Friday, January 12, 2018

FFB: Inspector Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell, another Neglected Detective

When last I looked at the work of prolific crime and adventure writer Edwy Searles Brooks I sampled the Norman Conquest thrillers he wrote under his "Berkeley Gray" pseudonym. As many crime fiction enthusiasts know Brooks used several pseudonyms and created multiple series characters as well as contributing to the Sexton Blake books. Writing as "Victor Gunn" he invented probably his most appealing detective character in a series almost as long running as the Norman Conquest books. Inspector Bill "Ironsides" Cromwell makes his debut in Footsteps of Death (1939) and appears in a total of 43 books over the next 27 years. In nearly all (or a least those four I've sampled so far) he is aided by his faithful Sgt. Johnny Lister, a sharp young man with an roving eye for the ladies. Cromwell keeps his police partner in line and does his best to tutor him in his keen eyed police ways, but Lister usually falls short of the mark. The books are as varied as the Sexton Blake series ranging from detective novels to pursuit and espionage to inverted crime and suspense thrillers. Unfortunately, because Brooks started his career as a short story writer for boys' magazines and never really seemed to mature in his narrative style the books often are plagued with predictable eleventh hour death traps, villains who all but twirl their mustache ends, and cringeworthy romantic developments. But he wrote fast and furious and there's no denying as Blake or Gray or Victor Gunn that Brooks was inventive and imaginative in his plotting and was an ace storyteller. If the characters suffer from stock-in-trade personalities, speak tritely and too often in the exclamatory mood, that's only to be expected from a man who churned out so many books over his lifetime.

Here's a sampling of the adventures of Ironsides and Lister. They run the gamut in subgenres, show some ingenuity, and reveal a pattern of favorite plot devices as well as a few trips into well worn territory of crime fiction. Chronological order is the easiest way to tackle this kind of post. And away we go--

The Dead Man Laughs (1944) is the first book I read in the Ironsides series. I was surprised that it is not a genuine detective novel at all. It's an inverted detective novel with not one, but two villains behind all the criminal activity. Nearly every inverted crime novel that reveals to us the murderer from the start also tells the story from his viewpoint exploring all the motivations and going into great detail about the methodology of his crimes. Not so here. The intriguing part of this novel is that the motive and methods are never really known until the final chapters. In this case the mysteries involve the identity of the victim of a fatal car accident that occurred during a winter snowstorm. The body is thought to be Sir Kenneth Parsloe who had the insane habit of enjoying driving around within his luxury convertible with the top down even in freezing wintry weather. He is discovered with a head injury but also completely frozen. Cromwell is sure that the body could not have become completely frozen even overnight with all the snow. Was it indeed a car accident or was there foul play?

About one third of the way into the story we discover that Parsloe's brother Phillip and Dr. Thumper have something to do with either causing or staging the accident, something that is not too surprising at all given the way the two men are so evasive and insistent on burying the body. But the discovery of a cold storage plant where a taxidermist keeps his animals prior to stuffing them will provide clues to wrap up the mystery. Cromwell and Lister nearly lose their lives when they are trapped in the storage plant in one of the novel's most macabrely described and best action sequences. The solution is sadly all too easy to arrive out though Brooks does his best to throw out a few red herrings like an escaped convict. But grave robbery and some nonsensical business about bearded men pretty much give away what he thought were his most clever tricks.

A more satisfying book is The Laughing Grave (1955). Here we have a genuine detective novel that features weird legends and apparent supernatural events, two favorite motifs in the Ironsides series. The title refers to a weird legend about cruel Judge Forbes known to laugh at each prisoner before he pronounced their death sentence. Anytime the judge's ghost is heard laughing from the local graveyard it is an omen that someone in the Haverford/Forbes clan will soon die. One night Lord Haverford, a superstitious man despite his own cruelty, hears the laugh and flees from the estate. He runs out into a road and apparently drops dead of fright after avoiding being hit by truck. But examination of the corpse reveals neither a natural death nor even an accident. A bruise on his chest indicates that he was struck by a heavy blow. The examining physician theorizes that someone stomped on him. A mud stain on the front of Haverford's mackintosh over the exact spot further supports that theory. Typical Golden Age detective novel evidence includes footprints of someone wearing socks, stolen boots and a balled up newspaper.

