio meet up for the second time with painter Angelo Vasari who they had earlier met in England. He is being celebrated for a near masterpiece he created called "The Fall of Caesar." Vasari hints at a secret method he has borrowed from the Greeks that has allowed him to create a new type of vividly realized and striking painting. A variety of incidents lead Frank to believe, though he has not yet seen the painting, that it bears the image of his missing brother. He also suspects that Angelo is a fraud and that he is not the true artist of "The Fall of Caesar."

Then Frank believes he sees the old Italian man who answered the door at the boarding house where the veiled woman fled. He is in conference with a priest taking confessions. Later, this man is discovered dead at the foot of cliff. Frank and Uncle Gerald use their innate amateur sleuthing skills to point out wounds on the neck that indicate strangling and a button clenched in the man's fist torn form an article of gray clothing. They are sure that they man was murdered.

Meanwhile Angelo rabidly pursues Daphne claiming his love for her, that she is the perfect model for his next great painting. He has already used her face for a Madonna that hangs in a local cathedral and she is causing a stir among the locals who recognize her face from that painting. Daphne shuns all Angelo's attentions. Frank is clearly jealous.

Frank at the mercy of the mad villain
When the trio return to England for a Christmas visit at the home of Sir Hugh Wyville the novel transforms once more into a Gothic imbued thriller.  Silverdale Abbey, a 600 year-old ancient nunnery and former silver mine, has a haunted past.  Nuns who broke their vows are said to have been thrown down an abandoned shaft and their ghosts haunt the abbey.  It should come as no surprise that Angelo Vasari reappears and the mysterious painting "The Fall of Caesar" turns up in Sir Hugh's private art gallery. Just as Sir Hugh is about to unveil the painting to Daphne, Frank and Uncle Gerald it is discovered to have been stolen from the locked and sealed gallery.

All of the various mysteries, the murder of the Italian man, the meaning of the mute veiled woman on the train and most importantly of what happened to George are all revealed in a climax worthy of a Guy Boothby thriller.  Madness is at the heart of the novel.  And the macabre motives of the villain are rooted in - of all things - the demand for realism in art.  Here are the words of the villain who performs a five page monologue/confession in the the last chapter fittingly titled "The Denouement!"

You see this is the age of realism. Nothing is now accepted in literature, art, or the drama that does not bear on its front the stamp of reality. Art, if it is to hold the mirror up to Nature, must not shrink any more than medical science from experimenting on the living frame, and analysing with delicate eye its varying of phases of agony.

I think that this was the point of Carling's book.  He had recognized that the kind of book he liked to write was something of a dinosaur already in 1905.  He had already written The Shadow of the Czar (1902), a swashbuckling adventure, followed shortly by a supernatural mystery called The Viking's Skull (1904). With The Weird Picture he seemed to have exhausted his imagination and waved the white flag in the face of realism.  While some of his more successful contemporaries managed to carry on the trend of these fanciful, completely unrealistic stories well into the mid 1920s Carling seemed to have surrendered to the tastes of the modern reader. Fittingly, his last book was called The Doomed City (1910), a Romantic historical epic about the fall of Jerusalem.

The second US edition of The Weird Picture

This was a double duty post - both a Friday's Forgotten Book and a late entry in the Switzerland stop on the Crime Fiction EuroPass challenge.  For more overlooked and forgotten books visit Patti Abbot's blog.  For further reading by Swiss crime writers and mystery novels set in Switzerland visit Mysteries in Paradise.

7 comments:

  1. I'd read this for the illustrations alone. Thanks for posting those. And I'd read this edition because I could have lifted it straight from my grandmother's shelf. I wish I knew what happened to those old thrillers.

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  2. I love the illustrations too. This sounds like a 'heaving busoms' kind of thriller. Occasionally I like those.

    I love the work of Raphael Sabatini and he writes in similar style.

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  3. To the Ladies' Art Appreciation Society -- I'll have to dig up some more Cyrus Cuneo illustrated books and do a "Drawing on the Past" post about him. His work is as dramatic as Arthur Keeler's.

    To Gary/Jack - Knock me over with a feather! Did you get all the way through? I had to read to the end to find out if Carling's finale matched my own bizarre idea of who and what was responsible for all the mystery and mayhem. He didn't come anyway near what my imagination dreamed up, but the villain's insane monologue at the end just about made up for it. If it had been in a movie I'm sure the audience would've been screaming "Shut up already and kill him!" :^D

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  4. The Weird Picture - who could resist such a title. Thanks for pointing it out.

    Must admit that I used to pick up books like this thinking, ego unchecked, that I must surely be the first person to read it in over a decade... or two... or five. The web not only returned me to earth, but brought contact with others who have read same. 'Tis a wonderful thing.

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