Thursday, May 19, 2016

FFB: The Hammersmith Maggot - William Mole

UK 1st edition (Eyre & Spottiswoode, 1955)
Illustration by collectible DJ artist Biro
THE STORY: Alistair Casson Duker (Casson to his friends) is a wine merchant, gourmand, and a self-confessed collector of "human oddities." He watches, observes and investigates when his sixth sense alerts him to people whose behavior suggests that they "live beyond the law." His success with the Witch of Bath case and the journal article he published based on his experience has lent him a reputation for a very different kind of amateur detective work. At the opening of The Hammersmith Maggot (1955) he has set his eyes on a fellow club member Lockyer whose drinking has increased, whose normally unruffled, polite manner is becoming self-involved and worrisome. Duker is sure that something is wrong. So he takes the man home and through a combination of subtle conversation aided by Lockyer's alcoholic loosened inhibition gets Lockyer to admit that he is being blackmailed. But the blackmail scheme is for a wholly fabricated story. Yet so insidiously constructed and damaging to his reputation that Lockyer cannot prove it false. He has succumbed to the blackmailer's demand but as with all blackmail the fear that this "maggot" will strike again with another false accusation has practically ruined him. The story he threatens Lockyer with is that he is a pedophile.

THE CHARACTERS: Duker is a fine creation. A vigilante of the soul, a man driven to root out injustices that would otherwise never be noticed by the law. He marvels at the perversity of a man who would imagine he could extort money from people by telling them complete lies spun from a few threads of credibility based on the truth of the person's private life. How did he know of Lockyer's involvement in charity that benefits misfit teenage boys, that Lockyer spends his free time teaching young men how to sail on his yacht? How did he know Lockyer had enough money to pay without drawing attention to a sudden large withdrawal of cash? Duker starts to paint a portrait of this parasite of a criminal -- a petty man, one privy to his target's banking history and personal life, and -- through a series of coincidences and dogged detective work -- that the blackmailer is a collector of unusual objets d'art. This last bit of information provides Duker an idea for a clever trap in order to expose the blackmailer.

Duker has a policeman friend from whom he manages to extract information that supports his theory of the blackmail scheme. There are others who have been victimized and all of them have been forced to pay for fear of the lies being exposed to their loved ones or employers.

UK 1st paperback (Beacon Books, 1957)
The rest of the cast is made up of the blackmailer's victims all of whom have been threatened with exposure for false accusations similarly constructed so that no proof can be presented to clear the victim's name and yet enough truth exists to make the lie very plausible. Marital infidelity, lax business practices are just two of the other threats of exposure that result in the victims paying out large sums of cash to the "maggot" that Duker knows under his real name of Perry. The novel becomes a game of cat-and-mouse as he forces Perry out of hiding, catching him out of one of his many assumed identities, and by revealing himself and playing to his weaknesses. Duker plans to make the man pay for his crimes by making him feel exactly like his victims. But this game does not come without terrible unplanned consequences. When Duker realizes that he is responsible for the death of one of his witnesses he is even more determined to bring about Perry's undoing.

It is interesting that the author's wife, Elizabeth Hely, only a few years later would try her hand at a crime novel that in essence explores exactly what Mole did here. Duker is a vigilante for unknown victims just as Mark was a seeker of justice for his raped and murdered wife in I'll Be Judge I'll Be Jury. Both husband and wife writers seem to have an uncanny skill in dreaming up stories which uncover the darkest and most hidden of motivations. While Hely's book is perhaps the more unnerving of the two The Hammersmith Maggot certainly is one of the most original twists of the tale of a blackmailer and the kind of Dorian Gray world of a small-minded vengeful man who allows his dreams of unbridled vanity and thirst for power over others to turn him into a monster.

QUOTES: "When would the English learn that a pleasant face and an aptitude for sport were not automatic guarantees of honesty?"

"You say that Fenton's threat was fit only for a cheap novelette. So it was. But there is a part of everybody's mind which yearns to believe in cheap novelettes, in music under the moon, in handsome heroes, in masked intrigue and love triumphant. It is trash and it is untrue, and that is why people believe it."

"Some men collect postage stamps. Some spend their holidays hunting for rare flowers in Continental woods. Some, like your husband, stalk stags. I collect human beings who live along the fringes of illegality. And I collect them Mrs Gordonstoun, because it is then that their behaviour is least inhibited and most human."

"He could just imagine Perry in, for example, [his club], moving like a prim and voracious lamprey between the pillars and the pictures."

"When you were faced by the abyss over which the human mind hung poised, then you got vertigo. You got the height sickness that urged you to throw yourself over and end the intolerable strain of clinging to your balance. And you got nausea, too, when you saw the things which moved with rustling, unclean wings in the depths."

"To blackmail, and in the end to kill, for snobbery was a repulsive comment on the human mind. To do those things for silver candlesticks he could comprehend. But to kill for a handshake was ludicrous, ten-dimensional, a music hall joke."

