THE CHARACTERS: The book is populated with a coterie of Dickensian characters who sport odd names that might have been lifted from a late 19th century sensation novel. There is the vicar Melton Fellnoakes, an antiquarian and bibliophile whose avocation is studying the legends of the Fitz Dane family and keeping up on superstitious beliefs. The vicar has a wizened snoop of a housekeeper named Harriet Weevil. Bob Scotcher is the local antiques dealer who has a sideline in stolen goods made known to us in the very first scene. A travelling pedlar (Davis' preferred spelling) is hawking his lucky charms to anyone foolish or superstitious enough to buy them. The estate agents intent on getting rid of the white elephant property Danes Priory are named Vowles and Sprigge. And a local pub haunt named Smarty Wiffen seems to be in cahoots with Bob Scotcher, both of them are responsible for the theft of Lady Herdley's diamonds -- which will feature in a subplot throughout the telling of the story. Some of this motley crew will fall victim to the Crowing Hen and no one will escape the watchful eyes of the police inspector who eventually reveals himself after taking off his disguise just like a supersleuth out of a dime novel of days gone by.
Terry Hyland and his fiancee Shirley Esdale are much taken with Danes Priory and want to make it their home after their wedding. They know little about its storied past. But when Fellnoakes lectures Terry about the Fitz Dane dynasty, the bizarre birth of a monstrous child and the madness that befell its mother Terry is certain that someone is exploiting the village legends in order to keep curious minds away from the house. Davis makes no secret that Dane Priory is being used for criminal purposes, showing us the criminals hiding out in its dusky rooms and stowing their stolen goods in secret compartments. But could they too be victims? It appears that a mad killer is after anyone that goes near or enters the house.
There is yet another character, more of a narrative device I suppose, that is definitely reminiscent of 19th century fiction. That is our omniscient narrator who often directly addresses the reader, taking us on detours out of one scene and directing us to another part of the village to eavesdrop on a conversation, or watch one character take up some amateur sleuthing on the grounds of Danes Priory, or follow someone into a secret passageway. Davis manages to construct simultaneous scenes that resemble parallel editing in a movie -- two scenes in different locations playing out simultaneously -- and uses his narrator's voice to guide us by the hand as it were from one location to another. Thankfully we are spared the Gentle Reader address but that doesn't stop Davis from indulging himself in sentences like this one: "But there is ample time, while P.C. Westerner is telling Terry about the one or two things noticed by him that enabled him to put two and two together, for us to hurry down the hill after [the] Detective Inspector."
ATMOSPHERE: The Crowing Hen (1938) is teeming with Gothic excesses and a macabre set pieces. There is even an impossible problem. After the first victim has been placed into a coffin inside the church while awaiting burial, bloody footprints are found on the floor encircling the coffin. And a statue known as "Flat Face" which has a habit of teetering from its pedestal is missing. Somehow all this was done while the church was completely locked and no one was seen leaving while it was under watch. The statue eventually turns up in an unexpected location that may recall a plot device used by John Dickson Carr.
|Michelham Priory, one of England's most haunted places.|
Possible inspiration for Danes Priory?
|UK Edition (Bles, 1936)|
(courtesy of Andrew Parry)
The cinematic touches mentioned above in the narrative structure (parallel editing with words so to speak) and a talent for using dialogue in place of description make me think that Davis might have been involved in either radio scripts or screenplay writing. Maybe both? I was unfortunately unable to prove either surmise.
THE AUTHOR: Reginald Davis wrote three detective novels, the first two of which were published by the estimable Doubleday Crime Club in the US. On the dust jacket blurb for The Crowing Hen, his first novel, he is described as "a young English writer who seems destined to become a figure of importance in the field of mystery fiction." Based solely on this novel he most definitely was a promising talent of the bizarre and outre styled fantastic detective novel. But no one seems to know a thing about him. All of my diligent internet searching came up with nothing. An email to Bill Pronzini (who was kind enough to send me a photo of the extremely scarce dust jacket) was otherwise fruitless in gathering information about Davis. He told me that even Robert Adey, noted detective fiction collector, locked room mystery novel enthusiast and scholar, could dig up little about Davis. If anyone knows anything about Reginald Davis, the mystery writer, any bit of biographical data would be most be appreciated.
Detective Novels of Reginald Davis
The Crowing Hen (1936)
Nine Days' Panic (1937)
Twelve Midnight Street (1938)