Thursday, November 3, 2011

FFB: Vision Sinister - John Russell Fearn

Scientific detection shows up in the history of the detective novel as early as the late 19th century with the investigations of the physician sleuth who appears in Stories from the Diary of a Doctor by L.T. Meade and Clifford Halifax. Vicious murders are committed with x-rays, micro-organisms, and other unusual methods of a scientific nature. It is further developed in the work of R. Austin Freeman with his Dr.Thorndyke novels, the varied and often fantastical adventures of Professor Craig Kennedy in the work of Arthur B. Reeve, Scientific Sprague created by Francis Lynde, continues into the 1930s with various pseudonymous books by Nigel Morland and well into the 1950s with the Lawrence Blochman's Dr. Coffee, a forerunner of the contemporary forensic pathology detectives.  By the 1950s scientific detective stories were being experimented with by writers mostly known for their science fiction stories. It was probably only natural that John Russell Fearn, who began his career as a science fiction writer, should also turn to scientific detection when he began writing crime fiction.

Professor Hiram Carruthers looks "like a bust of Beethoven," is as obnoxious as Roger Shearingham, and - of course - the only person who can explain the seemingly miraculous and bamboozling crimes that face Chief Inspector Monty Garth in his exhausting job. In Vision Sinister (1954) Garth is forced once again to consult with the irascible Carruthers, suffer drinking the"pallid muck" he calls tea, and endure insults as he asks for Carruthers' advice on yet another unsolvable impossible crime. Carruthers is an egotist of immense proportions and says things like "We have here a most ingenious killer, even one with a scientific turn of mind, but not one with the ability to defeat me." In this particular investigation Garth and Carruthers need to unravel the mystery of a photographic laboratory that vanished in an instant and a murder victim who was transported over mile in less than a few minutes.

Cynthia Harwood and her friend Janice make their way to a basement laboratory of Thomas , Cynthia's fiancee. On the front door the find a sign instructing them to ring the bell and then look through a glass slide. What they see is a man in a lab coat stabbing a woman dressed in a purple evening gown. They call for help and ask the caretaker of the building to unlock the door. When the door is opened the room is completely empty. No lab equipment, no table, no dead body. Nothing, but white room lit by a single overhead light and an empty electric socket in the wall. Only minutes had passed and yet the entire room and its occupants seemed to have vanished. Later that evening a woman dressed in a purple evening gown is found dead in a rubbish heap one mile away from the photo lab. She has been stabbed to death. How did she get from one place to the other?

Unlike the Maria Black novels this is a fast paced tale with a limited amount of suspects. The impossible problem is ingeniously carried out and rivals the death trap machinery in Rhode & Carr's Fatal Descent (aka Drop to His Death), a 1939 mystery of a murder committed in an elevator. There are fine examples of scientific detection in Fearn's book reflecting the advances of modern technology in the 1950s. An early answering machine with a built in tape recorder, three dimensional motion picture photography, push button electronics, and a rudimentary but involved method of voice print technology all play a crucial part in solving the elaborately constructed crime. Fearn was an admirer of John Dickson Carr and this book more than any that I have read of his seems to be the closest thing he came to matching his idol in sheer ingenuity.

In closing, I'll add an interesting bibliographic oddity. While most of the Dr. Hiram Carruthers books were originally published under the pseudonym Hugo Blayn for hardcover publisher Stanley Paul, this one was published by a cheap paperback outfit called Dragon Books and their house name "Nat Karta" was slapped on the cover. Odd because most of the Nat Karta books featured a series character called Dana Dallas or were hardboiled crime stories not the kind of puzzle detective story Fearn wrote when he turned to crime fiction. This is the only instance I have come across of a writer using series characters under two different pseudonyms.


  1. Fearn's best known for his sci-fi heroine THE GOLDEN AMAZON, but I read some large print reprints of his detective stuff a few years back and thoroughly enjoyed them. He seems to be doing rather well in the reprint stakes. Apparently the Amazon is returning to print, and his detective stuff can be found if your willing to trawl through somewhere!

  2. Philip Harbottle, Fearn's literary executor, had an arrangement with Wildside Press in the US to print some of Fearn's best works. UI have some of the Maria Black books and Liquid Death from Wildside Press. But I guess they weren't big sellers, though Wildside still carries all of them. (They're a print on demand publisher I think.) He then worked some deal with F.A. Thorpe who publish large print editions to benefit the Ulverscroft charity. Nearly all of Fearn's detective novels are reprinted in these handy paperback editions (noted as part of the Linford Mystery Library) and all under his real name rather than the original pseudonym. I've found them through select UK dealers for under £2 a piece at various places around this vast digital shopping mall.

  3. John: How does the science of earlier times hold up when reading today?

  4. Another gem by Mr Fearn concerning Chief-Inspector Garth and the specialist in scientific jig-saws, Dr Carruthers, is entitled The Silvered Cage (also first published in 1954). You would likely enjoy it too, John.

    I read your blog regularly and have discovered much here to appreciate!

  5. Bill-

    He made it strangely fascinating. I had no idea how 3D photography really worked but he managed to explain it in modern day language with limited technospeak. I'm on a scientific detection kick right now and Nigel Morland's THE CASE OF THE RUSTED ROOM, although a much better detective novel, is loaded with technical jargon and many lectures on chemical processes. It gets dull in parts - I felt like I was transported to a science lecture hall back in my college days.

  6. Thanks for stopping by, Unnamed Reader. Glad the posts keep you coming back.

  7. Eventually most of Fearn's work will be available in ebook formats. I've read some of his SF. Fearn's mystery fiction sounds enticing.