Friday, January 15, 2021

Herald of Death - Max Dalman

THE STORY: Sound the bugle! Mount your horses! The fox hunt has begun. But this fox hunt ends with a decidedly different killing. Richard Marney is found stabbed with an ornate stiletto just short of an infamous hazard requiring skillful horse jumping maneuvers known as The Cliff. Suspicion falls first on Hugh Egmont, rival for the affection of Joan Marney, Richard’s cousin. Police investigation uncovers a history of other Marney family members having recently died in violent accidents. When Joan is attacked late one night the police begin to think that a killer is intent on murdering the entire Marney family.

THE CHARACTERS: Anonymous letters with cryptic statements using heraldry terms turn up a few days before Marney is murdered giving the book its title Herald of Death (1943). A letter sent to PC Retters seems to predict the death at the fox hunt though the message is worded nebulously, almost in riddle format. Luckily, there is an expert in heraldry in town who helps Retters make sense of the message which seems to hint at future deaths.

Egmont also receives a message telling him the hunt was cancelled the day of the murder, a tactic of reverse psychology that guarantees Egmont, known to be an avid hunter, would be sure to investigate. And so instead of not attending, Egmont makes sure he gets on his horse and rides the usual course. His timing couldn’t be worse, however. As soon as he shows up at the scene of the crime -- the perilous area known as The Cliff -- the police are there investigating what they think is a horse riding accident. Close inspection of Marney’s body reveals the oddly placed stab wound,

Charles Marney, Joan’s father who is in financial difficulty; Mrs. Handley, a mystery novelist; and Retters are the most interesting characters in the book. I vaguely remember an eccentric vicar in the mix, he appeared in only a few incidents at the start of the book, but since his name doesn’t appear in my notes I don’t think he had much to do with the story at all. Everyone else is a stock character of no real dimension – officious policemen, indignant heirs, several garrulous villagers, a pair of gossipy servants, and Joan as the requisite damsel in distress who anyone knows is completely innocent of anything and exists only for love interest and to have her life threatened once or twice.

Overall, the novel is intermittently engaging especially when PC Retters is on the scene. Rarely do we find police constables proving to be the smartest and most abstract thinker among the detectives in novels of the Golden Age. There are perhaps too many detectives in this book and I didn’t care much for the main sleuth Inspector Lyly. I wasn’t sure who I should be paying attention to – Lyly, Supt. Leyland or Retters who Dalman makes not only clever but slightly sinister. For a while I thought Retters had sent all the heraldry letters as an obfuscating distraction.

INNOVATIONS: Some well done scenes feature an eerie presence only heard and never seen. A horrid mournful screeching is heard in the night and at one point Joan is menaced and followed by this apparently invisible thing in the night. Cats are featured in the story and might appear as red herrings to all but the most astute reader. Dalman can be effective in creating atmosphere and chilling the bone in these quasi-supernatural sequences. He almost succeeds in making the reader believe some fantastical creature might be involved in the various deaths that occur. When the true explanation for the mysterious screeching comes in the final pages it fails to achieve the desired effect and comes almost as an anticlimax. Certainly nothing as chilling as what John Dickson Carr might have come up with.

This novel reminded so much of The List of Adrian Messenger by Philip Macdonald. Both feature a fox hunt and a family decimation plot similar to The Greene Murder Case, Israel Rank and other crime novels with rich families being murdered one by one. The difference with Dalman’s book is that the motive for murdering the Marneys is not made known in full until the final pages. There is an incident in the past mentioned two or three times over the course of the story that stuck out like a bloody thumbmark and made me think I knew exactly who the killer was and the motive for all the deaths. However, the actual “how” as applied to that character in relation to Richard Marney’s murder made no sense. As it turns out I was correct in my tagging the killer. Dalman is mostly good at misdirecting the reader over the course of the book until he overplays his hand with a monologue from the culprit that is intended to be a solution of the crime pointing the finger at another, but in effect turns out to be a confession. As such this is a clever way to attempt to trick the reader, but as it comes towards the end of the book it was too late for me. I had already seen through his flimsily veiled illusion several chapters before.

