Friday, April 7, 2017

NEGLECTED DETECTIVES: Mordecai Tremaine

If you were to tell me that you just discovered a great new series of mystery novels in which a sixty-something retired tobacconist who liked to read romantic fiction magazines was the amateur sleuth I would probably turn and run the other way. Too twee for me. I had my fill of sentimental romantic subplots in the mystery novels of Herbert Adams. I’m certainly not going to read a detective novel in which the sleuth passes the time filling his head with fictional stories of true love and happily ever after lovers. Or so I thought. If I actually followed my preferences and avoided the Francis Duncan mysteries where this character solves baffling crimes then I would have missed out on some of the most mature and thoughtful detective novels of the mid twentieth century.

I didn’t know anything about Mordecai Tremaine when I bought three of the new reprints of Francis Duncan’s mystery novels and read them in quick succession. Yes, Tremaine is a retired gent who unabashedly likes to pass the time reading issues of Romantic Times. That aspect is not really pointed out in selling the books. It’s only incidental to the books (thankfully) but it appears in all three books I’ve read and in one case figures into the story. This unusual pastime also gives you some insight to the humanity of the man. Tremaine has another hobby. Not surprisingly it turns out to be criminology. Like all fictional amateur sleuths he has a close friendship with a police inspector and has a remarkable habit for stumbling across murder cases often while he’s on vacation. Mordecai is one of the better humanist detectives. Even more appealing is that Duncan's crime novels are grounded in a morality and sense of justice in direct contrast to the trend of post-WW 2 crime writers who were increasingly creating anti-heroes and exploring the effects of morbid psychology. In one of the truly rare instances of discovering a forgotten but exceptionally well done mystery series I read these three books in an order in which they got better and better ending with the best of the lot.

Murder Has a Motive (1947) involves an amateur theatrical troupe. It’s also something of a bibliomystery in that the script that’s being produced by the troupe (which shares the title of the novel) is being used as a guidebook of sorts by the murderer. There is also a subplot mystery as to the identity of the playwright. The plot is in effect coming to life in the village as it is being rehearsed on the stage. One by one cast members are being killed just as they occur in the play.

William Underhill , aka "Francis Duncan"
Lydia Dare, the stage manager, is the first victim. Prior to her death she had an abnormal fear that “something ugly, and horrible, and obscene” is infecting the town and its people. She talks of a “black power brooding over us all, just waiting for an opportunity to strike.” This theme of murder as an malevolent force pervades the novel. Murder in the village of Dalmering becomes a horror transforming the town as a disease affects the body. Tremaine fells a “monstrous villainy” everywhere he looks. “Always he could see ruin and destruction and human sorrow.” Even the shining sun becomes “indescribably evil” as Tremaine contemplates how Lydia’s death has deeply affected –more accurately as she herself said has infected everyone -- including himself. He succumbs to his sentimental side and obsesses about her wedding that will never be and watches helplessly as her fiancĂ© Gerald Farrant descends into a morose depression. He needs to stamp out the evil and find the murderer.

Duncan’s book ought to feel heavy handed with all this talk of evil. Instead he hits just the right note of dread and fright. There is never anything remotely resembling complacence that sometimes enters village murder mysteries. Lightness and flippancy never enter the picture to offset the dire situation of a seemingly mad killer on the loose. The emphasis is always on how violence does indeed wreak havoc and affect everyone in Dalmering. Hate acts as an infectious disease. In his role as detective Mordecai Tremaine becomes both Nemesis and Dalmering’s spiritual healer.

Criminal behavior is explored in another way in Behold a Fair Woman (1954) which deals more with the preservation of reputation. Murderous actions grow out of a desire to protect others at all costs. Duncan has not strayed too far from the amoral influence of the seven deadly sins, however. Whereas hate and wrath was the evil that infected Dalmering the sin that weighs heavily on the occupants of Moulin d’Or is avarice.

