Saturday, August 29, 2020

HORROR SHOW: Harriet - Elizabeth Jenkins

"But Harriet's condition...had blinded Mrs. Ogilvy to the fact that the world contains many people who are far from decent."

If you had never read anything about Harriet (1934) by Elizabeth Jenkins -- not a review, not a blurb, not anything on the back covers of its many editions -- you would never expect it to turn out the way it does. From page one Harriet prepares the reader for a mesmerizing trip into England's Victorian past from the author's attention to domestic details, to the class hierarchy, to the painstakingly rendered 19th century syntax and language. It appears on the surface to be a homage to the age old story of a ne'er-do-well fortune hunter flirting with an ugly duckling heiress, successfully manipulating her easily swayed emotions and eventually marrying her for her money.  Henry James told a similar story in Washington Square, countless romance novelists have capitalized on this plot in hundreds of cheap entertainments.  What makes Elizabeth Jenkins' novel striking, no less appealing as an entertaining suspense novel, is that the ugly duckling heiress is also developmentally handicapped. Harriet Woodhouse is called a "natural" (a Victorian euphemism for someone who is mentally retarded) by her mother and those who have an affection for her.  She is called much worse by those who treat her with indifference, jealousy or outright cruelty. Above all what makes this novel most shocking is that Jenkins based her story on a notorious criminal case in which four people were charged with criminal neglect, wanton cruelty and eventual murder of a young woman and possibly her child. The story of Harriet is not the product of a novelist's imagination. It actually happened in 1875.

From the outset we know that Lewis Oman is no good. He has no real job, he enjoys using woman, and thinks nothing about turning Harriet into an object of ridicule. He tells his lover Alice Hoppner that he will become the charmer for Harriet. "She's going to fall a victim to my fascinations. You keep a straight face, and we'll have some fun." Alice watches with a combination of revulsion and jealousy as Lewis' aimless flirting transforms into something far more dangerous and cunning. His attentions cease to become fun and games when Alice notices Harriet has fallen in love with him. Then Lewis learns Harriet has a small fortune held in trust that will become hers as soon as she marries and, of course, he homes in on Harriet with relentless charm and smarm. Harriet is no longer a plaything but the means to instant wealth for this schemer.

Mrs. Ogilvy, Harriet's mother, is onto Lewis from the start and attempts to prevent the marriage. She tries reasoning with him but is too shrewd. She tries to block the marriage legally by exploiting Harriet's mental disability and making her a ward of the state.  But Lewis knows Mrs. Ogilvy who loves her daughter and treats  could never take the next step which would require her to put her daughter in a state run institution.  He also threatens the woman by promising to tell Harriet of her plans. If he does so he promises Mrs Ogivly that would be the end the mother/daughter relationship she has so carefully cultivated.

 

But there are others who become involved in the destruction of Harriet's carefully sheltered world. Once she has married Lewis her exploitation begins and with it the inexorable ruin of her health, her personality, and her soul. Harriet has a child almost without Jenkins having told us and she is quickly shuttled off to Lewis' brother Patrick where she is set up as a long term house guest and then months later as a prisoner.  The horror of Harriet's story, the ingenuity of the novel as a whole, is the skill with which Jenkins manages to capture a flavor of Victorian comfort and domesticity and how the introduction of an unwanted guest slowly erodes the veneer of civility among the household's would be aristocrats.

Elizabeth Hoppner Oman, Alice's sister and Patrick's wife, seems like the one person who might become an ally for Harriet. But when Harriet moves into her home Elizabeth, once ever proper and courteous, soon grows weary of having to deal with Harriet's childish demands, putting up with her imperfect grammar and most of all Harriet's lack of comprehension in learning how to care for her own son. Elizabeth is more concerned with propriety and her relationship to Lewis and Alice who is now being passed off as Lewis' real wife, though he is legally married to Harriet. Astonishingly, for someone who presents herself as upright Elizabeth turns a blind eye to the immorality and deceit of this pretense. When Lewis tells Patrick that Harriet should remain isolated in an upstairs bedroom and not be allowed outside Elizabeth is relieved to be spared the humiliation of telling everyone that Harriet is the real Mrs. Oman. The ultimate revelation of Elizabeth's remarkably repellent transformation comes when she utters a statement she thinks excuses not only her own indifference but the cruelty of her barbaric husband who beats Harriet: "After all, it isn't as if she feels anything..."

