Friday, July 28, 2017

FFB: The Thing at Their Heels - Harrington Hext

THE STORY: The Templer family has been targeted by a mad killer. It appears that a crazed German soldier, someone they call the Man in Black, is killing the heirs in order of their succession according to the legacies listed in family patriarch Sir Augustine Templer's will. Bertram Midwinter, a police inspector, is summoned by Father Felix Templer to find the killer and stop the decimation. But the mysterious Man in Black seems far too elusive and efficient a killer to stop.

THE CHARACTERS: Though published in 1923 The Thing at Their Heels is set in 1919. Most of the characters are still suffering from the aftermath of World War I, two of the Templers are military men who experienced the horror and carnage first hand on the frontlines. The younger of these soldier Templers, Major Montague, is considerably changed by his wartime life. A post-war worldview allows Hext to have his characters serve as mouthpieces for fanatical philosophies and he delivers a variety of debates on everything from the Tao of Lao Tzu to the role of socialism in post-war England. Some characters we don't get to know for a very long at all like Major Templer and his 15 year-old son Tom because they are the first victims of the relentless and untiring killer. Midwinter is one of the most well rounded and grounded characters. He's the detective of the piece and when he is on the scene the book has a truly gripping and thrilling narrative. What the book is most noteworthy for, however, is its non-genre aspects.

INNOVATIONS: True, this is a detective novel and when it sticks to the traditions of the genre it works very well. The book can be exciting and original for one of the earliest mad killer novels of its type. Often Midwinter excels in his theories when applying the evidence found to the many crimes perpetrated. But Hext is really not interested in telling the story of who the real culprit is; the killer's motivations are more to his interest. The Thing at Their Heels is more of a polemic, a critique of zealotry and fanaticism. Sir Augustine's obsession with the Greek playwright Menander and his constant quoting of quips and philosophies found in those comedies is more than irritating. Can anyone have committed to memory so much of a single writers' work? And such an obscure, barely studied writer at that! When he isn't quoting the Greek he is counseling every living Templer on their duty to carry on the family name and become the steward of the Templer estate and family traditions. He is an anachronism in post World War I England -- a feudal lord insistent on maintaining an outdated and dying aristocracy.

He's not the only one with an obsessed mind. The book is littered with chapter-long debates about religion and socialism. Father Felix, a Catholic priest, is also drawn to the mystical qualities of Sufism and Tao Buddhism. Poor Petronell Templer, the only female character of note in this male dominated world, is at the mercy of his manipulative lectures. She is goaded into marrying a man she does not love all in service of God. Later when that man is murdered Father Felix tells her that her only solace is to be found in a life of service to the Lord. Once again she is convinced that she must do as she is told and she plans to enter a convent by the novel's end.

Montague Templer is the voice of reason in the novel and yet he too is one of the many fanatics. He is basically a contrarian to all that Felix and Sir Augustine espouse. Montey is the also an avowed socialist and he utters a single paragraph of dialogue that to me is the most telling clue as to the secret motives of the real killer. I planned on quoting that passage but it turns out to be a dead giveaway and my guess as to the true identity of the Man in Black was 100% correct. So I'm not going to supply that passage.

QUOTES: I will however quote in its entirety the entry for The Thing at Their Heels (1923) as it is found in Barzun & Taylor's Catalog of Crime. It's a laudatory entry, but one not without an unspoken caveat:

Unorthodox in form, but powerful in effect. Seldom has [the writer] used his knowledge of the countryside and his feeling for passionate characters more artfully to produce a series of murders that are clearly described and assiduously investigated -- though without result till the very end, when all the talk about socialism and religion finds its due place as part of the plot and the solution is given without diminishing the stature of Insp. Midwinter. The elimination of the Templer family then appears inevitable though unjust. A masterpiece in a rare variety of the species.

Masterpiece? Not at all. I find this to be overkill in its praise. While I can agree with Barzun's assessment of its strengths as a detective novel, the faults of the novel far outweigh the author's skill. The zealotry expressed by one character is ridiculously heavy handed. I guess it was a shock for its 1923 audience to discover the identity of the killer. But post modern detective novel devotees are inured to this kind of "shocking twist." In presenting a story of three stubborn True Believers who rant and rave about religion and politics and the paramount importance of an aristocratic bloodline Hext has not indulged in the detective novelist's finest trait of misdirection but he has shown his hand all too often. It is fairly easy to spot the mad killer and not because the body count leaves us with only a few living suspects to choose from. It is easy to spot the villain by the third of the five murders because of these drawn out debate sections.

THE AUTHOR: "Harrington Hext" was a pseudonym for Eden Phillpotts, a prolific novelist who wrote in many genres and created about a handful of pioneer works. The Red Redmaynes (1922), interestingly yet another story of a mad killer knocking off members of a single family, is his other noteworthy serial killer novel written under his own name. As Hext he wrote the odd genre-blending science fiction/crime thriller Number 87 (1922) and as Phillpotts he also wrote a much praised science fiction novel Saurus (1938), a satirical novel about a reptilian alien making observations on humans. He wrote a number of detective novels, mostly run-of-the-mill, but is primarily known for his novels of manners and other writing in mainstream literature. He also has an additional fifteen minutes of fame as the primary influence who encouraged Agatha Christie to pursue her life as a detective fiction writer. So for that we all owe him abundant thanks.

EASY TO FIND? I'm not really recommending this novel even as a curiosity in the formation of what we know as the serial killer crime novel. However, for those who need to know a handful of copies are out there for sale. I know of no paperback reprints, but you can find both US and UK hardcover editions in a price range of $30 to $150 depending on condition and the chutzpah of the bookseller. It's probably been uploaded at Project Gutenberg or the Internet Archive. Many of Phillpotts' books are out of copyright and the information pirates(Phillpotts would have loved their obsessive minds and compulsive habits) are always busy uploading books of this type.

3 comments:

  1. I admire your tenacity, John. Afraid I would have flung the book before halftime--altho my report this week is on two stinkers I read all the way through, so don't listen to me!

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  2. Glad this was a rewarding read John (speaking of obscure texts ...) :) Used to be that Phillpotts' books were not so scarce actually, but I'm probably thinking of twenty off years ago when I used to spend so much free time (what's that?) showering second hand book stores (wish there were a few more of those left too).

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    1. Rewarding is not the right word. Frustrating is more accurate, Sergio. I commiserate with you on the slow extinction of the used bookstore.

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