Friday, April 19, 2013

FFB: The Dead Walk - Gilbert Collins

After enjoying the rousing adventure of The Starkenden Quest I had such high hopes for The Dead Walk (1933), the sixth detective novel by Gilbert Collins. The chapter titles are tantalizing ("The Strange Night-Walker, "Suspended Animation, You Know," "The Devil Quotes Scripture") and the opening scene in which our mystery writer/narrator Paul Giffard witnesses what appears to be a walking corpse is the perfect teaser for what should have been a truly macabre murder mystery. Soon, however, the story about a multiple murderer who bizarrely stabs his victims in the throat and disguises the wounds to resemble a surgical procedure becomes a complicated muddle. The numerous murders (they come so fast I lost count!) seem gratuitous and the entire cast of characters is revealed to be either recently released convicts or criminals on the lam and living under aliases. The detection which at first seems clever and unusual descends into dull and endless examinations of footprints in the mud and other "hackneyed devices" as Carolyn Wells once called them. All promise of the surreal evaporates and the book becomes a thriller of the Edgar Wallace school with little of Wallace's trademark action and true thrills.

We get to meet Collins' two series characters in this book. First, there is Inspector Lawton (who I was convinced was a criminal pretending to be a policeman), a legitimate official from Scotland Yard who works with a veritable army of cops both local and from the Yard. He also recruits the mysterious and eccentric Hugh Carding, one of the many 1930s graduates from the Academy for Aristocratic Twits & Amateur Sleuths. His speech is littered with gerunds with dropped g's, he calls Giffard "Old Thing" or "Old Sportsman," and has the habit of ending many of his statements with " what?" He is the closest I've ever encountered to a Peter Wimsey clone. Wasn't one enough?

About one third from the end Carding confesses he has been in prison and is privy to an encyclopedic knowledge of his numerous fellow prisoners. This insider info helps him to identify the many corpses who all turn out to be released convicts. Based on some exchanges of dialogue between Lawton and Carding I surmise in an earlier book Carding was a criminal who helped Lawton and they've teamed up ever since, sort of like Father Brown and Flambaeu. I have two other Collins books and Carding appears in only one of them, I think. Perhaps I will discover his true origin and whether or not my inferences are correct.

The dead do not walk in The Dead Walk.
More's the pity.
Despite what a modern reader may imagine based on the title there are no zombies in The Dead Walk (1933). Collins tries his best to create an aura of mystery around a dazed murder victim who was under the effects of a botched chloroform attack but the idea of a ghost or a literally walking corpse is soon dispensed with. It should have been better named The Punctured Throat Murders or The Case of the Bloody Bandages because that's really all these odd murders amount to. The murderer as you might expect with all these convicts and criminals in the cast turns out to be a Napoleon of Crime. With a tracheotomy compulsion to boot.

Usually I'm all for as much of the macabre as I can get in a mystery novel. But this one had me giving in to my dormant logical side. Why not stab and run? Well, there is a method to the method, my friends. The killer meticulously bandages each victim to make it seem each has escaped from a clinic run by a "Voronoff surgeon." A what? I hear you ask in your oh so familiar puzzled voices. Let's head to the classroom. Take out your notebooks, please.

"We need your glands! For the betterment of mankind!"
I was surprised to discover the world of monkey gland transplants and the trendy 1920s potent potable known as the Monkey Gland Cocktail the experimental surgery inspired. Sergei Voronoff was a disciple of the Nobel prizewinning French surgeon Alexis Carrel who, in addition to inventing a vascular suturing technique still used today, was involved in early organ transplant experiments. Voronoff never won a Nobel prize or any other prize, but he did win notoriety for his own surgery experiments. He took xenotransplantation to new levels. His work, however, was more akin to that of Dr. Moreau than that of a legitimate healer. He used cells from monkey testicles -- sometimes the gland itself -- and grafted them onto human skin in an attempt to cure his patients' chronic conditions. It apparently had rejuvenating effects on those who underwent the mad scientist's cure. Here, taken from a New York Times article dated October 7, 1922, is testament from a 76 year-old patient: "Voronoff told me that when I again felt myself growing old he would repeat the operation, and that he could perform it in all three times. That ought to take me to the age of 150." Plastic surgery pales in comparison, don't it?

Once again a middling detective novel led me to a serendipitous discovery. I never expected to acquaint myself with a long forgotten chapter in the history of transplant surgery and the genesis of a popular early 20th century cocktail. Guess it wasn't altogether a waste of time. As for the mystery, it wasn't worth it. I certainly don't recommend you track this one down. Chances are I have the only copy in existence anyway. And for once that's a good thing.

PUBLISHING HISTORY: No photo of the book because my copy is battered and mottled with no DJ. Red cloth boards, boring typography on the front, no frontispiece. The book is so scarce I could find no other copies for sale on-line and no photos of the original DJ in the Gregory Bles edition. No US edition exists.


  1. Well, guess what, I have a copy of this one! And I share your view of it, as expressed in this very informative review.

    This author also wrote Horror Comes the Thripplands, a title I have always loved. One simply can't imagine "horror" at a place called Thripplands, can one?

    But horror comes, my lad, horror comes!

    I'm still looking for The Mystery of the Monkey Gland Cocktail, by the way.

    1. Of course you have a copy. And I typed that sentence hoping someone might challenge my claim. ...uh... Not really. So much for my bragging rights.

      I have two other Collins mysteries to read this year. One is the easy to find Horror Comes to Thripplands. The other is Murder at Brambles (aka The Phantom Tourer). I hope they are better than this one.

      Elsewhere on the vast interweb there is an ill-informed post about the Monkey Gland Cocktail and how it got its name. The post mentions in passing the murder mystery by Roger East. The writer seems to have read the book, but based on his lousy research about the surgery I think his comment about the book's content is completely made up. I've never seen a copy for sale since I started buying books on-line and I've not found a review for it in any US magazine.

  2. "With a tracheotomy compulsion to boot." {snort} Don't ask me why I found that line so funny, but I did. And after you mentioned Peter Wimsey (I'll try to ignore the fact that came after the phrase Aristocratic Twits), I love that it mentions the Monkey Gland surgery...makes me think of Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club. I had no idea about the connection with "Voronoff." I'm taking notes.

    1. You were supposed to laugh. I was laughing derisively through most of this book! It was ridiculous at times, but not enough to merit inclusion in the Alternative Classics Hall of Fame.

      I liked Lord Peter when I was a teen, but haven't re-read any of the books since. Didn't mean to be insulting to the guy. Carding, on the other hand, really does come across as a twit in this book.