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.
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.
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)|
"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)|
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)