Taking the idea of the yet-to-be-named subgenre of "domestic suspense" to its extreme Jenkins includes several excellent set pieces that highlight a Victorian household turned topsy-turvy when a family member with erratic, unpredictable behavior upsets their comfortable routines. With incredible detail we are shown how meal times are structured, the apparently agonizing selection of clothes, the mundane tasks of getting dressed and having hair meticulously styled. While all the other characters are caught up in the inundation of domestic life the horror of what is happening to Harriet who is being neglected and ignored by everyone but the compassionate maid Clara becomes all the more heartwrenching. Her clothes and her jewelry are appropriated by Alice; her child is taken away from her; she is denied doctor's care when she becomes violently ill; meals are regularly delayed, reduced to nothing more than milk and bread or entirely withheld -- all of this done for the slightest affronts to the household members. All of this leads to a radical transformation in Harriet's already fragile mental state. With each new instance of Harriet's deteriorating mind each family member reacts not with kindness, concern or even alarm but with unnerving cruelty, sometimes giving into savage brutality. When Penguin reprinted Harriet 1980 they called the novel an "absolutely spine-chilling exploration of the depths of human depravity."

Harriet won a literary prize for its author in 1934, one of the last of the short-lived Prix Femina Vie Heureuse, given out by two French magazines to an English language novel that best presents life in England to a French language audience. The award should actually be for Jenkins' masterful invention of a new genre, the true crime novel. For here is a fictionalized account of a long past actual criminal case characterized by aberrant behavior accurately imagined with vivid insight and keen observations, teeming with paradoxes and riddles of human inconsistency, that it rightfully belongs in the same category as the "non-fiction novel" -- something Truman Capote claimed to have invented three decades later with In Cold Blood.

Her achievements are all the more powerful when you realize that using a non-fictional account (The Trial of the Stauntons), a copy of the court transcript from 1877, and her own imagination she envisioned a world two centuries ago in which something so evil could be carried out with such commonplace ease. As a side note students of true crime might like to know that the Staunton trial is now considered a landmark in appeals cases. In real life though all four individuals charged with Harriet Staunton's murder were found guilty and sentenced to hang no one was executed. A published letter written by a group of physicians protested that the true medical evidence was overlooked during the trial and the judge Henry Hawkins was prejudiced against all four defendants. The court's verdict was overturned:  Alice was pardoned, Louis and Elizabeth were sentenced to hard labor and eventually set free. Patrick who died in prison never reaped the benefits of this unusual decision.  Jenkins did not agree with the overturned verdict and her characters get the harsh punishments and justice she felt was mocked by real life's own cruel ironies.

Harriet is available in a new edition from Valancourt Books published five years ago. This latest edition includes an afterword by literary critic and Victorian scholar Catherine Pope. Readers can also choose form a wide variety of used editions dating back to the US paperback of 1946 (Bantam 64, shown in two illustrations on this post) to the handsome reprint from Persephone Press. There are also French and Spanish language translations in contemporary reprints

Saturday, August 22, 2020

NEW STUFF: The Eighth Detective - Alex Pavesi

The Eighth Detective
(UK title: Eight Detectives)
by Alex Pavesi
Henry Holt & Co.
ISBN: 978-1-250-75593-3
289 pp. $26.99
Publication date: August 4, 2020

"I think that when you're reading about death as entertainment it should leave you feeling slightly uncomfortable, even slightly sick." -- Julia Hart, The Eighth Detective

Devotees of Golden Age detective fiction are well aware of the may lists of rules that cognizant and often protective writers of the genre have devised as suggestions for those who wish to adhere to the fair play tenets of mystery storytelling that make detective fiction a kind of intellectual competition between reader and writer.  Ronald A. Knox's Decalogue and the 20 Rules of Willard Huntington Wright as "S. S. Van Dine" date back to the early 20th century and for the most part are now tacit instructions followed by novice and veteran mystery writers alike.  There have been countless deconstructions of these rules as mystery fiction faced challenges from post-modern writers like Gilbert Adair and Paul Auster who wrote intellectual send-ups of the detective novel. In the case of Josef Škvorecký's short story collection Sins for Father Knox (1973) a detective story writer defiantly wrote ten stories which break each of the hallowed ten rules set forth by Knox. Now we have yet another deconstruction of the conventions of detective fiction in a new short story collection that is also a clever novel in which the "ingredients" of a generic detective story plot are mixed up and presented in a medley of rearrangements of those ingredients. In essence The Eight Detective gives us variations on the theme of victim, suspects, and detective.

