Friday, January 5, 2018
FFB: Tragedy at Beechcroft - A. Fielding
THE CHARACTERS:The first third of Tragedy at Beechcroft (1935) introduces us to Santley; Mrs. Phillimore, mother of Lavinia and the one worried about Major Moncrieff's seemingly volatile behavior; two twin girls Dolly and Dilly, who are the latest subjects of Santley's brush; Ann Bladeshaw, the girl's governess; a couple of missionaries named Dexter-Smith, known affectionately by the girls as the Mishes; and Victor Goodenough, friend to Santley and the Moncrieffs. When Santley arrives at Beechcroft there are even more characters introduced including several servants, some business partners of the Major, the mysterious Flavelle Bruton who specializes in mosaics and her paramour Don Plutarco Ramon, a matador who brings his espada with him for the weekend! (Yes, that's a huge red flag as to what kind of murder will take place.) There's even a little dachshund that will feature prominently and fall victim to all the villainy at Beechcroft. Tragedies aplenty, both human and canine! It seems to be getting as crowded as a Victorian sensation novel, but it's all handled expertly and is not too rushed as is often a complaint about Fielding's novels so often crowded with people and plot.
Inspector Pointer, Fielding's series detective, does not make his appearance until well past the 100 page mark when the two horrible deaths take place, followed swiftly by a suicide attempt. Prior to that the novel is loaded with back story, character relationships, and a not too extraneous tale of a kidnapping of one of Moncrieff's cousins which ended in the victim's death and the kidnapper's escape. Also, a series of jewelry robberies is plaguing the countryside surrounding Beechcroft. To cap off this deluge of crime Santley is sent on an odd errand to Brussels to deliver what he thinks is a birthday gift of a box of chocolates to the daughter of one of Moncrieff's business associates. When the box goes missing, Santley replaces it out of good faith, but is met with suspicion when he delivers the substitute gift. Sounds like a bit from an espionage thriller, doesn't it? Like every seemingly innocuous event in this densely packed book the missing box of chocolates will have later significance.
Fielding does a good job of delineating this large cast, but I'm bothered by Pointer's obsession with the pseudo science of facial features as signifiers of personality. You know what I mean -- the "weak chin", "prognathous jaw", "shifty eyes" kind of writing that telegraphs we are in the presence of a bad person. I was reminded of Carolyn Wells at her worst when Pointer starts to eliminate suspects because they just look far too kind in the face to ever be considered murderers. This shows either extreme naiveté about the world or a G rated mentality about composing books according to the stringent rules Wells created back in 1917 or so.
This is a shame because if anything Fielding is masterful at labyrinthine, perplexing plots. This was a real doozey, frankly. Juggling multiple criminal subplots and presenting so many permutations of possible murderers and motives ascribed to those past and present crimes shows genuine talent as a detective story writer. The last two-thirds of the novel are rife with surprises, twists, and mostly good detection.
INNOVATIONS: The detective novel aspects are not exactly of the fair play mode. The reader will discover the evidence and clues as Pointer finds them, but he almost immediately applies this evidence to his intuitive theories previously discussed. Unlike the majority of detective novels where the clues are laid out (sometimes cleverly hidden) and then recalled in the finale, Fielding prefers a sort of police procedural method in telling the story. It's highly methodical but it does rob the reader of the enjoyment of trying to outsmart the detective at his own game. Only in the final third of the book is the detection presented as fair play because so many theories have been discussed and evidence found when the final pieces to the confounding mysteries are uncovered the reader does have a chance to put them all together and finger the true villain of the novel.
THINGS I LEARNED: Major Moncrieff had been suffering from a feverish high temperature. Pointer finds some concentrated quinine in his room. He tells his police team: "There's the explanation of the high temperature. Soak enough cigarettes in quinine, let them dry, smoke them and you'll get a temperature promptly. It's a Foreign Legion dodge."
Don Ramon is repeatedly referred to as an espada and not a matador. I knew of the term mozo de espada, but this is basically a matador's valet who dresses him prior to the fight and hands equipment from outside of the ring to the matador in the ring. This servant never enters the ring. I thought for a time that Fielding had completely misunderstood the role of this servant and conflated the two. But then some assiduous searching turned up this fact: Espada is also sometimes used as a synonym for matador. I don't know why he didn't use matador and simplify it all. Odd. But as always it was fun to learn another bit of trivia.
THE AUTHOR: "A. Fielding" was thought to be a pseudonym for Lady Dorothy Moore (nee Feilding), but it has been disproven by a living relative, her grandson. Note the odd transposition of the vowels in her name and the pen name. There have been multiple online articles written about the true identity of A. Fielding but apparently because of lack of data and provable facts it cannot be said just who is or was the real person behind the pseudonym. According to Fielding's American publisher H.C. Kinsey they claimed in some publicity dated circa 1942 that the author was Dorothy Feilding and lived in England. If this is true is must be a completely different Dorothy than originally thought. For those interested, I suggest reading the many articles and queries by John Herrington, the tireless research librarian, whose work has been posted on Mystery*File. The most detailed is here and includes the comments from Richard Hyde, Lady Moore's grandson, who denies she was ever a mystery novelist.
EASY TO FIND? Glory Hallulejah! you're all in luck. No need to look for the scarce original US or UK hardcovers this time. Tragedy at Beechcroft has been reissued as a digital book from Resurrected Press. In fact, most if not all of the Inspector Pointer books are available from this outfit. Though I warn you that this "publisher" is actually a one man outfit armed with an OCR scanner who has confessed that he goes to libraries scanning the pages of out of print mystery novels. According to several online reviews the Resurrected Press books are littered with typos and are badly designed. Caveat emptor! Alternatively and another good sign is that Project Gutenberg Australia has the book online for free. So knock yourselves out, gang.
I enjoyed this one flaws and all. This was my first reading of A. Fielding's many mystery novels and I'll probably be tracking down a few of Fielding's other better mysteries. Next time, however, I'll be prepared for the long exposition in anticipation of the truly knockout plotting and storytelling.