Thursday, March 1, 2018

FFB: Withered Murder - Anthony & Peter Shaffer

THE STORY: The guests at "The Barnacle," a cozy retreat situated on an island near the Cornish coast, have just returned from watching a rather inept production of Macbeth performed by the local drama society. Everyone is ready for a very late night supper. Some retire to their rooms to freshen up, some remain in the living area, while the rest prepare the dining room for the meal. Everyone gathers together, lights are dimmed, candles are lit for atmosphere and then -- Reverend Radley stumbles in the dark, cries out and faints. When the others come to see what the disturbance is they find the body of Celia Whitley horribly murdered. Who killed her and -- more importantly -- how was it accomplished when her secretary had been writing letters at a table only a few feet from where the body was discovered? Mr. Fathom takes charge, puts the fear of God into all nine suspects, and solves the baffling murder in a short six hours.

THE CHARACTERS: The strangest thing about this detective novel is the detective himself. In the UK editions he is called Mr. Verity while in the US editions he is renamed Mr. Fathom. Why, I have no idea. But the editors did a sloppy job of the renaming. Fathom's original name pops up as Verity twice in my edition of Withered Murder which was published the US in 1956.  Made me scratch my head and pause when it happened the first time and then I had to read about the switch in Hubin as well as an online article about the books.

Whether known as Fathom or Verity (I'll stick with Fathom since that's how I got to know him) he's a blustery wonderful incarnation of the detective as demi-god. Clearly inspired by Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale, Fathom is a large man of imposing physique with white hair, a dark haired Van Dyke beard, and a loud voice. Like Fell and H.M. it is his manner, speech and approach to crime solving that make him so notable. Fathom has a habit of indulging in grandiloquent speech making and opinionated rants. Insults are frequent during the many interrogation scenes leaving some of his targeted suspects speechless while reducing others to tears.

If the murder victim -- a vain, controlling, predatory former actress -- is painted as a loathsome woman, hated and reviled by everyone, the suspects are not portrayed any better. From the sanctimonious Rev. Radley to the egotistical and temperamental painter Terence Germayne, from curmudgeon of an antiquarian Meredith Blaire to religious hypocrite Mary Arundel there are not many likeable souls to care about. But this is exactly the point; it's a brilliant satire of the English manor house mystery. Every archetype one can imagine is present down to stereotypical gossipy maids who provide Fathom with some subtle clues just as in an Agatha Christie mystery. The whole thing smacks of a tongue-in-cheek homage to the traditional British detective novel. We have a baroquely described setting (the hotel is a converted monastery, once the home to a defunct order of fishermen monks known as the Piscatines) entirely suitable for gruesome murder, an evening out to see one of Shakespeare's most bloody and eerie plays, and a set up for a prime motive for Celia Whitey's long overdue death.

Beleaguered Hilary Stanton, Celia Whitely's secretary/companion, is eager to finish up her last duties with her employer and fly off to India to marry her fiance David, a soldier stationed there. But she is being prevented from leaving Celia's service. Hilary's ex-husband, Germayne, and her close friend Colin Grey are incensed. They even toy with the idea of doing Celia harm so Hilary can be free of the controlling woman who seems to want to possess the girl.

INNOVATIONS: The narrative voice is a cruel one -- patronizing, judgmental and quite often sneering in contempt. No one comes off in a good light least of all the god-like Mr. Fathom, the most judgemental character of the lot. Fathom's speech is not only grandiloquent, intended to highlight the book's most melodramatic moments, it is chastising, admonishing, and powerfully accusatory. He stands as the embodiment of Justice and Divine Retribution. Many of his amazingly constructed pronouncements are so dramatic they beg to be read aloud by a stentorian voiced actor. The theatricality of the novel is one of its greatest appeals. Ultimately the intricacy of stage work, illusions and misdirection, and the entire artifice of theater itself will prove to be the greatest inspirations to Fathom and will provide him with the glue that holds together the solution of the two puzzling deaths.

Fathom alludes to several of his previous cases throughout the novel and here the Shaffers get to indulge in their macabre sense of humor and -- I'm guessing mostly Anthony, the real mystery fan of the two -- draw on bizarre details as might be found in the work of John Dickson Carr and Anthony Boucher. One allusion is to a Scottish murderer who incinerated his children on a Yule log then scraped up the ashes and dumped them in his wife's Christmas stocking. Then there is Fathom's mini lecture about Bongo Bey (the Anatolian Slicer) which must be read in its entirety to be appreciated:

It was the most remarkable triumph. Bongo's mistake, you see, lay in slicing the wrong man. He had meant to kill Hussein the Hairy... Instead, however, he shredded a camel-breeder from Baku who was hiding from his creditors behind a knitted beard whose stitches ran at the wrong moment. This was all revealed by the forty-page codicil to his will, found subsequently by myself under the turban of his son-in-law, a fig merchant.

