Friday, July 13, 2018

FFB: The Devil & Ben Franklin - Theodore Mathieson

THE STORY: Young Ben Franklin is just starting out his career as a printer in Penn's Town (aka Philadelphia). His most recent editorial in his fledgling newspaper, however, has raised the ire of Colin Magnus, a shipping magnate who seems to have everyone under his control, especially his three daughters and son. Magnus demands a retraction of what he claims is a libelous editorial but Franklin refuses because it is all true. Magnus, a megalomaniac and religious hypocrite, curses Franklin justifying his invocation of Satan to ruin the printer's life as just another act of God who is all too ready to do Magnus' bidding. Shortly thereafter Franklin's printer's assistant is found dead and his journeyman disappears. With the discovery of eerie mark of a burned cloven hoofprint at the scene of each crime it looks as if the curse is flourishing insidiously. The townspeople want Franklin out and a mob rule takes over. Franklin fights back once more by enlisting the services of a fire and brimstone preacher who admonishes the entire town in a magnificent oratory display. The congregation leaves feeling humiliated and chastised. The curse backfires when Colin Magnus is found only a few days later stabbed with a sword in his locked study and another hoofprint left burning near the body. Franklin asks the Lord Mayor for a special commission allowing him to turn investigator. He promises to root out the very human cause of all the deaths and violence, and put an end to the madness of the citizenry who are falling prey to superstition and believing that the Devil, witches and warlocks are in control of Philadelphia.

Ben Franklin Wooing Deborah Read
(from the Granger Collection)
THE CHARACTERS: The Devil and Ben Franklin (1961) is set in Philadelphia of 1734 when Ben Franklin is only twenty eight. In this well researched and authentic feeling 18th century historical mystery he is living with his common law wife Deborah Read (affectionately called Debby throughout) and his son William is still an infant. His print shop and work on the Pennsylvania Gazette are his life. We get a sense of his involvement in public life through his volatile writing in the guises of both Poor Richard and Alice Addertongue, his journalistic alter egos. His dialogue -- occasionally sprinkled with the kind of epigrammatic wit he is well known for -- declares strong beliefs, a fervent disdain of superstitious nonsense and a rejection of tyranny in all its forms. That the novel uses a detective story format to reveal his burgeoning career as statesman and philosopher is one of its strongest appeals.

We learn a lot about Franklin's creation of his men's discussion group the Junto, also known as the Leather Apron Club. We meet all of its members who will also serve as suspects in the various crimes committed throughout the story. The club as Mathieson envisions it is made up of tradesmen (cobbler, scrivener, bookseller and printer, surveyor) as well as notable public figures like a lawyer and a magistrate. These men are some of Franklin's closest friends. Magnus approaches several of the Junto in an attempt to break up the club. He bribes them, threatens their businesses and does his best to make the curse he invoked come true. His goal is the total ruination of Franklin in family, career and social standing in Philadelphia.

Also featured prominently in the story is Colin Magnus' family. His three daughters are involved with men who also happen to be members of the Junto neatly tying together the two plot threads. Complicating matters is the sudden appointment of Robert Grace (another Junto member) as executor of the Magnus estate after his murder. Magnus who had been controlling his children, preventing them from marrying and in effect imprisoning them in his house wants Grace to carry out his dictatorial wishes by continuing a 24/7 watch on his family. His daughters unfortunately are once again prevented from marrying until they reach legal age. Unknown to Grace and only to Franklin is the fact that Jennifer Magnus is pregnant and planning to elope with the father of her child, William Maugridge (yet another member of the Junto) before he condition becomes too noticeable. Grover Magnus, the only son, who hated his father with an intensity is the prime suspect of his father's murder but he soon falls ill and everyone thinks once again the Devil's curse is manifesting itself and that the remaining members of the Magnus family may soon become targets of violence.

The cast is fairly large and the many supporting characters all have their shining moments. While so much of the story is devoted to the Junto members, the Magnus family and their relationship to Franklin and the killings there are a few outstanding minor characters who steal the spotlight in The Devil and Ben Franklin. One of the nastier villains of the piece is Ezra Peeples, a vile tavern owner so completely immoral and odious that he will not be satisfied with the fruition of the Devils' curse until Franklin is caught and burned alive as all witches are exceuted. Ezra is responsible for riling up the townspeople and creating the second  instance of mob rule when two more deaths occur.

INNOVATIONS:  Mathieson manages fairly well to carry off a replication of 18th century life in both manner and speech. Only occasionally does the dialogue take on a 1960s contemporary tone. The paranoid atmosphere is maintained with the plot focusing on a Devil's curse and the Philadelphian's descent into superstition and a regression in witchcraft belief.

Each chapter is headed by a quote from Poor Richard's Almanack foreshadowing the action to come often simultaneously making an ironic comment on what will be revealed in that section.