Action is a plenty, the characters are varied and many giving us a fairly wide pool of suspects even if most of them are all too simplistically rendered. The stuff of the legend heightens the atmosphere of The Laughing Grave which has a decidedly eerie mood. Brooks works well when he lathers on the Gothic excesses. However, the killer's exploitation of the legend of the laughing judge's ghost veers into embarrassing land of Scooby-Doo style hauntings. Still it doesn't diminish the entertainment value of this book. As my second tasting in this long series I was pretty well satisfied. IT told a good tale, the detection was there albeit very rudimentary and I have to say I was surprised by the identity of the murderer. I was determined to read more to see if these books get better the more Brooks wrote.

It looked like my theory was right because The Golden Monkey (1957) was my third reading and it proved to be the most satisfying of the lot. The plot is ridiculously complex compared to the other two mysteries. The cast of characters was equally complex and utterly eccentric. That this book was also set in the music hall and circus worlds made it all the more appealing to me. And to top it off the first murder involved one of my favorite bizarre Golden Age detective novel gimmicks -- knife throwing. (See reviews here, here and here.) Crime writers would have us believe that the entertainment world is nothing but amorality run rampant (these days it certainly seems so) with world class criminals of all sorts making up any cast on a music hall bill or employed by a travelling carnival. In The Golden Monkey we have murder by knife throwing, kidnapping of a prized animal, theft, burglary and blackmail. Blackmail galore in this one as a matter of fact.

The title character is in fact not a monkey but an ape. He's Vick, a unique chimp who serves as a ventriloquist's partner. Instead of using a dummy Valentine the voice thrower makes it appear that the chimp is talking. And it seems ownership of Vick is the most important part in solving the crime. I dare not attempt to summarize the complicated tale in the past lives of Kit Barlowe, an opera singer; Rex Dillon, the knife thrower; and Valentine. But it does involve an Australian animal trainer nearly killed by a tiger that escaped from its cage and an unusual legal document drawn up to protect Vick and leave him in trustworthy hands.

Brooks keeps the story of The Golden Monkey moving at a rapid pace, tirelessly piling on complications so that interest never falters. So what if everyone is blackmailing one another. There are more than enough secrets in this one to satisfy the gossip pages for decades. Isn't that the kind of detective novel you want? Sure you do, especially if you picked up a Victor Gunn book. The ending of this one has one of the most preposterous pieces of information based on fact that left me laughing the way that the grotesque stories in "Ripley's Believe it or Not!" comic strip used to affect me.

But then we come to number four and disappointment begins to settle in. Just when you think that Brooks would never fully succumb to stale genre conventions or resort to lazy storytelling we get Devil in the Maze (1961). Such an ominous title. I'm sure you're all thinking as I did that here is his tribute to John Dickson Carr. For in fact it starts off just like something Carr would have written. A group of heirs are summoned to the home of an imperious aging matriarch who conducts a contest in order to determine her most worthy legatee. She will have each person travel through the baffling yew tree maze in the garden of her estate, timing each person. The one who makes it to the center, retrieves a card with his or her name on it, and makes it out in the shortest time will receive half of her fortune. The remaining heirs will receive equal portions of the remaining half. And --have you already guessed?-- someone doesn't make it out. At all. Voila! An impossible crime. Major Claude Pilbeam, the eldest who enters the maze last, never exits. The others wait for hours and set up a vigil overnight. He simply vanishes. Around three in the morning someone finds him hanging lifeless from a hook in a disused room of the huge Scott mansion. Who killed him? And more importantly how on earth did the body get out of the maze without being seen?

