Friday, May 5, 2017

FFB: What Happened to Hammond? - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY: Shipping magnate Benson T. Hammond is being threatened with anonymous letters promising his imminent demise.  As if that isn't enough to worry him his daughter announces her engagement to a man he thinks is a fortune hunter. Hours after an argument with the young man during which he refuses permission to marry his daughter Hammond is found dead -- 60 miles from a house he was seen to last enter but never exited. Inspector Garth much to his consternation is forced to once again collaborate with the irascible Dr. Hiram Carruthers, physicist and genius detective, to discover who killed Hammond and how his body ended up being so mysteriously transported from the house to Worthing Road such a far distance in less than ten minutes.

THE CHARACTERS: Garth and his crew of policemen do most of the real detective work. About three quarters of the book is modeled on a standard police procedural. There are several constables and sergeants who do much of the legwork and a pathologist who delivers all the gruesome news about What Happened to Hammond? (1951). Carruthers is called upon late in the book, a bit past the midpoint, when the case seems to involve a strange invention that most likely has something to do with radio transmission.

Hiram Carruthers is one of Fearn's series detectives and he belongs to the group of what I've grown to call the "arrogant prick" detectives. He likes to call himself the "Admirable Crichton of Science" alluding to James Barrie's play in which the title character, a butler with common sense, saves his employer and a group of know-nothing aristocrats when they are shipwrecked on a deserted island. I can't imagine a more inappropriate nickname for Carruthers since the Crichton of Barrie's play is the model of civility. Obviously it's meant to be ironic. Carruthers is ridiculously egocentric, belittles everyone for their ignorance, openly insults Garth and his colleagues, and loves to flaunt his knowledge unchecked by anyone. He alone solves the bizarre case by managing to rebuild the strange invention that was discovered dismantled with several parts disposed of in an underground river. He accomplishes this feat with little help from anyone other than a few clever engineers who build him some custom parts, and using the design plans recovered from a safe in the offices of one of the suspects.

INNOVATIONS: As with most of Fearn's novels, most of which are structured as long form short stories, he has a limited number of suspects. Figuring out who the guilty parties are in this very short novel is rather easy. The bulk of Fearn's work was in short story format and I think he found it easiest to write his longer works, including all his novels, using the basic rule of short story writing that only the essentials are necessary. Red herrings in the form of characters rarely occur in his novels. We get only the people who are needed to tell the story. In this book there is the additional element of multiple culprits, when all is revealed and the villains are identified there is hardly one innocent character left over.

When originally published in 1951 the solution was perhaps a shocker. More than any other of his mystery novels I've read here Fearn resorts to science fiction in explaining just how Benton Hammond disappeared from the house on Stanton Street and ended up on Worthing Road. Modern readers may find it easy to guess what happened without needing any real understanding of physics or radio transmission since many of us are familiar with some well known TV shows that employ similar mysterious inventions. As the plot progressed I was reminded of the experiments depicted in a cult horror movie based on a story written in 1957. Turns out my analogy was right.

THINGS I LEARNED: Hammond suffers from fragilitus ossiumtarda, a genetic bone disorder now known as osteogenesis imperfecta or "brittle bone disease," an incurable condition that forces the sufferer to live a life of diminished athletic activity less they fracture a bone doing something as simple as running or lifting a heavy object. When Hammond's body is found nearly every bone in his body has been reduced to a jelly-like state making the police think that he fell from a great height. The real solution to his death is grounded more in science fiction than reality.

THE AUTHOR: John Russell Fearn was a prolific pulp writer who is better known for his science fiction though he also wrote many detective stories and mystery novels, even dabbling in romance. Sometimes he wrote detective stories like What Happened to Hammond? in which the solution melds with the world of science fiction. He wrote under numerous pseudonyms and finding his work in original format tends to be a chore if you are not familiar with his assortment of odd pen names like Vargo Statten, Thornton Ayre, Polton Cross among many others. The Dr. Hiram Carruthers detective novels apparently did not first appear in the pulps like many of his other work and were written under the pen name "Hugo Blayn." Luckily, much of Fearn's fiction has been reprinted under his real name and can be found in Linford Mystery Library series, part of F.A. Thorpe Publishing's large print reprint series for readers with poor eyesight. Wildside Press has also reprinted a lot of Fearn's crime fiction.

