Friday, October 7, 2016

FFB: The Hex Murder - Forrester Hazard

THE STORY: Awakened by a drip from the ventilation shaft in his bedroom Robert Crocker, not so successful Greenwich Village painter, goes to investigate. Looks like there might be some sort of leak in his girlfriend's apartment upstairs. When he arrives, the door is open and his girlfriend is dead -- a blood soaked corpse in a blood drenched room. She is obviously the victim of a vicious throat cutting. A hex sign is found chalked on the brickwork of her fireplace. Piles of letters from her Amish mother indicate that she was in danger. Peter Adams, intrepid newspaper reporter, travels to Erwinna, PA to learn the truth about the dead girl, why she fled her home, and who was after her. He gets help from Sheriff Reed and a lawyer both of whom have an amazing amount of arcane knowledge on everything from graphology to cabalistic signs to the mysterious ways of the Amish hex doctor.

THE CHARACTERS: Peter Adams is one of hundreds of reporter sleuths so incredibly popular in detective fiction from the 1930s through the early 1950s. He's eager to get to the bottom of all the various mysteries surrounding the grisly death of Marguerite Scholl. What's remarkable about The Hex Murder (1935) is not only its fast paced, well told, and gripping story but how modern it all seems. It has a sort of The Night Stalker and X Files feel to it. Though there is not one iota of the supernatural nor any appearance of other worldly creatures in the book, the atmosphere is tinged with eerie events and macabre beliefs. Sheriff Reed with his extensive knowledge of Amish superstition and folk medicine comes off as a sort of 1930s version of Kolchak. The intriguing lectures from Martin Randall, the Renaissance man lawyer, sound like the kind of "info dumps" Fox Mulder would launch into during an episode of The X Files. But none of it is ever dreary. The entire book is handled with panache and verve.

Adams is assisted by Houston King, one of Robert Crocker's woman artist friends who is determined to clear her friend's name. Crocker, of course, is the prime suspect. He is found in bloodstained pajamas when the police arrive and the razor used to murder Marguerite conveniently turns up in his bathroom. He hasn't a clue how it got there. Houston makes a fine female sidekick for Adams and together they are far from the cliché amateur detective duo you'd expect in a pulp fiction story of this era. I also liked the brief scene with Miriam, a vain publicity seeking chorus girl who worked with Marguerite in a few cheesy dance shows. Adams sees right through her phony sympathy and concern and calls her on her self-interest.

When the story travels to Pennsylvania Dutch country the story really picks up and Hazard revels in all things macabre and unusual. Among the supporting Amish characters we get the oddball Conrad Reifmeyer, a powwow man (more about that below) who enjoys threatening others with dire Biblical quotations. Marguerite's family, the Krugers, are an unusual bunch led by a typically stern father who is succumbing to a terminal illness, her mother is the most sympathetically portrayed of the family while her ostensibly simple-minded brother gives us a surprisingly heroic display at a climactic moment. Dr. Schneider provides the characters and the reader with all the background on Amish folk medicine and his daily battle with naive superstition. Though he confesses he is not above taking advantage of Amish folklore by supplementing his modern medicine with a prescription of a "hex paper" to ward off evil intent.

INNOVATIONS: This may be the first cultural detective novel of its kind. I know of no other mystery from 1935 or earlier in which the plot relies so heavily on Amish life, culture and folklore. As an example of what I like to call "country noir" it also includes some brilliantly realized rural incidents integral to the plot. The climax, for example, features a publicity stunt involving herding sheep with the help of what everyone thinks is a very stupid dog. Pete finds an expert trainer to get the dog to learn some neat sheep herding skills. Everyone is surprised at how quickly and well the dog performs. Amazingly, this stunt will also trip up the vain murderer who gives himself away at the key moment. I've never read a better and more original denouement in a Golden Age detective novel. And it all makes perfect sense as well as belonging specifically to this realistically portrayed milieu.