In Behold a Fair Woman the character relationships are deeper and richer. I began to see with this second book that Duncan was not only interested in the mystery plot but in writing a real novel that used crime to explore ideas not just to present a puzzle that will entertain. Most of the characters in Behold a Fair Woman have criminal pasts and are trying to escape that past and begin life anew. Resorting to crime in order to preserve their new lives has more credence than would melodramatic emotions and diabolical revenge acted out in frenzied hatred as in the theater milieu of Murder Has a Motive.

By the time I got to So Pretty a Problem (1950) I was convinced that Duncan was more of a novelist than a mystery writer. He was interested in character more than the puzzle and crime would grow out of the character's lives and situations rather than a plot existing as a framework for stock characters to enact. But I was genuinely surprised when the plot in So Pretty a Problem was almost a throwback to the Golden Age of Detection with allusions to famous works by G.K. Chesterton and an impossible crime problem. The characters are just as fully human as in the other books but this time the plot is so filled with truly baffling problems and there are multiple culprits of one sort or another that the book quickly became my favorite of the three.

Adrian Carthallow, a temperamental painter, lives in an isolated house on an island accessible only by one bridge. The island’s cliffs are sheer, the shoreline dangerously rocky and high tides make the ocean front property too perilous to allow for a dock and access by boat. Tremaine is drowsily lounging on the beach when he is awakened by a gunshot. He runs up the path, crosses the bridge and runs into Helen Carthallow who confesses that she has just shot her husband. Tremaine is sure she is covering up for someone and does not rule out the possibility of suicide though when the police arrive evidence does seem to point to murder. But how can it be anyone else?  Only Helen's fingerprints are on the gun. No one was seen crossing the bridge. An invalid neighbor conveniently happens to be a habitual nosey Parker who spies on everyone visiting the artist's home and she is sure she saw no one other than the daily visit of the mailman. It looks like to be an impossible crime.

The story seems simple but Duncan manages to complicate the plot with his usual variety of colorful characters, a few odd sideline mysteries like who slashed the portrait of Helen in Adrian's studio and whether or not Adrian was involved in an art forgery scheme, plus a plethora of jealousies and secrets that provide multiple motives for Adrian's murder. He was not well liked, especially by his wife. Could she actually be guilty? There is one very well placed clue which I spotted but dismissed as a red herring when Tremaine rules out a certain activity. Of course I was fooled, and that one clue was something I ought not to have discarded as meaningless. For that bit of misdirection (probably the best he ever employed) Duncan gets major points and it makes the "impossibility" of how the murder was committed much more clever than I expected. So Pretty a Problem is entirely satisfying, engrossing, thought provoking and with more plausible twists than any of the other two books. I think it is his best novel and best plotted detective story.

Five of Francis Duncan's mystery novels featuring Mordecai Tremaine have been reprinted by Vintage Books in their Death's Head Moth imprint. The other two are In at the Red and Murder for Christmas. They all sport attractive retro style covers and are available in both paperback and digital editions, although the eBooks can only be purchased via the UK amazon site. I highly recommend that you read any of them with a slight nudge towards So Pretty a Problem as his most rewarding and entertaining fair play murder mystery, clearly a homage to the Golden Age. It would be a great service to devotees of traditional detective novels if the rest of Duncan's catalog were reissued. Cross your fingers for more!

20 comments:

  1. This series looks like a good find. Will have to try one.

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  2. Finally! I was waiting for this post to appear and glad to read that our opinion on the series pretty much align.

    So Pretty a Problem is undoubtedly the best one of the lot, but it should be pointed out that the plot should've been structured differently. The second part of the story, which is a 100-page detour into the past, should have preceded the opening chapters dealing with the discovery of the murder. Otherwise, it's one of the best of Golden Age-style mysteries from the 1950s. Loved it!

    Mordecai Tremaine is one of the warmest and most human of all detectives. A character who reminded me of Agatha Christie's Mr. Satterthwaite, but with some depth added to his personality.

    Something of interest to pop-cult historians is that the term “murder-magnet” may have been introduced in this series. I know there are older examples of writers acknowledging their creations habit for stumbling across bodies, but they were never outright called murder/mystery magnets.