Though rife with allusions to bizarre cases and direct references to detective novel fiction and techniques there is, sad to say, not much fair play detection on display. Fathom makes pronouncements of the vital clues as part of his accusatory approach in the interrogation scenes. However, we never see him gather this evidence. The few fair play moments that might lead the reader to the truly unexpected solution are so subtle they are almost invisible. Unlike the way most veteran mystery writers disguise the most blatant clues as what might otherwise be thought of as minutiae, the Shaffers present the important clues in some of the most bizarre incidents in the book. Only in retrospect does it dawn on the reader that they were as obvious as the location of Poe's purloined letter. For instance, shortly before the body is discovered a cat viciously kills a rat in the presence of nearly every guest just as they are about to eat supper. Later, Fathom asks everyone about the rat's slaughter, where they were when it happened, how they reacted. No one can understand why he thinks it is so important. But it is. Similarly, Fathom asks the hotel owner to carry a chair from her bedroom around to the outside of the house and place it just inside the French doors of the room where the body was found. She's irritated by his bossiness as he tells he to move faster all while timing her speed with his watch. She does as he asks begrudgingly but is completely at a loss as to what it all means to him. The clueing turns out to be blatant in both of these cases and yet requires out-of-the-box thinking to apply them to the solution of the mysteries.

QUOTES: "I see before me that mutilated face, professor. I see beyond it to a filthy terror. I do not in any way wish to indulge in macabre hyperbole, but when so much combines in one spot I feel a sense of doom. Doom as the ancients saw it, as we two perhaps saw it from the beginning."

"A very creditable performance though I have never fully understood why the Bard is invariably made the butt of School Certificate examination. I suppose it must be done on the inoculation theory--inject enough of the stuff at birth and a lasting immunity will result."

Peter Shaffer (circa late 1960s)
"It simply amazes me how little developed people's sense of tragedy is. A sense of balance, amazing eyesight, splendid palates, all this they have, but nary a sense of doom. Can't you feel it all about you?"

"This is not the police, stupid man. It is Fathom. Your innocence of this crime, if indeed you are innocent, would still hang round your lean neck like a halter. Like a bracelet of unrealised intentions. It is what you have in common with your fellow guests, Mr. Radley: the depravity of the things you haven't committed."

"A woman like Miss Stanton marries a man because she finds him intriguing and sexually appealing. She really doesn't care a fig whether he paints like Leonardo or Joe Louis. There are very few women to whom a superb canvas is more important than a pair of meaty male thighs and the Cooperative Society bill settled regularly every Saturday morning. It is my opinion that all three functions were beyond you and she did the only thing sensible in rejecting you."

"Two and two make four. What do Collective Implication and Collective Ignorance make?"
"How the devil should I know?"
"How indeed?" agreed Fathom, and left him.

Anthony Shaffer (circa mid 1970s)
THE AUTHORS: Originally published in the UK under the pseudonym "Peter Antony" the three detective novels featuring Mr. Verity/Fathom are the work of playwright twin brothers Anthony and Peter Shaffer. During the 1960s and 1970s the two would become heralded playwrights with Anthony also picking up acclaim for his screenplay work. Peter wrote the award winning plays Equus and Amadeus, both later adapted for the screen. While Anthony created the landmark mystery thriller Sleuth and adapted both Death on the Nile and Evil Under the Sun for the screen. Of the two brothers, it is Anthony who was the detective novel devotee. In addition to Sleuth he went on to write three other thrillers for the stage one of which was a parody of the English manor murder mystery called The Case of the Oily Levantine, retitled simply Whodunnit? when it was produced on Broadway. Several of his plays make direct references to the work of Christie and Carr. The influence of Carr is obvious in Withered Murder. Their combined love of theater, stage life and acting, however, are the most important aspects to keep in mind while reading this last of the Mr. Fathom mysteries.

EASY TO FIND? Practically impossible I'm afraid to say. I stumbled across a relatively cheap copy back in 2012 and set it aside for years. I only took it down now because a reader of my blog had seen the photo in a post on dust jackets I did back in December 2012 and asked if it was for sale. I looked to see if there were any copies for sale and was amazed to learn there were absolutely zero copies being offered online. Nevertheless, I agreed to sell the book to him. But of course I also had to read it before I shipped it off. I thought about photocopying it prior to the sale, just in case I wanted to reprint it. Apparently the Shaffers were loath to have their detective novels reissued. During their lifetimes no one had ever been successful in getting their mystery novels back into print. I'm sure it will be even more difficult to get the job done now that they are no longer alive. Anyone out there is welcome to try to revive these books. I have zero energy to devote to the bargaining and involved correspondence these deals usually require. The books do deserve reprinting, especially this last one, a diabolically clever and often sardonically funny murder mystery.