QUOTES: "I've found Hackmen [cabbies] are as a rule all right or all wrong. In either case they'll give you a break when you're in a jam. If they're all right, like this one was, they'll help because they're good guys; if they're all wrong they'll help you out and then shake you down."

John Reed directed them with the surety of a man who had spent all of his life in the locality. He knew the contour and outline of every tree and bush, could name a farm or its occupant by the slope of a barn roof or the silhouette of a silo.



"We medical men are not half as bigoted as the rest of the world believes us to be. We are perfectly willing to admit that 'there are more things in Heaven and Earth than are dreamed of in the practice of the rites of Aesculapius.'"

"A flock of sheep is a Hell of an alibi," Pete mourned, "but it looks to me like it'll hold."

[Reifmayer] was a singularly moving sight, yet the emotion he stirred in Pete was that most indefinite one of all, a queasy feeling of dislike and distrust, mingled with disgust. Pete was reminded of Cromwell's puritan troopers, who could find Biblical quotations to justify all of their atrocities.

THINGS I LEARNED: As you might imagine I got an overdose on Amish culture, especially their folklore and superstitions, while reading The Hex Murders. All of it was engrossing and fascinating.

As witches are believed to fly through the air or take to riding brooms so are Amish hexers given to magical transportation. They are said to ride horses through the air! So you want to keep anyone suspected of being a hexer away from your stables lest they be tempted to some sinister night riding.

A hexa-donz is the name given to an area in a field where a hexer has done his night riding. Sheriff Reeds tells Pete Adams that they're the Amish equivalent of fairy rings. He says you can always tell when a horse has been hijacked by a hexer for a night ride because it'll be found in a hexa-donz with its "tail and mane ...all tangled up and he would be heaving and puffing."

A powwow man or a hex doctor has his own instruction manual of sorts called The Hidden Friend. Well, to be accurate the true title of this powwow handbook is The Long Lost Friend by Johann Georg Hohman. It's written in the German dialect of Pennsylvania Dutch and filled with spells, hex signs, herbal remedies and other instructions. One of these is a "Release" that the characters find in Marguerite's apartment and it supposedly can reverse the power of a curse.

Reifmayer is accused of putting a bloody hex on the Kruger family. This is why Marguerite was sent away by her mother. But she was killed anyway and not too coincidentally by throat cutting. Kruger was driven almost mad with fear and paranoia. He wouldn't have a cat or dog on the farm for fear of being bitten, drawing blood and dying. Yet when Herman Kruger becomes ill and dies of a fatal hemorrhage (horribly described in gruesome detail) the people in Erwinna believe that the hex worked.

EASY TO FIND? For the first time this year I've found a truly rare book. As of this post there are less than five copies is exactly one copy (!) offered for sale from the usual online bookselling sites. If I were in the reprint business I'd reissue this one in a heartbeat. Truly unique, extremely entertaining, and a damn fine mystery with a shocker of an ending. Every now and then there's a really good mystery novel out there, eager to be read, and hardly a copy for anyone to get their hands on to enjoy. ...sigh...

19 comments:

  1. John, from where do you unearth these books? This seems very different with its focus on a culture, I know practically nothing about.

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    1. I never stop looking! I confess this is another one of those rare instances where I stumbled across a photo of the DJ and had to own a copy of the book. I shelled out quite a chunk of cash for this one and it was worth every dollar. Unusual, gripping and imaginatively told. Perhaps the first ever Amish detective novel.

      As a side note: the novel may have been inspired by a notorious true crime murder that took place in York County, PA in 1928. You can a read the bare bones story at the Wikipedia page for Rehmeyer's Hollow. There several other stories all over the web about the Nelson Rehmeyer case as well as a couple of non-fiction books and a recent documentary film.

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  2. John, I enjoyed reading your insightful review of what is no doubt a fascinating vintage mystery. I don't recall having read mysteries with a passion for culture, at least not in recent years. I'd be extremely lucky if I found such rare books in my neck of the woods. But then, I never know what awaits me at the next book exhibition or the neighbouring old paper mart.