    By the way, can still look forward to your review of John Russell Fearn's Flashpoint and What Happened to Hammond?

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    1. Yes, well... This is my doldrums year. Takes a lot of effort for me to write anything for this blog. No further comment on why.

      I like your Mr. Satterthwaite analogy. Very apt. Mordecai is a great character. I think he'd appeal to a very wide audience -- especially the "cozy crowd." I plan to talk about him a lot at Malice Domestic when I go to Maryland at the end of this month.

      I'll see if I can sneak in those two Fearn books while I'm on the plane to DC and while I'm in Bethesda. No promises, but I'll try. I'm reading a lot of contemporary books this year and I'm already five posts behind. Ugh!

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  3. Had to look up "twee", and glad I did. Wonderful word! Twee or not, this series is beckoning, ever so gently. I shall keep a lookout.

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    1. Probably strictly British, right? I started seeing it a lot because I read a lot of UK-based blogs and decided it's a perfect word for what it means. In this case the series is most definitely *not* twee, Matt. That's why I enjoyed these books, with So Pretty a Problem taking the highest marks in all categories. I think all mystery fans ought to read that one. It's a superior example of everything that makes detective fiction so grand.

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  4. John, I want these now, really bad!

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    1. I just realized I have read one of his books! Murder For Christmas. Just read it this last Christmas and enjoyed it!

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    2. That's one I haven't read yet. Try to get a copy of So Pretty a Problem. You're sure to enjoy it.

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  5. On your previous recommendation of MURDER HAS A MOTIVE (I think you might have mentioned it before..?) I immediately looked for it but could only find an audible version (everything else was too expensive). Since I love audible books I used by monthly credit. A terrific mystery even tough I figured out who the killer was sometime before the end. The thing still worked for me. The beginning is especially affecting in the audible version. Thank you for the recommendation, John. I'm now interested if finding the other Mordecai Tremaine books. I will concentrate on your favorite first. :)

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  6. Oops, maybe it was Tomcat's review I had read. Either/or. THANKS to both you guys for continuing to recommend the good stuff.

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    1. It was TomCat's review, Yvette. This is the only post I've written about Francis Duncan, his books, and his detective. You're sure to enjoy So Pretty a Problem.

      I don't know why the Francis Duncan books were so hard to find for you. All of them have been listed on amazon since Dec 2016. I use bookdepository.com for all books published in the UK and I got all of mine for under $10 each. Plus, there's never any shipping fee when you use Book Depository. You ought to try that website for new book purchases. They offer great deals.

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    2. I usually go to Abe Books for the free shipping. I like to pay as little as possible for my vintage books, John, because the budget around here is what it is. But I'll take a look over at Book Depository when I'm again in a book-buying mood. :)

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    3. Abebooks only has free shipping depending on who the seller is. I've paid shipping fees on probably three out of five books I've bought there. But there is *never* a shipping fee at Book Depository so it's the ideal site for any book that is only available in a U.K. edition. Also good for any new book purchase. Not so good for vintage book shopping.

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  7. Well, okay. on your recommendation I bought 3: Murder Has A Motive, So Pretty A Problem and In At The Death. Once they arrive (from The Book Depository), we'll see. Assuming I'll read all three, which would you pick to start?

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    1. Have you not got my hints yet? Ok, I'll say it again. I'd start with So Pretty a Problem.. Can't tell you anything about In at the Death because I've not read it. The third one you bought may remind you of several well known Golden Age mysteries. It's a bit derivative but still well done.

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    2. The books came yesterday. Now to slip them into the TBR.

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    3. Enjoy! He's a captivating writer and a very good plotter.

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  8. I figured that, unless you didn't want me to start with the favorite, and work up to it....

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  9. So, not connected to the Johnny Depp movie then ...

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    1. Are you testing me...or being funny? That's Charlie Mortdecai (with a superfluous T in there), a character created in the 1970s by Kyril Bonfiglioli. Don't play with me, mister! :^) Not seen that movie and don't plan to either. It was supposed to be dreadful. I read one of the books a very long time ago.

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