The Mr. Verity/Mr. Fathom Trilogy
The Woman in the Wardrobe (1951)
How Doth the Little Crocodile? (1952)
Withered Murder (1955)


  1. I'm aware of the great reputation these books have, but am yet to treack them down and remain hopeful that someone might, possibly, maybe get to republish them at some point. This one in particular sounds superb, thanks for writing about it. The rest of us will simply go back to waiting and sighing...

    1. Yes, these gems need to be reprinted and as fast as humanly possible!

      Coincidentally, I suggested Withered Murder and The Woman in the Wardrobe to Curt, in the comments on my review of Rhode's Invisible Weapons, but he never answered that specific comment. So maybe something is already in the works behind the scene?

    2. I'm reminded of a quip from a Christopher Durang play: "Does God answer all our prayers? Yes! What people who ask that question often don't realize is that sometimes the answer to our prayer is no."

      I saw your comment about these books and thought it bizarrely coincidental that one day later someone in New Jersey sent me an email asking to buy my copy of Withered Murder. It's not a perfect copy by any means even if the DJ is in amazing condition. But I practically gave it away to him based on the prices of one "Peter Antony" book that's being hawked on the interwebs.

      Of the three books the only one for sale now is How Doth the Little Crocodile? Multiple copies are out there with prices ranging from $81 for an ex-library US edition with no DJ to the UK 1st with a DJ in VG+ for $650. It's just ridiculous.

      I found an ex-library edition of ...Crocodile ages ago with it's DJ and all (which I stupidly forgot to scan before I sold it). But I thought that one was utterly boring compared to this delightfully satiric and ingeniously plotted mystery. I'm thinking Anthony had much more of a hand in this last mystery novel than his brother. I think maybe it's the best of the three, though I've never been able to afford a copy of the first one and haven't read it. I've seen The Woman in the Wardrobe offered only twice in my lifetime!

  2. Wow, this was quite fascinating. Thanks.

  3. Thanks for reviewing this one. Like JJ and Tomcat been interested in reading this one and the others by these two writers, but been thwarted due to their scarcity. Did you come across the CADs article on these books? I think it was in one of last year's issues maybe.

    1. I used to subscribe to CADs, but I lost interest in it very quickly and stopped buying copies. If it wasn't in a 2015 or 2016 issue then I've never seen that piece. Are all three books discussed in the essay? I'd be interested in knowing the basic plot of the first book. Also, I'm dying to know if Mr. Verity has a first name. The DJ illustration on ...Crocodile? up above shows P. Verity, Esq. on the check. In Withered Murder his first name is never mentioned. Not even a first initial.

    2. Tracked down my copy and it was May 2017. Mr Verity doesn't seem to have a first name or initial in this article by John Cooper, but he does go through the basic plot of each book I think. I could scan the article in and email it to you, if you like?

    3. Very kind of you. If it's not any trouble to scan and email, I'd like to read it. Thanks, Kate!

  4. Verity/Fathom sounds a little like Nero Wolfe, and the satire like an adult take-off on Mel Brooks's Murder by Death. As usual, your review is thorough and engaging.

    1. That's Neil Simon, Mat, not Brooks. I dont' know... sort of apples and oranges on the comedy spectrum. The Shaffers a have very arch sense of humor, biting and often nasty. Nothing like the body part jokes, silly puns, and flat out low comedy of that Simon movie. It's easy to see how Sleuth grew out of these early detective novels. Andrew Wyke, that cruel and vindictive mystery writer, is very much like Mr. Fathom.

    2. Simon, of course! I suspect the Brooks mistake was inspired by the adolescent humor (of which I am an utterly secret fan).

  5. "...under the turban of his son-in-law, a fig merchant." Jeez, I love this sort of thing. You had me right there, John. Too bad I'll likely never get to read this book. IT sounds a treat. Why do you do this to us??? Tease and torment. Tease and torment. Thanks a heap.

    1. So that explains why some fortune teller saw the image of the Marquis de Sade in my tea leaves a couple of weeks ago! My apologies, Yvette, but I guess it in my nature. :^D

  6. I am echoing Yvette here - sounds fascinating, but am going to get used to the idea of not being able to read it/them. I didn't know the Shaffer boys had that intriguing early history...


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