Friday, May 27, 2011

FFB: The Flying Death - Samuel Hopkins Adams

1905, Montauk Point, Long Island.  The guests at Third House have been awakened in the middle of the night by the sounds of a shipwreck not far from shore near a hazardous area known to the  local fishermen as Graveyard Point. They rush to help the life saving crew already trying to rescue the sailors. One man turns up dead with a horrible stab wound to his back. A witness swears that the dead man was perfectly fine when he was on board, but somewhere between leaving the sinking ship and reaching the rescuers in the storming sea he was stabbed.  It's seems impossible. And that's only the first of the mysterious deaths.

The following morning several sheep are found mutilated.  Young Dick Colton goes for a stroll along the rocky cliffs and finds some weather kites torn to shreds, the strong twine cut by a sharp blade. A local visitor has been missing for an entire day. The kites were his tools in an atmospheric experiment. As Dick and two other men explore the terrain they come across the body of Mr. Ely, the weather experimenter. His head is crushed and a strange stab wound in his neck.  And the next day yet another victim with similar strange wounds is found on the beach.  No human footprints are anywhere near his body but Dick and Professor Ravenden find gigantic claw-like marks in the sand. It appears there is a homicidal maniac at work. But how is he accomplishing his fiendish acts without leaving a trace?

Originally serialized in a magazine in 1905 the story was finally issued in book form by McClure Company in 1908. This is one of those dusty tomes that cannot manage to shake off its old-fashioned origins.  The writing is redolent of antique furniture, mustache wax and elderberry wine. The dialogue tends to waver between florid and stilted. Prof. Ravenden calls his daughter Princess and she likes to dub her father Petit Pere. Dick Colton, our fine young hero, is described on the second page in this manner:
...Providence had equipped him with a comely and powerful body, which his own manner of life had kept attuned to strength and vigor, and because Heaven had blessed him with the heart and face of a boy, whereof his own fineness and enthusiasm had kept the one untainted and the other defiant of care and lines...
In other words he's the typical hot young dude who regularly works out and takes it easy on the gingerbread,  tea cakes, CrackerJacks, whatever the junk food equivalent was in 1905. Prof. Ravenden's daughter Dolly will not overlook his unlined handsome face either. I managed to suffer through most of this stuffiness because the story and the mystery inherent in it was fascinating. There's plenty of legitimate detection including some good examples of early forensic medicine. Plus arcane knowledge imparted on insect life, the use of spears in the Orinoco River of South America, the habits of Portuguese thugs, meteorological phenomena... It's a veritable Pandora's Box of wonders. Stuffy verbose prose is somewhat forgivable in light of all these story bonuses.

Samuel Hopkins Adams is probably best known among vintage detective fiction collectors as the author of Average Jones - one of the notable short story collections cited in Queen's Quorum.  The Flying Death is his second novel, preceded by a fantastic adventure he co-wrote with Stewart Edward White called The Mystery.  For this second work he once again works some genre blending magic in creating a thriller that is part detective novel, part mysterious adventure novel, and part science fiction horror. Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger would be right at home at Montauk Point for the utterly bizarre finale in which it is revealed that something far from human was responsible for all the damage and death. Great God of Wonders, indeed!


  1. In spite of the ending you described, this comes across as a fairly interesting read that requires further investigation on my part. But I think I better start with Average Jones when I ever I get around to reading anything by this author.

    I remember reading somewhere that they also contain a few locked room stories! :)

  2. Wonderful stuff! I must say I'm intrigued, despite what I take to be a disappointing ending (or is it bizarre enough to be satisfying).

    Given the blowsy prose, it looks to be fertile ground for bloomers. Dare I hope?

  3. TomCat -

    I wrote an article for the Harry Stephen Keeler Society many years ago suggesting that Samuel Hopkins Adams might have been an influence on Keeler's writing. As proof I examine all of the stories in Average Jones as well as two of Adams' novels. If interested, you (or anyone else who reads this comment) can read the article in that particular issue here. The entire issue will download as a PDF. It's perfectly safe, BTW. The article is titled "The Case of the Insidious Influence" and is the cover story for Issue #37.

  4. Brian -

    I think the ending works perfectly. In fact, I would have been disappointed if it had turned out to be the Portuguese juggler who is the prime suspect. Portuguese juggler? Now you have to read it, right? Let me borrow a feature of your posts.

    Access: There are quite a few affordable copies for sale (including those cheap POD knock-offs) from the various bookselling site on the interent. Unfortunately, one particular bookseller gives away the ending in his catalog descriptions for the copies he is selling. Don't read Lloyd Currey's ads if you want to remain in the dark and have a unspoiled reading experience.

  5. Portuguese juggler? And here I was thinking the culprit might be a professional knife-thrower. In any case, you've sold me... that is, unless you think Samuel Hopkins Adams is best approached through another work.

  6. Great stuff on this author.

    I loved the ending, personally--but Average Jones I reread. Average Jones is the great American Progressive Era detective.