The overall narrative is also disjointed with no real flow of action. I found it to be repetitive and cyclical. The police revisit the scene of the crimes multiple times, suspects are re-interviewed, and the story is rehashed and repeated. Actual progress only comes in a rushing deluge in the final pages.

The unsurprising reveal of the murderer and a weak explanation of the eerie screech made this just a middling story. It falls well below the promise of what I discovered in Poison Unknown (1939), Dalman’s fifth mystery novel. Herald of Death is from the tail end of his writing career, the twelfth of a total of fifteen books. Maybe his first books are the ones to read. Are the later books lesser works? Had he lost his touch towards the end of his career? Three more Max Dalman mystery novels await me – one before this one in his chronological bibliography, and two right after. I’ll soon see if he’s a true discovery among the many neglected writers I write about here or if he is one of the many hit-or-miss writers who belong in the Hall of Ignominy in that ever growing annex of Forgotten Writers in the Golden Age of Detection.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

REAL LIFE: The Case of the Autographed Corpse

Gardner dictating one of his
many Perry Mason novels

Much has been written about mystery writers and their involvement in real life crime cases. Arthur Conan Doyle used his skills as an amateur sleuth and ophthalmologist to help clear the name of George Edjali accused of mutilating horses and other farm animals. A nurse who after reading Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse recognized the signs of thallium poisoning in that book and managed to get proper treatment for a misdiagnosed patient in time to save the patient’s life. But what of other mystery writers' adventures in real criminal cases? Who else might have turned detective in real life or had their books used to help solve a crime? An article in the recent Smithsonian magazine highlights Erle Stanley Gardner’s involvement in helping to resolve a case of a wrongfully accused and imprisoned Apache shaman.

Gardner never stopped practicing law and, in fact, spent much of his later life helping prisoners. This may have been mentioned in Gardner’s biography by Dorothy B. Hughes but I’ve never read it. Nevertheless it was fascinating to learn that Gardner was one of the first people to create a foundation that examined miscarriages of justice (The Court of Last Resort), reviewing cases of prisoners who wrote letters claiming innocence and of being wrongfully imprisoned. One such letter written in 1951 found its way to Gardner’s desk. The writer was Silas John Edwards, an Apache medicine man who had started his own religion. In 1933 he had been tried for the murder of his wife, was quickly found guilty on largely circumstantial evidence, and sent to prison. Gardner reviewed the court transcripts and interviewed others on the reservation where the murder took place. Many of those he interviewed were convinced of the Apache’s innocence. Some even claimed to know the name of the true killer. It was a piece of supposed evidence presented by the prosecution, however, that set Gardner off on his quest to save Edwards.

Silas John Edwards (left) and his father
©E.E. Guenther, from collection of
William Kessel as published in Smithsonian

Edward’s wife had been bludgeoned and strangled. Near her body were bloody rocks inscribed with the initials of the accused. Gardner found convincing physical evidence that was overlooked or paid little attention to during the trial like blood that was smeared on Edward's clothing rather than splattered which would have happened if he had actually bludgeoned his wife. But in a bold and outrageous move the Prosecution claimed that the initialed rocks were part of an Apache ritual. The D.A. told the court that an Apache murderer left initials at a crime scene to prevent the victim's soul from seeking vengeance. Gardner thought it a ludicrous claim, something not only counterintuitive but utterly lacking in common sense, and he had his surmise backed up by Apaches on the reservation. None of the Apaches he spoke with could corroborate such a fraudulent sounding ritual. Not one Indian had ever heard of such a practice neither in their own culture or in the odd religion that Edwards had created. Working with the court transcript and gathering witness testimony from Apaches who were never called to the stand back in 1933 Gardner worked tirelessly to prove the prosecution manipulated facts and in some cases invented them to get the conviction. There is a happy ending for Edwards even though he served almost all of his time in prison.

Rather than summarize the entire story which has more than its fair share of life’s irony and twists to rival any Perry Mason novel I point you to the full story as written by journalist Jack El-Hai. Luckily it’s one of the articles you can read in full at the online version of the December 2020 issue of Smithsonian magazine. It makes for eye opening reading.