Friday, May 22, 2015

FFB: The Black Stamp - Will Scott

The Black Stamp (1926) was published in England as Disher - Detective (1925) and in it we are introduced to Will Disher, a corpulent, monocle wearing, consulting detective who probably would like to belong to the school of sleuths that Carolyn Wells called the Transcendent Detective. Her term implies a grandeur that is undeserving of most of these types. Disher aspires to greatness but his ego prevents him achieving anything other than cleverness. He is alternately insufferable in his treatment of others and hilarious when spouting forth his epigrammatic dialogue that might impress even Oscar Wilde. He comes from a long line of these amateur sleuths who seemed to be the mainstay of detective novels of the mid to late 1920s. Disher has much in common with Philo Vance, Graydon McKelvie, Phineas Spinnett and Roger Sheringham all of whom are full of themselves, irreverent, intolerant, but not without a sense of humor often tinged with a patronizing tone. Disher is rescued from being thoroughly dislikeable by his occasional flashes of heartfelt camaraderie toward his much put upon assistant Henry Moon, legman extraordinaire, and a respect for Henry's often surprisingly original thinking.

Poor Henry Moon is described as a young man who might otherwise have become a non-entity had he not met Disher. He is called a follower and that is exactly what he does for about 75% of the book. He is sent out to follow and shadow a variety of suspicious characters. His very physical work uncovers vital clues and unexpected developments in this baffling case involving anonymous letters, an invisible gang of criminals, and a rash of mysterious disappearances. Disher leaves most of the work to Henry just as Nero Wolfe relied on good ol' Archie Goodwin. When Disher decides to take charge, however, he can display an unconventional outside of the box approach to interrogating his suspects like the puzzled gardener of whom he demands to know where he went to school, if he won any prizes and how often he attends church. All Disher's questions seem utterly random and immaterial to both the reader and the gardener who expects to be interrogated about his missing employer.

There is an element of Edgar Wallace in The Black Stamp. Several important politicians and business leaders throughout Europe and the United States have received letters sealed with the titular black stamp. Each letter briefly accuses the recipient of being better off dead and shortly after receiving one of these stamped letters the recipient vanishes without a trace. In one instance the letter receiver vanishes from a locked room in which the lights go out briefly while Disher is standing next to him qualifying the novel as an impossible crime book. The solution to that particular disappearance is solved fairly quickly and in an ingenious way that I believe is the first instance of such a gimmick.

Though Henry and Disher do some legitimate detecting and work well as a detective team this is mostly a pursuit thriller and less of a detective novel. There is a lot of following and tailing. Characters pursue each other on foot, by taxi, and even ocean liner. The story travels from England to the US and back again. When the story is transplanted to the USA for several chapters the tone even changes. We lose the Wallace atmosphere and meet up with characters like Spotty M'Gee, a trigger happy crook with a taste for fistfights who would be at home in a Carroll John Daly novel. The dialog becomes peppered with American gangster slang with even Disher succumbing to the speech pattern. Hamilton Harris, a wealthy businessman who receives a black stamped letter, commits burglary in order to be jailed thus ensuring he not become one of the vanished. He summons Disher via telegram and proposes he become his bodyguard once he is freed from jail and together they can join forces to outwit the Black Stamp gang. With luck they will put an end to the disappearances altogether when they find the reason for what seem to be a series of kidnappings.

The scenes between Disher and Hamilton Harris, a Scottish immigrant who made his fortune in American steel, are some of the best in the book. Harris is as irascible and intolerant as Disher. "You're mighty conceited" he says to Disher whose rejoinder is "A peacock posing as a peacock is just a peacock. It is when a sparrow struts around in the guise of a pheasant... But do have a cigar, Mr. Harris."

Disher may be supercilious and intolerant, but I find his slant on the world (and himself) pretty damn funny. Here are some of my favorite quotes:
On living outside a city:
"Suburbs are the curse of civilization. They are pure poison. In them the spirit of dullness has been captured and given a life sentence. It would not surprise me to learn some day that Hell is the suburbs of Heaven."

On conversation:
"There is no occasion on which I am unwilling to talk, except in sleep. [Talk] is an art which I have brought to a state of perfection almost unbelievable. I am its Beethoven."

