Friday, December 29, 2017
FFB: Merridrew Follows the Trail - John Russell Fearn
THE CHARACTERS: This is pretty much a stock in trade western with a unique murder mystery tacked on that probably would've been better as a short story. The book is dragged out to novel length with a series of set pieces drawn from American western movies of the late 1940s and early 1950s. There are barroom fights, shootouts in the hills, an engineered landslide to trap some bandits, chases on horseback, and a barrage of bullets flying from Derringers, pistols and rifles. And like a typical B movie Western we have stock characters with typically Hollywood style names. There's Rock McAllister, the villain dressed in black and his posse of bad guys menacing the townspeople and out to get Merridrew; Mike Tanner, the saloon keeper who's just hired West Virginia transplant Sylvia Danning as his latest singer/ hostess for the entertainment of his mostly male patrons; Clem Dawlish, the lugubrious undertaker with plenty of bodies to bury; and my favorite -- Hap Hazard, whose name tells you all you need to know about him. Hap, of course, is not his real first name, but he's pretty much a loser from the get go and is Sheriff Wood's prime suspect as the murderer of the various members of the Tilsden family.
Merridrew is the most colorful of the bunch. He's a former butler who emigrated from England and somehow became mayor of the town after first serving as valet to Wood. Oddly (and in a forced kind of humor) he still serves as manservant to Wood while at the same time leading the town as mayor. He has an arch sense of humor, a sophisticated vocabulary and is a sharpshooter of the highest order. Merridrew Follows the Trail (1953) is his final adventure in a quintet of books. I'm guessing his origin and how he came to be mayor is detailed in the previous titles. Here we get only a few sentences to fill us in on his background. Like many of Fearn's detectives, he has a unique blend of basic science knowledge and arcane information to stun both the characters and the reader. Here we get a mini lecture on various dying processes since that is a crucial element of a very original crime plot.
ATMOSPHERE: One of my problems with the book is that I never really knew if this was supposed to be 19th or 20th century American West. Modern references to fingerprints, medical examination of the bodies, and legal aspects of the story seemed to indicate a contemporary setting. But then the absence of cars, phones, even a telegraph made it all seem ersatz 19th century. Most of the story seemed more like Fearn was drawing from Hollywood's imagining of the Old West than he was from genuine history. Everyone lives on a ranch, vigilante style justice is rampant, disputes are settled more often with gunfire than with common sense. Wood and Merridrew are often forced to resort to violence as much as they try to keep the peace among the rowdy, lawless citizens.
THINGS I LEARNED: The crux of the plot involves a secret dye manufacturing process. I learned about something called Turkey red, a deep rich red dye made from the root of the madder plant. The name of the dye refers to its country of origin and not the edible fowl. There is lots of talk about various sources of black dye and the importance to the textile industry in finding dyes that are resistant to sun fading, especially in the arid, sun-drenched desert climates of the American West.
A buckboard is "an open, four-wheeled, horse-drawn carriage with seating that is attached to a plank stretching between the front and rear axles," basically a type of wagon used to deliver goods. Merridrew is often hopping aboard one or borrowing one from the Double Peak general store keeper to get out to the remote ranches where the various murders take place. The name refers to the wooden board that protects the rider/driver from the hazards of bucking horse hooves.
Jenkinson Talbot Merridrew Western Detective Novels
Valley of the Doomed (1949)
Merridrew Rides Again (1950)
Merridrew Marches On (1951)
Merridrew Fights Again (1952)
Merridrew Follows the Trail (1953)