Friday, September 14, 2018

FFB: Murder on the Marsh - John Ferguson

THE STORY: Francis McNab, crime reporter and amateur criminologist, receives a letter from Ann Cardew asking him to investigate her father's erratic and alarming behavior. Ann is disturbed by such odd incidents like her father repeatedly checking his shoes carefully and shaking them out before putting them on. He is also often seen staring out the windows of their home nervously scanning the horizon for something -- or someone. Before McNab has chance to even interview Cardew the man drops dead on his front lawn under mysterious circumstances. But there is no sign of foul play at all. The coroner's verdict was leaning heavily towards death by natural causes but the inquest is surprisingly adjourned for one week at the insistence of the police who need to gather more evidence. McNab and reporter Godfrey Chance join in the investigation and prove that Cardew's death was "one of the most diabolically ingenious murders in criminal record."

THE CHARACTERS: Murder on the Marsh (1930) is narrated by Godfrey Chance, friend and colleague of Francis McNab. Friend is a bit inaccurate, they are more rivals. Chance confesses he has been trying to scoop McNab on a juicy crime case for his newspaper. McNab, under the pen name "The Lamplighter," has a reputation for not only reporting on murder cases that end up becoming causes célèbre he does so with an invigorating style. But Chance is petulant, humorless, impatient and intolerant. Qualities that do not serve him well in his journalism career. McNab on the other hand is engaging, eccentric and fascinating. He also has taste for imaginative writing like Lewis Carroll which Chance disdains. Of course only a man who is an imaginative thinker himself could admire such ingenious nonsense like Alice in Wonderland and therefore is able to penetrate the unusual motive and highly baroque murder method used to dispatch James Cardew. If only Godfrey Chance could grasp that concept, indulge in creative thinking, and tap into his burgeoning inner sleuth, he might become a better reporter and writer.

The suspects are the usual myriad of shifty relatives, arrogant rivals and gossipy servants. Sergeant Strood with his inherent curiosity and avid policing skills is a minor standout in the large cast of characters. But for the most part this is a typical traditional detective novel with stock characters; an eccentric, overly intellectual detective who dominates the story; and his one-step-behind-everyone Watson griping and complaining throughout the story.

INNOVATIONS: The detection is everything here. Ferguson, at least in this one mystery novel, reminds me of Rhode, Connington and Crofts in their most persnickety, overly-analytic modes. A sequence following McNab's collection of several newspaper scraps details the analysis of each piece of paper and after consulting with printers and asking about font, paper texture and color, and of course the actual text and layout of each, he manages to determine from which newspaper each scrap came, the day of each issue, and even whether it was the daily, evening or express edition. This analysis went on for pages. Some may find this kind of thing fascinating, but I no longer have the patience for intensely detailed (translation: boring) detective work. There is also an involved discussion of how fingerprints were left on a cigarette case, the method of taking out and later inserting that case into one's vest pocket, how the placement of fingers in that insertion method will sometimes smudge away the fingerprints... etc., etc. I begin to sympathize with Julian Symons dubbing this kind of detective fiction "the humdrum school."

I liked that Chance is an easily irritated Watson and is always grousing about Francis McNab's odd talent at getting everything right rather than one who is in awe of the genius detective. I also like McNab's frequent bursts of Scottish exclamations. His favorite, by the way, is "Innisbuie!" No idea what it means and neither does Chance so we are left in the dark about that. But I'm sure it sounds startling when exclaimed in the thick brogue McNab is described as having.

As the story progresses it becomes a bit too obvious who the culprit is, but the manner in which clues are laid out from the beginning and the odd pieces of evidence like the blue ribbon with the piece of elastic attached and the cigarette case found at the murder scene are very well done. McNab's sorting out genuine clues from red herrings, his mulling over psychological motives and the thought processes of a killer, all make for entertaining reading even it if at times the ratiocination was a bit over-the-top for my tastes.

Pillion for female horseback rider (circa 1890s)
THINGS I LEARNED: One of the suspects describes someone picking up Ann Cardew on a motor scooter and "taking her home pillion." I had no idea what that meant. In fact, I thought it was a typo. Assiduous Googling led me to discover it was not a printing error at all. "Riding pillion" refers to letting someone ride on the seat cushion behind the driver on a motorcycle. Originally, the word "pillion" was the name of a cushion placed behind a saddle for a woman to ride more comfortably as a passenger on horseback. It now refers mostly to the extra seat behind the driver's seat on a motorcycle.

I learned something else, but I am going to have trouble telling you about it. It's a word with a variant spelling of ...CAN'T REVEAL... which turns out to be the real cause of James Cardew's death. I imagine that anyone trying to find out more about this thing will have difficulty locating the word Ferguson uses in any reference book on the subject matter. I certainly did. The modern and now accepted spelling is very different. I'm guessing he heard the word in another language and then made up his own Anglicized spelling for it. Luckily, the word he invented resembles the modern spelling. Oddly enough, this alternate spelling problem (or completely different naming) specifically related to these things recurs frequently in vintage detective fiction often leading to the reader's confusion. In any case, the facts unearthed about this particular thing were gruesomely fascinating. And that's enough of that skirting-around-the-issue style of writing. Whew!

