The basic story sounds familiar to anyone well read in crime and detective fiction of the early 20th century. James Wrexham, after a period of dreary employment in a lawyer's office and a self-imposed solitary life with no real friendships, comes across a newspaper advertisement for a secretary and library cataloguer. He submits a rushed letter the content of which he later cannot recall and is surprised when he is offered the position outright with no interview and never having met his future employer. I can think of a least four other detective novels which begin exactly this way even to the point of the library cataloguing. There are also numerous stories and novels employing the gimmick of the cryptic newspaper advertisement that leads to a whirlwind of unexpected adventures and nefarious plots (Suspense by Isabel Ostrander and "The Red Headed League" come immediately to mind). But Houghton uses this advertisement gimmick only as a springboard from which to launch a story that deviates from any expected traditional mystery novel or tale of intrigue.
Wrexham finds himself less a secretary and bibliographer and more of an accidental host to Scrivener's endless stream of guests. Two women even have latchkeys and drop in whenever their whimsy sees fit. The library, a place formerly forbidden to any of Scrivener's friends, becomes a salon for all the visitors and serves as the connecting point between Wrexham, the friends and the absent Scrivener. The books themselves (the cataloguing project is soon abandoned) become the subject of many discussions and reveal even more of the secrets and darkness that Scrivener kept hidden from his friends. Eventually Wrexham will join forces with Francesca Bellamy, a celebrity figure who has achieved notoriety through the highly publicized suicide of her husband, and together they will seek out the mystery of Jonathan Scrivener. Mrs. Bellamy is sure that Wrexham and all the others are the subjects of an experiment, a cruel mind game begun by Scrivener from afar, and that he is perhaps observing them all somehow without their knowledge.
The book is not all sinister musings and melodramatic character revelations. Much to my surprise there were several scenes of absurd humor that came as an unexpected bonus. Wrexham meets the devil-may-care playboy Antony Rivers who takes hims to a Japanese restaurant. The variety of strange foods Wrexham is served is described with grotesque metaphors like a soup that "had long weeds in it which looked rather like serpents who had died in youth" and that "tasted exactly like the old Aquarium at Brighton used to smell." Later Wrexham reports on an argument between a bus passenger and bus driver over the difference of one penny in the fare which reaches a ridiculous conclusion.
|Claude Houghton, circa 1933|
Sharp readers may catch on much sooner than Wrexham or the others as to Scrivener's exact intentions. The title coupled with a passing reference to Dr. Jekyll and Mr Hyde may lead some to jump to conclusions about the solution of the core mystery. Houghton, however, has something less sensational in mind.
For decades I Am Jonathan Scrivener had a history of being a scarce book elusive even to the most assiduous of book hunters. Thankfully, the difficult searches are at an end. Curious readers eager to enter the strange world of Claude Houghton can now purchase an affordable paperback reprint from Valancourt Books. Perhaps the cult of Houghton will rise again.