Friday, December 9, 2016

FFB: Gallows for the Groom - D. B. Olsen

THE STORY: Professor Pennyfeather is summoned by Fatty Enheart, a long lost cousin, to a bird sanctuary in southern California where the cousin is employed. Enheart has a dilemma and it involves a collection of antique spoons with the figures of the twelve apostles on the handles. When he arrives he learns that Jo Fontyne, daughter of Fatty's employer, is planning on having a scavenger hunt for the apostle spoons which are not only a family heirloom but extremely valuable. The participants in the hunt are three men vying for Jo's attention and their relatives. As an added incentive in the hunt Jo has promised that she will marry the man who finds the spoon collection. But arson, murder, and the discovery of a skeleton on the estate turn the scavenger hunt into a criminal investigation.

THE TITLE: Gallows for the Groom (1947) is a bit of a misnomer for a title. None of the men is married though one is widowed. Neither is anyone hanged. Maybe I'm being too literal minded, but I can't even see it as an apt metaphor. I haven't a clue why the title was chosen or whether its an allusion to a poem or other work of literature. There's no epigram to indicate that it's a quote from anything. Perhaps Dolores Hitchens (the true identity of "D. B. Olsen") chose it because the first Pennyfeather book is titled Bring the Bride a Shroud and she felt having a title about a groom would signify this book was a sequel. But it could just as easily have been an editorial decision for that very reason and not Hitchens' choice at all.

THE CHARACTERS: Professor Pennyfeather is an accidental sleuth of sorts. This is only his second appearance and he reluctantly travels to Willow Cove to help his cousin who he barely remembers from his childhood because a letter that was supposed to alert him of Fatty's phone call was stolen from his mail slot, ripped to shreds, and the pieces scattered throughout his yard and neighborhood. That was enough to arouse his curiosity and send him off on the long journey from the outskirts of Los Angeles to the bird sanctuary located somewhere on "the peninsula". Once again there are several murders as well as attempts made on Pennyfeather's life. The grisly discovery of the skeleton of a Fontyne relative adds to the escalating mysteries.

The three suitors show up with their mothers, and in one case a teenage daughter, in tow. All of them turn out to have secrets of one sort of another and all of them are considered possibly dangerous by Professor Pennyfeather. From the drop dead gorgeous southern boy named Rebel to the affable father Ted Thacker and his daughter Marjorie, Pennyfeather has his work cut out for him. Friendliness and good looks cannot keep him from suspecting anyone of the insane crimes committed over the three day weekend. He has his fair share of conks to the head and a near strangling as well.

I also should mention that the guessing game of Pennyfeather's unusual first name inspired by Greek mythology once again becomes a running gag. And just as in the first book we learn his embarrassing first name on the final page. I wonder if eventually Hitchens gave up on this gag in later books.

INNOVATIONS: Despite what may seem like a quaint "cozy" style mystery based solely on the plot synopsis I gave at the top of this post this is a violent and creepy story. The murders are gruesome which tends to be a hallmark of Olsen's detective fiction. Yet again there's an ax -- or rather hatchet -- wielding killer on the prowl. (Hitchens and Mary Roberts Rinehart seemed to be obsessed with axe murders.) And this killer enjoys setting places and people on fire, too. The culprit of Gallows for the Groom is not only ruthless but clearly crazed; prime material for the loony bin. As in other Olsen books animals and pets are targeted and suffer violent attacks. I seem to have a real knack for uncovering the Golden Age mysteries that share the bizarre trend of enraged killers who will stop at nothing to get what they want including doing in a pet or two.

The apostle spoons are not just the MacGuffin of the plot, they provide the obvious motive for all the crimes. There is an element of that weird serial killer plot gimmickry where murderers leave notes or symbols beside the corpse. In this case, at the scene of each crime the killer leaves behind one of the apostle spoons tying each violent death to the martyrdom of a particular apostle depicted on the spoon. That's a clue to the mindset of the killer. Like the lead character in Hive of Glass this is a collector whose desire to possess objects of beauty has transformed into the madness of monomania.

THINGS I LEARNED: While I was well aware of the odd hobby of collecting spoons, whether antique or not, I'd never heard of apostle spoons before reading this book. Most sets consist of all twelve of Jesus' disciples. The handles of each spoon can either be miniature busts of each apostle or full figures. The set of apostle spoons in Gallows for the Groom consists of thirteen spoons, the last being a spoon with the figure of Judas. The Judas spoon has some added significance in the final chapter.

EASY TO FIND? Bad news this time. This title is very hard to come by. Though Gallows for the Groom was published in both the UK and the US there is currently one single copy of the Crime Club edition (no DJ, sadly) offered for sale. That's it. One copy. There was a reprint in the pulp magazine Two Complete Detective Books (September 1948), but I rarely see those pulps offered or sale anywhere, not even on eBay. There was no paperback reprint reissued between 1947 and 1980 nor do I think there are any current reprints or digital versions available.

4 comments:

  1. Okay, dead pets are a big no-no, John, as you know. So I will not be reading this book. Though it sounds like the sort of thing I'd generally fall into bed with (minus the dead animals). Professor Pennyfeather is too good a name to let go to waste. But I have my limits. :)

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    1. I know about your pet peeve, Yvette. (Oops. No pun intended there.) But one dog out of two survives the bloody attack. So that at least is a consolation for me. For that gracious miracle I'm a bit forgiving of Hitchens for her brief flouting of a tacit rule in crime fiction. I don't really go looking for books with attacks on pets and of course that kind of thing is NEVER mentioned on the DJ blurbs. They wanted to sell the books, after all! I also wonder if I will ever read a book by Hitchens under her D. B. Olsen guise in which someone *doesn't* grab an ax and hack up someone or something. She was truly obsessed.

      I'm planning on reading all the Prof. Pennyfeather books so I'll keep you posted on which one is safe for you. :^)

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  2. I love the end part of that synopsis: "As an added incentive in the hunt Jo has promised that she will marry the man who finds the spoon collection". Take it out of context and it just sounds weird, but there's something about that which feels like a genuinely classic crime conceit - I mean, you wouldn't get that in a novel these days, eh?

    Sounds like a good read, John. One of these days someone is going to have to reprint all these books you keep tempting us with...

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  3. What Hitchens I have read I have always liked - sorry that this one is hard to find, but she did write lots and lots of books thankfully :)

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