Friday, December 29, 2017

FFB: Merridrew Follows the Trail - John Russell Fearn

THE STORY:  A series of gruesome murders in which the victims are mutilated and bodies disposed of in quicklime are plaguing the denizens of Double Peak, Arizona. Mayor Jenkinson Talbot Merridrew joins forces with Sheriff Brad Wood to discover who has a grudge against the family of Jacob Tilsden, long deceased head of a dye manufacturing company.

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.

INNOVATIONS: Those of you familiar with H. Rider Haggard's only detective novel Mr. Meeson's Will (1888) will probably catch on to the one truly unique aspect of the crime plot. Because I'm familiar with that book it was easy for me to figure out why the bodies were being mutilated or disposed of in quicklime.

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.

EASY TO FIND? Like most of John Russell Fearn's books this one has been reprinted by the UK publisher Linford Western Library in a large print format edition. They publish nearly all of his traditional detective novels and crime fiction under their Linford Mystery Library imprint. Luckily, for all your 21sst century readers this title (as are many of Fearn's westerns) is also available as an eBook. I found my copy, the incredibly scarce first edition, in one of my lucky book hunting searches. I've never seen a copy since I bought mine. The DJ shown at the top of this post has got to be a true rarity and I'm sure that the hardcover book is just as uncommon.

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)


  1. Buckboard, whattaya know! Never occurred to me how that was named. Interesting you're apparently on a Western kick, John. I should get back to them myself--Fearn might be the place to start.

  2. Oh dear, I love that cover, John. But I wonder why you read this all the way through if you didn't much cotton to the proceedings. :)

  3. Philip Harbottle asked me to post the comment below on his behalf.

    Comment for Pretty Sinister:

    I was agreeably surprised to open your latest blog to find that it covered the last Merridrew novel. I had been expecting that it would have been for the second novel, MERRIDREW MARCHES ON, since that was the only one Bob Adey identified as impossible crime in his locked room reference book. (It was probably the only title Bob had seen). Anyway, I was pleased to see your review, since it is the only Merridrew title currently available, in both paper and e-book, from Pioneering Press. For a number of complicated reasons (that must remain confidential) I will not be arranging the reprinting of the other three Merridrew titles for a couple of years.

    Your surmise that the reason for the Englishmen Merridrew and Brad Wood being in the USA was explained in the earlier books is correct. THE VALLEY OF THE DOOMED sees Brad (with his butler in tow) being sent to America for his health (he is sickly and a bit of a waster). In the course of the novel and those following, the climate and his adventures toughen Brad up and transform his character, a metamorphosis that is completed by his taking an American bride and settling in the remote town of Double Peak. Eventually he becomes Sheriff, and Merridrew Mayor.

    As for the date when they are set, If you'd read Bob's title and the other books, you'd have seen that the novels are, in fact, set in the present day, ie. 1949-1953. But there was clear evidence in your book itself--on page 157, there is a reprinted letter to Merridrew dated July 10, 1953! There ARE cars, telegraphs and even airplanes and uranium mining(sic) in the series. However, for his plot purposes, Fearn made Double Peak a remote, backward cowboy community, seemingly stuck in the past.

    You are quite right that they were based on American B-movie westerns--quite deliberately. In his wartime career stint as a cinema projectionist, Fearn had watched countess westerns, including the children's matinees, where the old B movies were a staple. The Merridrew novels are in fact SATIRES of Hollywood westerns, and many of the western tropes in the other novels are simply played for laughs, with "fat limey" Merridrew humiliating and running rings round the western tough guys! However, like Merridrew Follows the Trail, they all of them have detective/mystery elements, with Merridrew acting the detective.

    Fearn had been COMMISSIONED by World's Work in 1949 to write four WESTERNS, which is why they were able to appear after he signed his "science fiction-for-Scion-only" contract in 1950 (along with a few earlier-commissioned westerns for Rich & Cowan.) As they were commissioned as WESTERNS, the detective mystery elements were kept in the background. Because of his Scion contract at the time, Fearn was legally unable to write ANY ostensible detective stories, long or short, or even to write for other publishers at all! So detective buffs just have to accept the Merridrew books for what they are--humorous western satires with crime elements.

    1. Thanks so much for all the background info on this little known series in Fearn's amazingly productive career. I saw Valley of the Doomed listed on the page of other titles by Fearn, but I wasn't sure that it was also a Merridrew book. I'll add it to the list above. Just checked to check ppublication info for Valley of the Doomed and see it put out by Kingswood. Odd when Fearn was contracted by The World's Work to write those westerns that he chose to create a series for a previous character.

      Satires! How did I miss that? Of course it makes so much sense now. I'm usually very good at picking up deliberate absurdities. Maybe as the end of the year approached and the Arctic cold weather assailed us in Chicago I got lazy in my reading. ...I'll always look for an excuse of some sort. ;^)

    2. A reply from Philip Harbottle:

      "Kingswood" Is simply part of the ADDRESS of the World's Work, Kingswood, Surrey--so VALLEY OF THE DOOMED was ALSO published by World's Work in 1949, who then commissioned another four "Merridrew" follow-ups.

      Conflating the PLACE of publication with the NAME of Publishers seems to be a peculiar twee affectation and malpractice of what I call "poncy biblio academics" to give their usually pirated listings some gravitas.

      The publisher is the publisher, not where his printing press or office is located!

  4. Those of you familiar with H. Rider Haggard's only detective novel Mr. Meeson's Will (1888)

    I had no idea Haggard had written any detective novels at all! Now I'm thinking I should be looking for a copy...

    1. Service with a smile...most of the time. I'm glad this blog continues to be a source of education about forgotten books and authors.