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  3. Nice piece, John. There was a notorious murder case in PA a few years before this book was published that I imagine was an influence. I believe that Van Dine's next book after the uninspired Winter Murder Case was supposed to be The Powwow Murder Case. I think that would have been an interesting one!

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    1. Wow! And I always thought those ads for the "In Preparation" title of The Powwow Murder Case would incorporate Native American mythology. Makes sense it would be modeled after the Rehmeyer case. Horrible story. Beaten to death, house set on fire, two teenage boys enlisted as accomplices. Perfect fodder for tabloid newspapers and lurid crime fiction.

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  4. Whoops, I see you mentioned the true life case in a comment at the same time I was posting. Yup!

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  5. By the way, my mother's family is Pennsylvania Dutch and the whole hex thing definitely bemused me as a kid!

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    1. So you must be familiar with snickerdoodles, scrapple, and shoo fly pie, right? I went to college in Allentown which oddly had a small population of "Dutchies" though it's far away from what I think of as the heart of Penn Dutch country. I still remember a security guard on our campus named Dalton Stonebeck who had the thickest Dutchie accent I've ever heard. One of our favorite Allentown hangouts was a Pennsylvania Dutch diner called Yoder's.

      Back in the late 1970s my family took a vacation to Lancaster County and I loved it. My father kept making rude jokes about Intercourse, PA that made all of us laugh and had my mother in a furor. I lapped up all the hex sign lore and I bought a couple of the mass produced replicas sold in the tourist shops. I had one with a distelfink motif hanging in my bedroom all throughout high school. Wish I sill had it. Have no idea where it went to.

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    2. Had to add some charge to the tablet, but, anyway, my mother's grandmother was considered a powwow woman because of her knowledge about herbal healing, which I always thought was pretty cool. She died a couple of years after this book was published.

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    3. That is indeed very cool. My maternal grandmother used to like calling herself a gypsy because her parents came from Bohemia which we think was Czechoslovakia...or Romania. Never really verified that. She did a good job of convincing my five-year self that she could tell the future. When I was older and knew better than to be fooled by her tricks she often impressed me with her intuitive skills. Maybe she really did have some kind of "gypsy gift"!

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  6. I am descended from Yoders, along with myriad German lines. My mother had only one English great grandparent, everyone else was German descent. In fact even the English one was half German.

    Used to love visiting the family home and, yeah, I went in for those hexes when a kid back in the 1970s.

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  7. Though snickerdoodles, scrapple, and shoo fly pie are all kinda widespread Mid-Atlantic things anyway, even if scrapple tacks northward, shoo fly southern...glad you were able to post this!

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    1. Shoo fly pie came the American South? Can't believe that. My family travelled all over the south on vacations when I was a kid (Florida, Georgia, the Carolinas, and Virginia) and I never heard of it until I set foot in Lancaster.

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    2. In my mother's house they served scrapple and shoofly pie. My mother wouldn't touch scrapple, but her grandmother ate it regularly. My mother's favorite dessert was Montgomery Pie as I recollect.

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  8. This is one of the most positive, enthusiastic reviews you've written in a long while, so of course many of us who read it want to also read the book, but won't because of scarcity. Too bad, because you sell this one to a "T". Honestly, I wouldn't know a hex sign if it bit me on the toe, so your illustration was helpful, though if the murderer took the time to make that intricate design he/she was sure in no hurry!

    I have seen similar designs on quilts.

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  9. Another winning review, John. But as usual, good luck finding the book. Ha! I LOVE the alibi by sheep thing. Great cover too. Well, bloody good.

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  10. You sold me on this with the denouement revolving around sheep-herding...anything that original and justified, I am in! I shall join the rest of the people here in fervently hoping I stumble across this at some point...

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  11. I discovered a nephew of the author in a serendipitous Google search. I'm now seriously looking into getting this reprinted. If all goes well it will be the inaugural book for a long wished for enterprise.

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    1. Hey, go for it! In a month or so I'm hoping to be able to announce something similar myself (he teased)...

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