Saturday, June 16, 2012

Old Bones - Herman Petersen

Herman Petersen I gather was a postman in upstate New York for most of his life based on what he has written in Country Chronicle, a combination autobiography and history of his homestate. He also contributed several stories in a variety of genres to fiction magazines during the 1940s. Based solely on his last mystery novel Old Bones (1943) I think he is deserving of our attention.  He knew how to construct a gripping story, create unusual settings, populate those settings with distinctly original characters and wrap it all around an engrossing and puzzling mystery. Not bad for a letter carrier, right?

Old Bones is the last of three detective novels featuring a sharp witted coroner Dr. Thaddeus Miller. In the short series of books Doc Miller is often assisted by Ben Wayne, a farmer, and Paul Burns, the local D.A. The setting is central New York (the reader can infer somewhere in Madison County fairly close to Utica since a train to that city is mentioned frequently) where pea farming seems to be one of the big agricultural industries. The opening scene take place on such a farm with a fight breaking out between a volatile supervisor and a crooked farmhand who is fired for cheating the farm in his bushel counts. Already we get the sense that hidden tempers will lead to sudden violence.

The scarce UK edition (Gerald Swan, 1950)
Ben's wife, Marian, goes off in search of old wood for a project of hers. She visits an abandoned grist mill and quite by accident discovers human skeletal remains in the mill's standpipe. But when Ben and Doc Miller return with Marian to retrieve the bones they have seemingly vanished. Someone who had no doubt been watching Marian got to the bones first.

Some clever detective work, mostly on the part of Doc Miller, leads them to a bundle tied up and stashed in a dark area of the large mill. Miller studies the bones and notices that there is a large break in the skull leading him to believe that the person died a violent death. Furthermore, some of the ribs show a break and set that Miller recalls can only have been performed by himself on Nate Wight, one of the many members of a wealthy local farming family, who supposedly left town five years ago. When a thorough search of the mill following even more clever detective work uncovers a bundle of clothes and a watch that belonged to Nate, Miller is more than convinced they are faced with a murder and a cover-up. The story then becomes a twisting and involved, almost Southern Gothic, tale of family secrets and gruesome revenge.

This is an excellent example of the rural detective novel. There is a lot of examining of footprints and movement in dust as is usual in Golden Age detective novels. But the identification of the body by examining the bone breaks, the subtleties in the dead body's personal effects are some of the more imaginative touches that set it apart from other books of the period. It may be one of the first forensic pathology mysteries long before such a branch of criminology was formerly accepted. And Doc Miller achieves his results without once using a microscope or looking at DNA patterns. That's real detective work. Even better are details like the bundle of bones that has been tied with the unusual "miller's knot" that helps to identify some of the parties involved in the murder and cover-up. Additionally, the behavior of horses, how they are tied up, what the grass looks like where the horses were grazing, all make this the kind of unique mystery that can only take place in the countryside.

Bill Pronzini has said in his 1001 Midnights review of Old Bones that the book "drips with atmosphere." It certainly does. Like A.B. Cunningham one of the preeminent writers of rural mysteries during the 40s and 50s Petersen has a real love for the Gothic. The grist mill is one of the creepiest murder scenes I've come across in my reading this year. The forbidding mill at one time had several windows, now all boarded up requiring the use of flashlights even in the daytime. There is a hidden entrance and a hole cut out for a cat to enter and leave at will. Surrounding the mill is a treacherous swamp in which several foot chases will lead to dangers and perils for the team of sleuths. Later in the book they come across an old tramp's camp site in a forest that reeks of the corpses of dead animals he has captured and slaughtered for food. Several of the carcasses are seen hanging from the trees making for a grisly and olfactory offensive visit. One of the female characters is often referred to as a witch and the appearance and disappearance of the appropriately black cat that visits the mill only adds to the superstitious belief that she is a supernatural being with transformative powers. How's that for dripping atmosphere?

Herman Petersen wrote only four mysteries, the first three featuring Doc Miller and his two partners Ben Wayne and Paul Burns. His final book -- The D.A.'s Daughter (1943) -- is also set in the general vicinity of Utica, NY in a town called Pleasant Hollow, but with a completely different set of characters. Old Bones is probably the best of the lot. It's cleverly structured, suspenseful in all the right places, and holds your attention from it shockingly violent start to the surprising finish. As an early example of what I like to call country noir it ranks among the absolute best from the 1940s.

The Mysteries of Herman Petersen
Murder in the Making (1940)
Murder R.F.D. (1942)
Old Bones (1943)
The D.A.'s Daughter (1943)


  1. Sounds very intriguing, John. Your fine reviews always do. I really like the dust jacket for the UK edition (of course I do since it's scarce....). I'm off to add another to my never-ending TBF/O list.....

  2. Sounds terrific John - another author I've never come across sad to say. I am not always a fan of fustian fiction (sic) and put off reading FRAT FARRAR for that reason but was eventually won over - maybe I am starting to get more interested in country matters as I get older ... Not sure if I'm quite ready for the call of the bucolic just yet though. I was thinking that you made the depictions of the countryside sound a bit like Rogers' RED RIGHT HAND, or am I just being fanciful? I do love that book.

    1. Fustian? There's nothing bombastic or pretentious about Petersen. Simple, down home, easy to read prose. Is Josephine Tey fustian? I've only read DAUGHTER OF TIME and I remember it was a chore to get through for me back in my teen days. I'm guessing you meant to type BRAT FARRAR not FRAT FARRAR or is there some knock-off story about a couple of look-alike college boys from Tau Kappa Episolon?

  3. This sounds mighty intriguing, John. I'll add it to my Vintage TBR list in case I should come across it in my hunt for cheap used books. :)

    I think DAUGHTER OF TIME is one of the best mysteries ever written.