One of the book's highlights takes place when Franklin is forced to flee the town finding refuge in the abandoned Kraft family farmhouse. Or so he thinks. The farmhouse is now home to Franz, a German hermit who is a follower of the 14th century mystic Meister Eckhart. Franz is an excellent character, a welcome addition of wisdom and heartfelt humanity after so many pages of wickedness, rancor, and no-win conflict. He becomes an unlikely ally in the war that arises between the Junto members and the mob followers of Ezra Peeples. The climactic scene is a fully realized gunfight and showdown reminiscent of a scene from the western novels so popular only a decade earlier.

The detection ironically is perhaps the weakest portion of the book. Mathieson plants a few clues but relies on some well worn tricks that come as less of a surprise as they do anticlimax. In examining the scene of Colin Magnus' murder the solution to the locked room comes fairly quickly. As it relies on one of Carolyn Wells' "hackneyed devices" that she herself employed several times in her books it is also fairly forgettable. Another "hackneyed device" comes out of nowhere during the denouement and seems to be thrown in just to further rankle the hairs of any traditional detective novel fan.

Even though the finale is somewhat sloppily constructed it in no way diminishes the intelligence and heart of the overall story. I found The Devil & Ben Franklin entirely resonant with our times. Tyranny whether actual or metaphorical is a topic always worth reading about, always worth remembering its dangers.

QUOTES: Ezra Peeples: "What you call goodness is weakness, and I admire no weakling. Evil has its roots in the earth, and good has its roots in the vacant sky. That is why Colin Magnus' curse is more real than a blessing. Enjoy your quiet hour, Ben Franklin, bask in the sun of your success, for be sure it will not last long!"

Why was it that of all the people he knew, Ezra Peeples alone could speak in a way that rimed Ben's heart with ice?

"[God's] given you eloquence Mr. Dakin, there's no doubt of it. And you've convinced me that you may well be the needed savior of a town full of misguided people. If they must wallow in the dust, as you say, let it be the holy spirit and not the evil one that moves them."

"I should like to see His Satanic Majesty chased farther north -- say to New York or Boston, if you can manage it."

Well, if this was the Devil, he told himself derisively, he had shoes on his feet and solid legs, and probably a head to punch if he drew too near without salutation.

THE AUTHOR: Theodore Mathieson (1913-1995)
lived in Oregon for most of his writing career. For seventeen years he taught in California schools, later serving as instructor of English and journalism at Southwestern Oregon College. In 1958 he published his first detective short story "Captain Cook, Detective" in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. This led to a further twelve stories all featuring historical figures who used their specific talents and skills to solve murders, many of them involving impossible crime motifs or locked rooms. The detectives included Alexander the Great, Florence Nightingale, Daniel Boone, Stanley and Livingston, and Miguel de Cervantes. A locked room mystery with Leonardo Da Vinci as the detective, called "one of the most ingenious" by Mike Ashley, has been repeatedly anthologized in several short story collections. All of Mathieson's EQMM stories were collected in The Great Detectives (1960). During the 1950s he also published stories in Alfred Hitchcock's Mystery Magazine, several of which were also later anthologized in other collections. In addition to his adult novels Mathieson wrote juvenile fiction including Island in the Sand (1964) about a 17 year-old boy who exiles himself in Oregon dune country, and two juvenile mysteries featuring The Sleuth Club: The Door to Nowhere (1964), and The Sign of the Flame (1964).

EASY TO FIND? This one is relatively scarce. The book was published in hardcover and paperback in the US and only a handful of copies are offered for sale at various online bookselling sites. Of the two US editions available the paperback from Popular Library (illustration used for this post) is the more abundant and affordable. I could not verify a UK edition.

3 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Too bad about the "hackneyed devices" though! I know one you must be referring to, lol.

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    1. Part of the solution is an obvious nod to a very famous Ellery Queen mystery employing a plot motif that was a favorite of Queen's and other Golden Age writers. Totally went over my head, I'm ashamed to admit, even if the clue was fairly blatant. I get lost in the characters and period flavor in books like this and sort of give up all hope of trying to outguess the author. While there are clues in this novel the detection element is truly at a minimum or is of the offstage variety with Franklin delivering his findings after he has discovered something the reader was never aware of. Boo!

      This book really is more of an adventure thriller with all gunfights, the roiling mob and a slew of murders. The body count reaches nearly a dozen deaths -- but only four of those are part of the actual mystery involving the killer who leaves scorching hoofprint marks at the scene of his crimes.

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  2. Love the premise, pitting Beelzebub v. Franklin. I tried to write a story decades ago (don't think I ever finished it--fortunately) with the working title The Devil and Norman Mailer. Now, of course, I realize they were one and the same!

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