|1st edition (Stanley Paul, 1950)|
Joan Butler, the pseudonym of Irish science fiction writer Robert William Alexander, whose books were mostly humorous romances and class comedies in the Wodehouse style also dabbled in "slick fantasy." I became interested in these books when a small batch of them were being sold on eBay recently. The dust jacket art was colorful and striking and hinted at bombastic action and bizarre antics. When I learned that several of the Joan Butler books touched on supernatural and fantastic themes such as ghosts, haunted castles and reincarnated mummies I had to find one of them and read it.
Sheet Lightning (1950) is set on Deepdown Manor, an estate haunted by the ghosts of "Black Bart", an 18th century highwayman, and his spectral dog companion. There are a houseful of treasure hunters who descend upon the estate and among them several con artists at work in the dizzying plot. The book opens at an antique auction and quickly zooms in on a bidding war between two men who we soon learn were both involved with the same woman. Unfortunately, Jeffrey Lonsdale has recently been dumped by Beatrice Hastings for Reggie Mortimer, the other man, and they are now engaged. As a way to get back at being rejected Lonsdale outbids his rival on the purchase of a dilapidated Elizabethan tallboy. When he takes the piece of furniture home he discovers a secret drawer containing the encoded diary of Sir Richard Fawcett, alias "Black Bart". After spending a long afternoon breaking the code (something we are not privy to but must take his word for) he shares with his Uncle Iggy that the diary hints at a hidden treasure on the grounds of Deepdown Manor. The two of them make their way under the pretense of being architects hoping they can charm their way with the new owners and make their way through the house and grounds looking for the Black Bart's stashed loot.
|Extremely scarce paperback edition|
Despite the premise that seems perfect for high comedy and some chilling moments with ghosts the book is only intermittently entertaining. Alexander has a good grasp of comic dialog and invents some amusing farcical situations, but he has a major weakness when it comes to delivering his laughs. Each of his characters suffers from terminal logorrhea. These people speak volumes when one or two sentences will suffice. I remember a phrase E. F. Bleiler came up to describe a certain writers' similar fault -- "drowning in words." In my first encounter reading Alexander as "Joan Butler" I felt as if I were repeatedly getting stuck in quicksand.
As for the "slick fantasy" element: though Alexander often set up a scene with the promise of some kind of eerie payoff I felt robbed when the only real ghost that ever showed up was a howling dog with fiery red eyes. Despite the wonderful dust jacket illustration showing Sir Richard and his dog, the highwayman never materializes. We do however, get an ample amount of bedroom farce, men who say "The devil take you!" on every other page, a very randy Uncle Iggy, and plenty of jokes about shapely women in diaphanous negligees. Alexander might have had a better career writing bedroom farces like Ray Cooney than these coy comic novels.
The Joan Butler books were only published in the UK with no US editions at all. Only a few of them were reprinted in paperback. Every single title, whether in hardback or paperback, is scarce and some of the titles -- Cloudy Weather (1940), for example, along with most of the Butler books published prior to 1950 -- are genuinely rare. I have three other Joan Butler books I managed to purchase for relatively affordable prices. I'm hoping that they will prove to be an improvement over this first one. Alexander seems to have something special, but based on this book is a bit lacking in his execution.