Friday, April 5, 2019

FFB: The Crowing Hen - Reginald Davis

THE STORY: "Whistling women and crowing hen/Are neither good for God nor men." This rhyme serves as epigraph to this intensely Gothic, very creepy story of a village plagued by fears and superstition and menaced by a ghastly creature with a strange crowing call and claw-like hands they've dubbed The Crowing Hen (1936). Danes Priory is to be sold to a young couple about to be married but they might be changing their minds when one of the estate agents falls to his death out of a second story window supposedly at the hands (claws?) of The Crowing Hen. Is the house haunted by the 15th century ghost of this horrible creature or is a sinister human behind all the horrors?

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?
Davis draws from a litany of Gothic romances from the past piling on as many plot conventions and features as he can. In addition to the omnipresent bloody footprints and the non-stop eerie crowing of the bird-like creature haunting Hayes Coombe we get premature burial, an animated statue, deaths from sheer fright, talking and reanimated corpses, a voice from beyond the grave that makes telephone calls, and dead chickens found in locked chests.

UK Edition (Bles, 1936)
(courtesy of Andrew Parry)
INNOVATIONS: The theft of the diamonds seems to be the only crime amid this abundance of mysteries. No one can really explain how Sprigge fell from the window and the death is labeled an accident though it seems like it might be murder. Still, even with this questionable death and the obvious identity from the start of the diamond thieves The Crowing Hen is very much a traditional detective novel with a crafty policeman and a couple of clever amateur sleuths who unravel all the tangled webs and solve the myriad riddles.

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.

EASY TO FIND? Not at all. What else is new around here? I have managed to locate all three books and will be reading and reviewing them in the coming months. Of the three books only his second, Nine Days' Panic, seems easy to find in the used book market. A few days after I completed reading The Crowing Hen I bought the only copy offered via online dealers of his third novel which few people among detective fiction fans knew existed until the late 1980s. That's how obscure Reginald Davis and his mystery novels are.

Detective Novels of Reginald Davis
The Crowing Hen (1936)
Nine Days' Panic (1937)
Twelve Midnight Street (1938)

13 comments:

  1. Cool...some typos in The Author 'graph...thanks!

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  2. You have positively intrigued me with this one, John. Sounds like something I would enjoy, for the most part, but we'll have to wait until it gets reprinted or falls in the public domain.

    Seriously, it should be possible to just reprint the books of these obscure, long dead writers and hold the royalties in trust until the copyright holders are found or come forward.

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    1. I'm thinking Davis may have died during WW2 either in the Blitz or as a soldier. He seems to have vanished after 1940. If I were more adept at genealogical searching (that's Curt's domain), census reports, and all those documents that can be found at Ancestry.com and other similar databases I could finally find out what happened to him. When I'm done reading the other two (they have yet to arrive in my home), I think these books may be the first complete series to be reprinted by Pretty Sinister Books. And this time I mean it! Cross your fingers.

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    2. You could give us an appetizer by reprinting The Crowing Hen first.

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    1. No different than most of the books I read and write about here.

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  4. "his third novel which no one knew existed until the late 1980s."

    Your dates for all of the books' publication are confirmed by copies held in the BL and Bodleian, so how did no-one know of its existence?

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    1. Looks like I forgot four keys words when I was transcribing my notes. To be more specific "no one" should have been followed by "among detective fiction fans" who were helping Allen Hubin compile his monumental Bibliography of Crime Fiction. In those days the majority of the entries were submitted by collectors based on their own libraries. Reference books I assume were crosschecked and perhaps Davis' third book which was only published in the UK was not listed in whichever references were being used. Davis had only two books listed in the first version of Hubin's bibliography and the third title did not appear until a later revision. I didn't' feel it necessary to add all those details. The sentence was meant to be purposefully hyperbolic and not meant to incite fact checking. I have amended that sentence now.

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    2. My question wasnt rhetorical.
      At first I wondered if the book was unpublished until the 1980s. Then I looked it up in Worldcat. After that I wondered if it had vanished from the BL catalogue - or the BM catslogue, as it was then - in WWII as a result of bomb damage or the BM's copy had been destroyed.
      It's interesting how quickly we've forgotten how difficult it was to check books' existence and where copies were before the 'net. Using library catalogues was a long and exhausting process, even if the book was actually in the library.

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  5. I wrote a bit about him in Clues and Corpses a few years back. I read this one but my attention wandered. Maybe I should have stuck with it! Definitely quirky. Todd Downing praised it.

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    1. My tastes are extremely similar to Diwnings. I wish I had lived back then and could have read all the wonderfully weird mysteries like this one when they first came out. They come across as oddities now, too redolent of hoary cliches, but surely must have been considered minor tour de force mysteries in their time. They are so much more imaginative than the kind of crime fiction we’re stuck with now.

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    2. I remember exchanging emails at the time with Bill Pronzini where I talked about this book, he's an admirer too as you know. I was planning to get all three at the time, I think even the last one may have been available then.

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