Who's behind that mask?
It's not very well handled, frankly. The story is made even more ridiculous by the appearance of a scarred stranger with an eerie yellow tinge to his wrinkled face. This weird looking stranger who is always dressed in a belted blue raincoat pops up frequently over the course of the novel. In fact Yellow Face, as he is so unimaginatively dubbed by everyone, confesses to the murder to Cromwell and Lister just before he tries to kill both of them. This happens at the halfway mark lessening the surprise of a final chapter reveal. So my hope for a Carr homage vanished as quickly as Major Pilbeam and was replaced by reminders of the weakest and most formulaic of Edgar Wallace thrillers. Even the dullest minded reader will catch onto this cliché of a weird looking villain in a never changing get-up. It's an obvious disguise and with disguise usually comes a mask or make-up.

And by the way -- all of this was written and published in 1961. [pause for guffaws] Seriously? I kept thinking this must've been one of those manuscripts written in the author's callow youth that he pulled out of trunk, dusted off, and sent off to his publisher laughing all the while.

The solution of the Major's vanishing and his transport into the house is saved for the final two pages yet is almost casually dismissed. Even the killer says to one of the final surviving heirs, "Oh what does it matter how I got the major out of the maze?" I beg to differ. It matters a hell of a lot. It's the only reason I kept reading this ruddy book, Mr. Gunn! We do get an explanation and it involves the killer's enlisting a confederate (he had several, all of whom he later kills) who it turns out was an acrobat. Shades of The Problem of the Wire Cage? Not at all. I leave the rest to your vivid imaginations. The solution was a huge let down. Not to mention preposterous when taking into account physics and timing and the presence of six witnesses.

As I said a big disappointment after three books that had truly entertaining and often ingenious plotting. As for Cromwell himself he's one of the better policeman characters out there. He enlivens the proceedings with his astute observations, his caustic humor, and his endearing irascibility. I like these cop characters who suffer no fools and give their colleagues a verbal slap upside the head every now and then. Johnny Lister is no dullard but he rarely sees the forest for the trees in these few investigations I've sampled.

This is real pop fiction, gang -- mystery novels meant purely for entertainment, to while away an afternoon or two. All of the books are very short, well under 200 pages no matter where they fall in the series chronology. I have five more I've managed to accumulate and will be reporting back if I encounter one close to the genuine fun of The Golden Monkey which so far has proven to be the best of the lot.

EASY TO FIND? Not really. And if they do turn up they're usually damned expensive. I've spent a pretty penny on most of the books I've managed to find. None of these books was published in the US making copies that more difficult to locate. Though many of the Victor Gunn books were reprinted in paperback editions in the UK and Canada those too are becoming increasingly scarce. It may be that he's a cult collector's phenomenon. Many of these titles are next to impossible to find like The Devil in the Maze though in that case lack of copies is no real loss to mystery fans. Those who live in the UK, Canada or Australia will probably fare much better, especially if you look in libraries where he proved to be a popular author. Most of my Victor Gunn books are ex-library copies that came from Canada and there are a lot of stamps in the back of those books.

"Ironsides" Cromwell Detective Novels & Thrillers
Footsteps of Death (1939)
Ironsides of the Yard (1940)
Death on Shivering Sand (1947)
Ironsides Smashes Through (1940)
Death's Doorway (1941)
Ironsides' Lone Hand (1941)
Mad Hatter's Rock (1942)
Ironsides Sees Red (1943)
The Dead Man Laughs (1944)
Nice Day for a Murder (1945)
Ironsides Smells Blood (1946)
Three Dates with Death (1947)
Ironsides on the Spot (1948)
Dead Man's Warning (1949)
Road to Murder (1949)
Alias the Hangman (1950)
The Borgia Head Mystery (1951)
Murder on Ice (1951)
The Body Vanishes (1952)
Death Comes Laughing (1952)
The Whistling Key (1953)
The Crippled Canary (1954)
The Crooked Staircase (1954)
The Laughing Grave (1955)
The Painted Dog (1955)
Dead Men's Bells (1956)
Castle Dangerous (1957)
The Golden Monkey (1957)
The 64 Thousand Murder (1958)
The Treble Chance Murder (1958)
Dead in a Ditch (1959)
The Next One to Die (1959)
Death at Traitors' Gate (1960)
Death on Bodmin Moor (1960)
Devil in the Maze (1961)
Sweet Smelling Death (1961)
All Change for Murder (1962)
The Body in the Boot (1963)
Murder with a Kiss (1963)
Murder at the Motel (1964)
The Black Cap Murder (1965)
Murder on Whispering Sands (1965)
The Petticoat Lane Murders (1966)