William Younger as seen on the
rear of the Beacon paperback
THE AUTHOR: William Younger was Dennis Wheatley's step-son from his wife's first marriage. Under the pen name "William Mole" he wrote several thrillers and crime novels, three of which feature Alistair Casson Duker. The Hammersmith Maggot was the first. Under the title Small Venom (as it was published in the US) it became part of Jacques Barzun & Wendell Taylor's series of reprints called "50 Classics of Crime Fiction 1950-1975". Oddly, Younger first started writing poetry and his first book was Inconstant Conqueror (1938), a collection of his poems illustrated by his sister Diana. This was followed by two more books of verse in 1944 and 1946. Much later in life he also collaborated with his novelist wife on a handful of travel books and one book on their great love in life -- wine.

EASY TO FIND? Your chances are pretty damn good for this one, gang. There are about 50 copies right now for sale, mostly in affordable paperback editions. Pick a title, any title. There are three titles the book was published under!  I've shown three editions on this post:  the original UK hardcover, the first UK paperback, and the US paperback published under the title Shadow of a Killer. The only two not shown are the original US hardcover called Small Venom (Dodd Mead, 1956) and its later 1980 reprint in Barzun & Taylor's series. The 1980 reprints were created specifically for sale to libraries, come in dull green unadorned boards with no DJs, and aren't worth using as illustrations. I had no luck in finding a Dodd Mead edition for sale with the DJ.

William Mole's Crime & Detective Novels
(Only the last three feature Casson Duker in the lead role)

Trample an Empire (1952)
The Lobster Guerillas (1953)
The Hammersmith Maggot (1955)
 -- US title: Small Venom
 -- in paperback: Shadow of a Killer
Goodbye Is Not Worthwhile (1956)
Skin Trap (1957) -- US title: You Pay for Pity

10 comments:

  1. I really love that Biro cover from the hardback edition but I am definitely off to order a paperback - sounds really good John. Thanks matey, not least for all the great author info. I have, actually, never read anything by Wheatley though I really like the film of THE DEVIL RIDES OUT

    ReplyDelete
  2. Okay, you talked me into this one. An author and novel I've never heard of (no big surprise there) but one which sounds very intriguing. And you know me, John, I love to be intrigued. I like the first cover best.

    ReplyDelete
  3. You always dig up the really obscure stuff and I love it! Maybe next you can tackle THE LOBSTER GUERILLAS.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Wish I could. But that one is way too scarce and I don't have enough spare cash to shell out the prices being asked for the only two copies for sale. It has a DJ illustration as odd as the title. I think it's got to be a spy novel. But it could be about anything!

      Delete
    2. A strange book, it is a sort of fantasy about a post-war plan by members of the Resistance led by an English Captain to turn the Camargue in France into an independent Republic - for a week. The dustwrapper features the heroine, a fiery red-headed Provencal landowner. The copy I have (and I am a bookseller) has an inscription signed from the Swan of the Grand Union Canal or Watermole

      Delete
    3. Thanks for the plot synopsis. Not my kind of book though the Camargue setting might have had an appeal for nostalgia's sake. I had a lovely vacation day there years ago. I hope to read/review the other two Casson Duker books sometime in the fall.

      Delete
  4. I was impressed by this mystery and reviewed it at

    http://blog.paperbackswap.com/mystery-monday-the-hammersmith-maggot/2012/06/

    I read it in a traditional green Penguin, published in the early 1960s.

    That Dell edition of "Shadow" looks pretty cool. It reminds me a "one hit wonder" Murder in Venice by Thomas Sterling. Review here:

    http://blog.paperbackswap.com/mystery-monday-murder-in-venice/2013/09/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Well done reviews. I like Frank Gruber's observation about quality mystery novels requiring invention. I write about the innovations of each book I read. Just started making that a requirement this year. Didn't include it here as a separate section because the entire novel is an innovation: a blackmailer who fabricates a threat to extort money and succeeds each time.

      You ought to read his wife's book I'll Be Judge I'll Be Jury because it incorporates similar themes of the common man rooting out injustice then meting out revenge and suitable punishments. She and William seemed to be of like minds. I would've loved to know them not only for their morbid imaginations but for their bon vivant lifestyle. I bet the two of them were a hell of a lot of fun drinking wine and traveling the world.

      I know the Sterling book under its original title The Evil of the Day. It's a rewrite of Ben Jonson's classic play of greed and venality VOLPONE. I saw the name Cecil Fox in your review and immediately remembered the book and it's inspiration.

      Delete
  5. Not only do I like the way you do your reviews, Jon, I think you've helped me discover a new (for me) novelist to seek out. That photo of William Younger helped. Hunter S. Thompson's offbeat uncle, per chance?

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks, Matthew! I love that photo of Younger. You can't go wrong with this book. Stellar! One of the best I've read this year. His wife's book is just as good, too. More on Younger's work as "William Mole" coming soon...

      Delete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.