You can find a lot of bibliographies and biographical information on John Russell Fearn through a general internet search, but you will most likely turn up only his science fiction stories and novels and little about his crime fiction. Thanks to TomCat at the Beneath the Stains of Time blog most of Fearn's impossible crime novels have been reviewed in depth, including nearly all of the books in the Garth/Carruthers series. You can read about them by clicking here.  I hope to review the only "un-covered" Hugo Blayn book left -- Flashpoint -- later this month.

Dr. Hiram Carruthers/Inspector Garth Detective Novels
Except for One Thing (1947) - without Dr. Carruthers
The Five Matchboxes (1948)
Flashpoint (1950)
What Happened to Hammond? (1951)
Vision Sinister (1954)
The Silvered Cage (1955)

10 comments:

  1. Another Fearn book to add to my list, John. Thanks. It's so wonderful to discover a good author who was so prolific, especially at this late state in the game. Not that Fearn is one of the greats, but compared to a lot of 'mystery' being written today, he is quite good enough for me.

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  2. Very nice, though a book I'll skip. I think the insufferable personality would put me off.

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    1. He may be rude and arrogant, but I thought Fearn did it in a comic way. Carruthers is actually very funny in this book. In others I found his behavior annoying.

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  3. Aren't all detectives arrogant pricks?

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    1. Is that based on your former experience as a reporter? I'm talking about fictional detectives. In my vast reading there are plenty who I've encountered in books who are polite, compassionate and tolerant. I envy them that. I'm fast losing all three traits in my personal life.

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  4. You know what's really interesting about the Garth novels with Carruthers as co-detective? The explanation for the impossible situations are borderline science-fiction, such as the dematerilization trick from The Silvered Cage, while Garth's solo locked room mystery, The Five Matchboxes, has a much simpler explanation.

    So when a plot got too much out there, Fearn tagged Carruthers to Garth to provide a scientific (looking) explanation. Different cases require different talents, I suppose.

    And thanks for the mentions, John! We're shining a much needed, and deserved, light on Fearn's work and looking forward to your review of Flashpoint. I might tackle one as well later this month.

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    1. I just re-read my review of Vision Sinister and was reminded that book also features a miraculous transportation of a corpse. Did he recycle his plot gimmicks often? In looking for the Hugo Blayn books I own I unearthed a Fearn reprint I forgot about: The Tattoo Murders. I'll try to sneak in that one this month, too. I think it's one of his hardboiled private eye stories.

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    2. I've only came across one recycled idea in the nine, or so, books I have read by him. The premise and answer to the second impossible problem from The Silvered Cage was used by a character from Black Maria, M.A. in a stage play.

      Otherwise, Fearn seemed to always try to be as original as he possible could, which is what makes his work so attractive to me. So maybe he just loved the idea of transporting people or simply make them disappear.

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  5. It's always great when an author suddenly gets some traction on the blogosphere and with you, TC and Yvette all saying such varied but essentially positive things, I have got to give Fearn a go! So, for a complete neophyte, where to begin (and yes, purchasibility needs to be a consideration :)) Thanks, in advance, for the always great advice.

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  6. 'The Tattoo Murders' is one of the better Fearn books I have read over the years, so I recommend it to you, John. Although the author succeeded in establishing a cult following, it is encouraging that he is getting new attention from readers of your blog and that of Tomcat. And it has become easier to find titles since the republication of many of his detective stories in recent years. Another book, published as a John Slate selection, but without an appearance from Black Maria, concerns a more standard locked room problem that Carr fans might appreciate. That book is called 'Framed in Guilt'.

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