THE CHARACTERS: The cast is 99% male with one token woman. That's because The Affair of the Gallows Tree (1930) deals with road construction, engineering and forestry service. Not at all career paths chosen by women back in the day, gang. Our token female character exists for love interest, of course, and to provide the requisite screams and terror. She's the one who finds the body hanging in the tree and is almost immediately dismissed as a "nervous case" with a wild imagination when the body disappears. Her name is Nova Thorne and the only non-cliche part of her role is her profession. She's the modern music composer. Nova has come to the forest to do research on the pitch and tonal quality of babbling brooks, the sound of the wind, and all of the unusual animal and bird noises she can train her ears on and then convert them into musical tributes to Mother Nature. She gets help in matching the sounds to each particular animal and bird from a Native American guide named Rance and sometimes from deputy ranger.
|Art work detail from the cover of|
L'albero della forca, the Italian edition
The rest of the cast is a surly, temperamental lot as might be expected of men who do hard labor and are in constant battle with the weather and other natural forces. There's James "Black" Emmett, the head engineer with more trouble than he can deal with; the foul-mouthed, violent Irishman Lonergan, foreman of the construction crew; a rebellious local homesteader named Jape Lord who is suspected of leading a ring of saboteurs who want to put an end to the road being built through their land; and the overly intellectual and officious Vaughn, an engineer who speaks for the state of California and won't listen to reason. Vaughn gets into several verbal and physical fights, lands a black eye from Lonergan's fist and is purportedly the body found hanging in the tree. But until the body can be found no one really knows who it is. Since Vaughn seemed to vanish Boldrewood and the rest of the men are convinced it's him. He certainly made himself well hated among everyone involved in the construction project.
INNOVATIONS: In this section usually I point out inventive uses of crime fiction plotting and storytelling techniques. But this time I'm going to point out a hilarious method of conveying swear words. As mentioned above Lonergan has a foul mouth, but rather than resorting to filling the page with his four letter word strewn speeches Chalmers does something very unusual. Here's an example:
"Is the [condemned] comp'ny so damned mean it makes a howl over a [quite sanguinary] rope? I'll buy another [doubly condemned] rope! Take it outa my [tainted] money!"Other bracketed synonyms used in place of well known epithets are [unsanctified], [ancestral mistake], [moral delinquent], and [pertaining to heredity]. I couldn't stop laughing at these. That is when I finally figured out what the swear word really was.
There is one bit of evidence that is intriguingly arcane. What appears to be a coded message turns out to be a pictographic language. Rance tells Boldrewood it's the Cree language. What that message turns out to be I won't reveal. This is one of the more outré bits in a highly engaging, unusually imaginative detective novel.
THINGS I LEARNED: Timber wolves roamed the hills in great numbers in northern California in 1930. The rangers need to keep an eye out for them. At one point in the story one character imitates the call of a wolf to signal to another person and this frightens the rangers into action. Rance has to calm everyone down by pointing out that the sound is not a real wolf.
pulling a lime bottle is an illegal method of catching fish. Fill a bottle with quicklime and seal that bottle with a cork that has a hole bored though it. Then as Jape Lord explains to the rangers: "Yuh drop it in a hole yuh know is lousy wit' big trout an' jes' wait till the lime gets wet enough to explode the [bottle]. Then yuh rakes in the trout ez come floatin' belly-up." I wonder if this is done anymore? A rod and reel are much easier, more relaxing and a lot less messy.
hegira - an exodus or migration. This comes from the name given to "Muhammad's departure from Mecca to Medina, prompted by the opposition of the merchants of Mecca and marking the consolidation of the first Muslim community." All that from the Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
|Star Novels (Midsummer 1932) contains|
an abridged version of the novel