On lack of observation:
"The fool never recognized me! He is the kind of idiot that would take the Angel Gabriel by the shoulder, and say: 'Give me that instrument! What are you doing here?'"
Harris is the man who disappears so miraculously from the briefly darkened but thoroughly locked and sealed room. No small problem for Disher though who solves that miracle with the ease of crossing a street. With the help of Henry, M'Gee and his American cohorts, plus an assortment of speed racing taxi cab drivers Disher manages to uncover an international plot and locate the missing men all under one roof. The Black Stamp is an above average example of these fast paced, action oriented thrillers so popular in the early 20th century. Those with a dry sense of humor and a slightly cynical worldview might find Will Disher to be worth a visit in one of his three adventures.

Occasionally the Disher books turn up dirt cheap in the used book market. I haven't checked if there are free online versions, but I suspect that since they are in the public domain at least one of them probably is out there in the digital airspace. Happy hunting!

Will Disher detective thrillers
Disher - Detective (1925) - US Title: The Black Stamp
Shadows (1928)
The Mask (1929)

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Reading Challenge update: Golden Age, space N3 - " Book published under more than one title"


  1. ANOTHER fine review, John. Yours may be (for me) the most educational blog of the bunch!

    1. Thanks, Richard! After five years of writing about obscure books and a dwindling readership I waver in and out of feeling that this blog is a futile exercise. Your comment is just the kind of encouragement to keep me going. I had hoped to write about all three books but I need to get on track with some important projects so I could only focus on the first book. As for those projects: "More anon" as they used to say in the Elizabethan funny papers.

    2. Another expensive review, John. Of course I had to go looking for a copy. I found a Burt reprint in VG condition for $20. Not as expensive as I feared. Now all it has to do is live up to your review.

      PS. The work you do on this blog is always appreciated, especially when it costs me money!

    3. Obviously Richard and I are not the only ones reading your blog, unless it was Richard who beat me to the Burt reprint. I just got a cancellation of the order. I found another copy, though, an ex-lib publisher's edition in Good condition for only a few dollars more. I hope i get this one!

    4. Wow. I had no idea that this post would be that tempting. Thanks for the compliments too, Steve.

    5. Nope, I wasn't the one who beat you to it, Steve. I moved too slowly. Bt I have the ebook of DEAD MAN'S QUARRY waiting to be read, so the influence of Pretty Sinister is felt here.

  2. Well, you know that I've loved your blog from way back, John. Great review. I will definitely be looking for this book and the two others. But I don't want to pay 20 bucks. I'll look around for the digital versions. Or maybe I'll get lucky one of these days on Abe Books.
    Thanks again for introducing me to writers I never would have heard of otherwise.

    1. Aw shucks and thank *you*, Yvette, for being one of my loyal readers who like Richard has been here since day one back in 2011 and keeps coming back for more. :^D

      To you or anyone else looking for a copy: I checked eBay and there are two copies: one for $30 and another priced much higher but with the nifty "Make an Offer" button. With those "Make an Offer" ads I always enter 50% of the asking price and three out of five times I'm successful. Can't hurt to try, eh?

  3. Count me in the "thanks" gang, too, John! Our local public library doesn't have a copy, and I haven't found a public domain ebook online yet, but I'll keep looking.

  4. This one sounds very tempting. Used copies seem a bit pricey but I'll keep looking - I may get lucky.

    And keep going with the blog - it's excellent.

  5. What happened to your plan to become a publisher yourself and publish such obscure books ?

    1. Plans have been put on hold until the six essays I have to complete by August 31 are done and sent to my editors. Check back on Sunday for news about what's keeping me busy when I'm not writing reviews for this blog.

      Looks like the three Will Scott books would be a good place to start.

  6. John, these books wouldn't be where I'd suggest you start, you have reviewed some much better-sounding old, unavailable books than them.

  7. John, these sound delightful. I particularly like the three quotes you've tempted us with. And you know how much I love your blog. Yours is one of the most informative detective fiction blogs around. You've taught me so much (and tempted me with so many hard-to-find books) since you first appeared in 2011.

  8. Marvellous sounding, John, thank - as always late to the party (sigh) but Pretty Sinister is a great place to be - thanks again.

  9. Thanks for all the fan mail, gang! Periodically, I still need affirmation and encouragement that what I'm doing here is worth all the time and effort. I don't monetize this blog (frankly I don't want to be bothered with all that) so I'm not earning even a few pennies doing this. It's all for the love of the genre, the books and the writers. I had no idea I was an accidental educator, that's for sure.


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