9 comments:

  1. I've got a copy of Devil in the Maze! I've collected Gunn off and on for years, but he is hard to find, but such nice jackets and you never know what you're goign to get with him. I reviewed a collection of his novelettes at my blog. Rex Stout he wasn't but he could be fun.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I'm hoping some of the other novels with haunted castle and ghost motifs will be some of his better efforts. You're so right, not at all literature here. These books are real pop fiction. I agree they can be very fun reads. I tired not to be too harsh, but DEVIL IN THE MAZE was pretty tiresome in the final three chapters

      Delete
  2. I would definitely give this author and the Ironsides series a try, based on this post, but you are right. The books are not easy to find at a price I am willing to pay. But I can look now and then ... sometimes books show up at reasonable prices if you wait long enough.

    ReplyDelete
  3. How amazing that you got a photo of the cover of Ironsides of the Yard, the one Victor Gunn book which has so far eluded me.
    As a German speaker I have a distinct advantage finding these books: 34 of them were published as paperbacks translated (rather well) into German in the 60s and 70s. (Yes, I go back a while...). At the time in Germany Victor Gunn was the most popular British writer of detective stories next to Edgar Wallace and Agatha Christie. He was far more popular than in Britain. Even nowadays they are much easier to find and at much more affordable prices. None of the Berkeley Gray books was ever translated!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Have you not visited the tribute website for Brooks? You can find not only every single DJ from the Ironsides series, but also all the Norman Conquest books and nearly every cover of the boys papers and pulp magazines Brooks wrote for. Here's the URL: edwysearlesbrooks.com

      Only one of the DJs in this post comes from my own collection. If I don't have a DJ I always go looking for one on the net. Most of the time I find one.

      Thanks for your enthusiasm about Brooks and this series. I knew about the German editions because I find most of my Victor Gunn books on eBay. There are dozens of cheap German paperbacks for sale on that site, some of those titles are very hard to find in the original UK editions. I was hoping someone like you would find this post, especially since I spent a lot of time and effort on it. So thanks again for stopping by and leaving a comment.

      Delete
  4. Yes, I have visited that excellent website on Brooks. I quite forgot about the covers! The older brain does funny things sometimes...
    I don't know if it is of any interest to anybody but here is a link to the Victor Gunn page on a German crime fiction website.
    http://www.krimi-couch.de/krimis/victor-gunn.html
    It is in German, but the list of his books gives the original titles as well as the German ones. Most useful if one is collecting them.
    May I take this opportunity to thank you for your excellent blog. Always inspiring and enjoyable to read. And it has greatly expanded - and is expanding - my reading list. Very much appreciated, especially in rather dark times at the moment.

    ReplyDelete
  5. And if they do turn up they're usually damned expensive.

    I just looked for a copy of The Golden Monkey and I see what you mean. Nearly two hundred dollars! And it sounds like the sort of thing I'd adore. Music halls and circuses!

    ReplyDelete
  6. Ooooh, love that first cover, John. Also love the title: IRONSIDE OF THE YARD. I'll likely never read any of these, but I can still like looking at the covers. I'm adding them to my Vintage Murder Pinterest page as we speak. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This series has some of the most striking DJ illustrations of the Golden Age. They deserve to be seen. Knock yourself out, Yvette!

      Delete

Comment Approval is turned on for this blog. I review all comments prior to publishing them.