QUOTES:  "It looks black," [McNab] said; "but, you know, you can build up a case against almost any one."
This seemed mere perversity, as I told him at once. To accuse McNab, the logician, of perversity, was equivalent to accusing a bishop of bigamy.

"One of your chief uses, Godfrey, is that you so often take it upon yourself to act as devil's advocate. It is most helpful. You force me to clarify and purge my thinking processes."

In La Verité et el Criminal that eminent authority, M. Bastin, remarks on the amazing way in which that type of murder which he classifies as a crime of deliberation goes frequently to pieces. That a murder, deliberately planned, should baffle and perplex at first is inevitable. The murderer selects his moment, place and method; he makes at leisure the arrangements he judges necessary to cover all traces, and not till the murder is a fait accompli do the police know anything about it. Then only the intellectual battle begins -- the battle, as McNab put it, of insight against foresight.

THE AUTHOR: Born in Callander, Perthshire in 1871 John Ferguson began his life as a railroad clerk and then was ordained an Episcopal minister which became his primary profession. According to the entry in Scottish Episcopal Clergy, 1689-2000 by David M. Bertie his ministry brought him to Dundee, Guernsey, Glasgow, Drumtotchy. He was chaplain at Eversley School, Kent, from 1915-38, then at Culross, 1939-46. In his writing career he was better known for his plays than his detective fiction. Campbell of Kilmohr in its debut production at Royalty Theatre in Scotland was hailed as 'a new and significant type of Scottish drama' (Glasgow Herald). Ferguson wrote ten crime novels, a mix of suspense thrillers, espionage and detective fiction, between 1918 and 1946. Of those novels five feature criminologist reporter Francis McNab and his rival, Godfrey Chance. Ferguson died in 1952 in Lymington.

EASY TO FIND? Take a wild guess. You're right! Almost impossible. I lucked out in finding my relatively cheap reading copy. Only four copies are currently offered for sale from online dealers, one is a translated German edition. (UPDATE Sept 17, 2018: Astonishingly all four copies were sold within three days after I posted this essay.  I really do want some finder's fees for selling these books.)  I had no luck turning up a digitized version either free online or for sale. Coachwhip Publications has reprinted three of Ferguson's mysteries, however none of them are Murder on the Marsh. The easiest John Ferguson mystery novel to find in the used book market is Death Comes to Perigord reprinted by Penguin in the UK and Dover in the US. Hundreds of copies of that book are out there.

Why Ferguson's books haven't been resurrected by an outfit like British Library Crime Classics is another mystery that will have to go unsolved. He certainly fits the bill for the kind of traditional mystery novel they like to reprint. In many instances I found this one much more engaging, livelier, and more innovative than most of what you find in the BLCC reissues. Murder on the Marsh, probably most importantly, has a satisfyingly baffling murder to figure out. Determining the method itself and how the murder was done is perhaps the only reason a mystery addict would want to read this book. Though in the end it's not at all my preferred style, I have to admit that I really liked the character of McNab despite all his fastidious working out of the murder scheme.

Francis McNab Detective Novels
The Man in the Dark (1928)
Murder on the Marsh (1930)
Death Comes To Perigord (1931)
The Grouse Moor Mystery (1934)
Death of Mr. Dodsley (1937)


  1. Sounds like a job for Team Dupin/Holmes/Pons et. al. I like the journalism angle, having matriculated thru that milieu. Engaging review, as always.

  2. Weren't Barzun and Taylor fans of this one?

    As for riding pillion: is it an Anglo term? I've rode pillion a few times myself - including through Mumbai's traffic, without a helmet!

    1. I rarely remember to check up on other opinions in my reference books. I'm sure they said good things if not raved about it. This is definitely the kind of book B&T would favor.

      I'm sure "riding pillion" is exclusively an Anglo term, probably archaic by now. I've never heard or seen the term in the US. Neither did I know there was such as thing as a pillion cushion until I read this book.

      This was my first taste of Ferguson. I'm likely to read more. I've had a copy of DEATH COMES TO PERIGORD for several years now. Don't know why I never read it, but I like McNab and I'm eager to read more of his adventures. Nice to know that I can also pick up one other McNab from Coachpress (GROUSE MOOR MYSTERY). Their other reprint is not a Francis McNab detective novel, but one of Ferguson's adventure thrillers.

    2. UPDATE: There is only one entry for John Ferguson in Catalog of Crime and its on MAN IN THE DARK, a crime novel not a detective novel. Sounds like a quasi inverted crime novel which does have McNab and Chance, but is very light on detection. Reads like a middling review, certainly not a rave. No other Ferguson books were written up in my edition.

  3. " I'm guessing he heard the word in another language and then made up his own Anglicized spelling for it"
    You are correct ! The word is actually derived from Hindi and in Hindi it is pronounced almost like that.

    1. Have you read this book? I'm glad you didn't tell us the word because doing so completely ruins the story for anyone who hasn't read it.

  4. Yes, I have a copy of the book ! I also have Death Comes To Perigord.

  5. Excellent post. Re: Pillion. No, it's not archaic, yet. It's still used over here. You can ride pillion, or be a pillion passenger. It was more commonly used in my youth, in the sixties and seventies, but I still come across it these days.

  6. John, he has been reprinted by Coachwhip, though Amazon doesn't make it easy to find.

    1. Yes, I know. I said that above but Murder in the Marsh is not one of those three books.