The idea is very simple.  It is 1970 and Grant McAllister, a retired mathematician living a solitary life on an undisclosed Mediterranean island, is visited by an editor eager to reprint his privately published mystery short story collection of thirty years ago, The White Murders, a book that has achieved cult status among crime fiction collectors.  The book contains seven stories that comment on McAllister's  mathematical/literary essay "The Permutations of Detective Fiction" published in 1937 in a small journal called Mathematical Recreations. Over the course of the novel Julia Hart, the editor, reads the stories in the presence of McAllister and then discusses them afterward.  We, as readers, are treated to all seven stories and each of the seven ensuing "Conversations." But it is not just a story collection. The stories themselves fuel a mystery that create the story of the novel.

Julia begins to notice oddities in the structure of each story, elements she calls "discrepancies." By the fourth instance of these discrepancies Julia believes they are meant as clues to a larger mystery McAllister has laid out in secret within all seven tales. She is certain the mystery involves a notorious murder that occurred around the time McAllister was writing these stories. Julie believes that the title of the collection The White Murders is not referring to the many settings of white buildings as McAllister claims but instead to an actress and playwright named Elizabeth White who was found strangled back in 1940. Her killer was never found. As the reader progresses from story to story he may find himself matching wits with Julia trying to find the "discrepancy" in each story before she reveals it in the "Conversation" chapter immediately following. McAllister is elusive and cryptic in answering Julia's penetrating and provocative questions. Is he feigning ignorance or is he genuinely telling the truth?  Is Julia imagining wholly coincidental parallels to Elizabeth White's murder?

Those readers who take up the tacit challenge will find themselves turning literary detective and amateur linguist as the solving of a mystery turns away from the standard whodunnit and whydunnit questions and becomes the mystery of syntax and word choice and off putting plotholes. Some examples:  Pavesi has fun with the use of colors throughout the stories (in one story all of the characters are named after colors), unusual choices of adjectives, and allusions to well known detective stories and novels. But is this all there is to the mystery of The Eighth Detective?

Of course not. The Eighth Detective could not be a real detective novel unless it also had some sort of inherent murder mystery. Julia's perspicacious reading uncovers a genuine mystery that relates to Elizabeth White's murder.  No more can I say about this cleverly worked out mix of word puzzles, stylistic mysteries in seven different narratives, and the overarching mystery Julia uncovers. You can only truly enjoy the challenges and imaginative riffs by discovering them on your own.

Alex Pavesi, himself a mathematician, is clearly is a fan of mystery fiction.  He has written seven fine examples of mystery short stories that will recall a variety of writers. Notably, "Trouble on Blue Pearl Island" is most obviously his homage to And Then There Were None (who hasn't written one of these lately?) that answers one of McAllister's variations of the "ingredients" in giving us a story in which all the suspects are murdered. The murder methods are diabolical, far from the kind of thing one finds in Golden Age mystery fiction unless you have indulged in the American shudder pulps of the 1930s and 1940s. Though the plot is clearly a mirror of Agatha Christie's landmark murder mystery it often reminded me more of the Saw horror movie franchise. Be prepared!

Alex Pavesi
Of the other six stories I enjoyed most of all "Death at the Seaside" featuring a Carr-like egomaniacal amateur detective named Winstone Brown and is the most fairly clued of the stories; "A Detective and His Evidence" atypically nasty and amoral in tone which is explained rather brilliantly in the finale; and "The Cursed Village," the most ambitious of the stories in its variation on the theme of both multiple criminals and multiple solutions. In fact, by the time the reader has reached the final page of The Eighth Detective he may discover that the book was also a homage to Christianna Brand, the queen of multiple solutions. 

I enjoyed some of the philosophical ideas contained in McAlllister's essay "The Permutations of Detective Fiction " and he of course outlines those ideas in one of the many "Conversation" chapters. But the essay is reductive rather than all-encompassing in its discussion of detective fiction in terms only of victims, suspects and detectives.  Julia at one point says his theory is inherently flawed because these four "ingredient" sets and subsets cannot account for a murder mystery with multiple crimes committed by more than one suspect as often occurs in the work of my favorite Golden Age neglected writer Vernon Loder. McAllister dismisses that observation with a lame excuse: "It's cheating really."  Yet as I see it in the 21st century there really can be no cheating when it comes to writing detective fiction.  In this type of imaginative writing there never were any real rules -- only expectations of a defined set of narrative conventions. In the end the entire novel is one huge piece of ironic fiction writing. For what Pavesi does in The Eighth Detective so ingeniously is to point out that even McAllister's "permutations" can be flouted and defied.

Finally -- a warning to those who like to flip and scan ahead.  Do not read the chapter headings before you get to them.  There is a reason there is no Table of Contents in this book.  If you read the chapter headings looking for the story titles you may reveal one last minute surprise that may just spoil the overall brilliance of the book as a novel.