Friday, February 3, 2017

FFB: The Screaming Portrait - Ferrin Fraser

Continuing my salute to Alternative Facts Week I offer this pan of a mystery loaded with them. It belongs to the dubious pantheon of Alternative Mysteries. I'll warn you all right now that this post is littered with spoilers.

The Screaming Portrait (1928) is 100% malarkey. A very poor book filled with nonsensical detective novel and pulp thriller trappings. I nearly didn't finish it because the first chapter keeps referring to a tiger hunt that took place in South Africa! A stupid impossibility. The second chapter is devoted to an overly detailed hunting party scene in which the slaughter of several game birds is described with bloody gusto with lots of talk about how the guns work and who shot what in how many minutes. Who cares?  Blood sports enthusiasts, I guess. The rest of us would be nauseated by it.

Guns and shooting do play a part in the real story about a long ago hunting accident in which Sir Charles Dorrington's father, Sir Walter, died a gruesome death. There are whispers of a covered up murder. Arthur...Someone (I never bothered to write down his last name and sold the book several years ago so I can't look it up) receives a letter from Sir Charles begging him to come and stop something dreadful from happening. Guy Sherwood, one of the several guests at Dorrington Castle, confides to Arthur that he is sure that Sir Walter's death was a murder and intimates he knows who was responsible. That night at dinner Sir Charles is cajoled into telling the legend of a haunted room in the castle in which several ancestors died mysteriously. According to that legend one can hear a scream emanate from a portrait hanging there. Guy insists that someone stay in the room that night to witness proof of the legend. They draw lots, Guy wins. Or in this case loses. Oh yeah, you know he's doomed.

That night the guests hear a horrid scream, rush to the bedroom where Guy is staying and find him dead. Not a mark on him. How did he die? It is of course a murder, but the method is not revealed until the third to last chapter when the results of the autopsy are delivered verbally by the village doctor. Prior to that the murder method is guessed at several times. Had the method been mentioned sooner the book would never have been a novel.

The "detective" is an amateur investigator (apparently French) who accompanies the nearly inept coroner to the scene of the crime. His name is Lorillard, he is 25 and is the embodiment of the egomaniacal "brilliant" detective that was popular in the late 1920s in these books by lesser writers. His brilliance, sadly, is all show and bravado. He makes a series of absurd leaps of logic, dreams up a bizarre murder method (poisoned candles that emit hydrochloric gas) and outrageous accusations against nearly every member of the household. All of it proves wrong in the end.

What I found most irritating was how everything was contrived. No one bothers to investigate the portrait until the final pages. Anyone would've looked at it in detail immediately. It is obvious from several incidents and hints throughout the story that there is a secret passageway in the castle. But once again no one bothers to look for it until the author deems it necessary – in the final pages.  Had any of the truly logical behavior and truly common sense reactions taken place when they should have the solution would have come within a few paragraphs.

Here comes the massive spoilers, gang. Those who really want to read this book are advised to skip to THE AUTHOR section now. We learn that Sir Charles killed his father but remained silent and allowed everyone to think the shooting was a hunting accident. There is also a stupid ambiguous ending in which an errant brother, Hubert Dorrington, suddenly turns up and forces a confession out of dying Sir Charles. Hubert, of course, is the murderer but killed Guy Sherwood, we are told, in error thinking he was in the bedroom of Sir Charles. The murder was intended to be retribution for their father's murder with Sir Charles the intended victim. Hubert denies his guilt, however, and as proof he reveals the secret of the screaming portrait: the painting is hinged to the wall and behind it is a secret passage which leads to several rooms. When the painting is pulled away from the wall to reveal the passage there is silence, when closed the hinges emit a terrible wailing sound similar to a woman's scream. Idiotic. A tacked on "Epilogue" suggests that Sir Charles was innocent and confessed out of fear – a fear of his brother he had all his life. Bleech. My reading experience of The Screaming Portrait will haunt me for the rest of my life. It is not recommended at all.

The author in his happy youth
THE AUTHOR: Ferrin Fraser (1903-1969) was born in Niagara County, New York. He started out working for his family's coal business, then opted for a writing career. Fraser began by contributing hundreds of stories to the slicks like Blue Book and Ladies' Home Journal. In the 1930s and 1940s he turned to radio script writing landing gigs with Lights Out, Suspense, and Little Orphan Annie. He later adapted some of those radio scripts for TV in the 1950s. But the bulk of his writing came as a collaborator with hunter and animal trainer Frank Buck. Together the two wrote five books including Buck's autobiography All in a Lifetime (1941).

EASY TO FIND? Oh, why bother? For those sticklers who must know, there are four copies for sale: two reprints and two first editions both with DJs. Wisely, no paperback publisher ever reprinted after the Grosset & Dunlap edition in the 1930s. Seriously, it's not worth tracking down. Not even as an unintentional chortle fest. This one is a true stinker.


  1. So tell us what you really think...

  2. I can't help but note that the "egomaniacal 'brilliant' detective" is the very same age as Fraser was when The Screaming Portrait was published.

    Nice cover.

  3. "The Screaming Portrait is 100% malarkey" - put that on a DJ today and I'd probably buy it!!

  4. Laffed all the way thru this romp of a review, and am howling now at "bloodymurder"'s comment.

    1. I just knew that you would appreciate this one, Mathew. :^D Thanks!

  5. You sold me. I bought the book today on eBay.

    1. Seriously? This diatribe was not meant to encourage you to find a copy. Hilarious that you think it was worth $11 (plus shipping) of your hard earned money. I guess it'll be worth a laugh or two. (I looked up the copy you bought on eBay using the Completed Items search function.)

      I have to wonder why anyone would want to read a book where I gave away nearly 100% of the story, including the ridiculous ending and secret of the "screaming" portrait. Enjoy what little left there is to enjoy ...if that's the right word.