Monday, February 26, 2018

Reflected Glory - John Russell Fearn

The forensic psychology subgenre was not well known or often utilized until the tail end of the Golden Age of Detection. It really only became popular with the rise of the serial killer novels in the mid 1980s when protagonists who were adept at criminal profiling become more and more popular. With the advent of TV series like Criminal Minds there seemed to be no stopping the trend of creating lurid murders committed by truly disturbed killers. Nevertheless, the idea of solving a crime based solely on the construction of the murderer’s psychological history and behavior can be traced back as early as the novels of Charles J. Dutton whose series detective John Hartley, a professor in abnormal psychology, aided police in gruesome multiple murder cases detailed in novels like The Crooked Cross (1923) and Streaked with Crimson (1929). Similar landmark novels appeared in the following decades as exemplified by The Murder of Sigurd Sharon (1933) by Harriette Ashbrook, The Horizontal Man (1946) by Helen Eustis, and Ellery Queen’s seminal serial killer mystery Cat of Many Tails (1949). John Russell Fearn also entered the realm of abnormal psychology when he created psychologist and criminologist Dr. Adam Castle who appears in at least two novels: Shattering Glass (1947) and Reflected Glory (2005). The second of these was never published in Fearn’s lifetime though it was, according to Philip Harbottle Fearn’s literary executor, written many years later than Shattering Glass. Having just completed the second Castle title it is clear to me why it was left alone.  As an example of a crime plot based on rudimentary pop psychology it doesn’t hold up well at all.

The first half of Reflected Glory is perfectly fine. It’s all set up and exposition and it promises an intriguing story of impassioned characters, lovers betrayed and rejected, and rampant jealousies. There is a bizarre practical joke that takes place in an early chapter that results in a dreadful injury rendering painter Clive Hexley’s hand practically useless. As Clive is an artist he is horrified that he may never be able to paint again. And Elsa Farraday, his most recent muse, sees Clive’s injury as life altering to them both. If the story was to be focussed on psychology here was a veritable Pandora’s box of ills and troubles to write about. But instead we get the story of a troubled young woman haunted by her past with the cliché abusive parent who tortured and scarred her for life.

I thought this kind of thing wasn’t really part of pop fiction well until the late 1960s or mid 1970s. Hard to tell when exactly Reflected Glory was originally written, perhaps it did come from that time. Poor Elsa Farraday truly seems like she could only have been created after the publication of Sybil (1975) and similar stories both fictional and non-fictional. Yet here was Fearn dreaming up a little girl terrorized by a brutal father and imprisoned like a Gothic heroine. Granted monstrous mothers seemed to be more prevalent in this kind of fiction with Carrie White’s mother taking the grand prize, but a brutal abusive father was probably easier to dream up and possibly more palatable for the reader.

The detective plot involves the disappearance of Clive and Elsa’s apparent guilt surrounding his possible murder. Late in the novel (given away on the plot blurb of my edition) she confesses to his murder but the police don’t take her seriously. Without a body the confession is legally useless to them. They continue to search for the body in vain. The reason for Elsa’s open and brazen confession will not be entirely explained until the final pages. Rest assured it has a lot to do with her “abnormal” behavior. A major clue for that behavior comes in the explanation of the title which Elsa talks about with Clive prior to his disappearance: “My glory such as it is, Mr. Hexley, is reflected. I said that I am not an artist in the same sense that you are. By that I mean I cannot paint or draw I’m a writer.”

This idea of “reflected glory” is key to understanding Elsa. The reader should be allowed to slowly realize that Elsa prefers to seek attention through anonymous means. Thus she chooses a pen name to write under. The chance to model for Hexley’s most recent portrait she sees as the crown jewel in her vying for attention without truly being seen or known. But we never slowly realize any of this; we have all of it spelled out for us. Repeatedly, Elsa will explain everything in confessional dialogue as if the reader is not smart enough to glean it all from situations and behavior. Dr. Castle uses the term “reflected glory” often throughout the story as he comes to understand Elsa’s decidedly perverse form of an “inferiority complex.” And he too will lecture and explain what we may have missed in an earlier scene.

The trouble with many of these fictional mysteries that rely solely on psychology as their method of detection is that the plots tend to be fabricated with utterly phony business that never rings true. When a writer creates a psychologist character he ought to have a sophisticated knowledge of the behavioral sciences and psychology theorists and their work that can then be diffused through the character. Relying solely on pop psychological terms like “inferiority complex” and then using some of the most absurd abnormal behavior to explain that complex may make for some luridly eyebrow-raising reading but it has not a shred of authenticity. For example, we are asked to believe that Elsa finds it easier to concentrate in her writing persona if she dresses up as a ten year-old girl and retreats to a reconstructed childhood bedroom with child-sized furniture. As someone suffering from “inferiority complex” her retreat to the safety of childhood is comforting and simultaneously she is dominant as she is an adult in a room of miniature furniture. If she was an abused kid why would she find it necessary to dress up as one? We are told she is haunted by her cruel past. And yet she has an entire wardrobe of little girl’s clothes she dons in order to feel safe and enable her to concentrate on her writing? Which of course is all about violence and torture.

The entrance to a forbidden basement in Elsa’s home has been screwed up tight. Castle manages to surreptitiously unscrew the doorway and gain entry. (Don’t get me started on the ridiculous stunt which results in his visit to Elsa’s home under an assumed identity. It involves his wife and daughter and is 100% unethical.) What he finds beyond that door is sure to startle any reader but will not shock or thrill as was probably intended. Fearn draws on Gothic novel horror motifs but then undermines the horrible with kitschy bad taste and sophomoric character traits. Elsa, who writes grisly crime novels, uses the pen name “Hardy Strong”. This Castle tells us is another signifier of her desire to be a dominant personality and yet paradoxically she prefers to be remain hidden in the guise of an assumed persona.

While reading Reflected Glory I was continually reminded of drecky horror movies of the 1960s like The Mad Room and Picture Mommy Dead, both of which make use of kitschy pop-psych motives for the criminal acts. Dr. Castle’s lectures when he attempts to explain Elsa’s troubles are less revelatory than they are predictable, and sometimes – unfortunately – laughable. Only in the final two pages when Castle adopts a paternal tone and reminds Elsa of her genuine self-worth and counsels her to abandon her strange rituals and pretenses does the story finally become what Fearn intended. But by then it’s really too late to care for Elsa or her future.


  1. "I thought this kind of thing wasn't really part of pop fiction well until the late 1960s or mid 1970s. Hard to tell when exactly Reflected Glory was originally written, perhaps it did come from that time."

    I very much doubt it. Fearn passed away in 1960 and, therefore, the book must have been written either during the very late 1940s or during the fifties. I suppose Fearn began to notice a shift in attitudes to the genre and he attempted to anticipate on it, which resulted in a psychological crime novel that anticipated those from the late 1960s and 70s. Sadly, going by your review, it turned out to be a decidedly poor one.

    By the way, I would still like to read your take on the marvelous Pattern of Murder. I can almost guarantee that you'll like that one.

    1. I absolutely hated all the psychological probing and her completely fabricated problems. The final two pages were, however, were so honest and heartfelt they almost made the book worth reading. Almost.

  2. Kind of like the armchair anthropologists that felt they understood an African country merely by reading travel essays or looking at maps.