Friday, June 21, 2019
FFB: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime - Bruce Graeme
THE CHARACTERS: Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941) marks the first appearance of bookseller and accidental detective Theodore I. Terhune. An avid detective fiction reader Terhune has aspirations to become a writer of mystery novels. He has already penned a few stories that were published in Saturday Evening Post. His run-in with Helen and the assault that followed awakens in him an innate talent for detective work. Soon the two learn that the men were after a key that Lady Kylstone had entrusted to Helen. The key had slipped into the torn lining of her handbag and went undiscovered by the thieves. Lady Kylstone then reveals that the key opens the family burial vault and there is an annual ritual surrounding the vault. Every year on October 25 (the anniversary of the Battle of Agincourt) the vault is decorated with flowers and opened to the public in honor of the Kylstone ancestors who fought in the battle. Terhune is certain that there is something in the vault that the thieves are after. That night someone breaks into the Kylstone home and steals the key from Helen's handbag. But why bother with going to such lengths to steal the key when in only one day it will be October 25 and the vault will be opened to the public? Theodore's curiosity is piqued and he cannot stop prying and investigating until he knows the answer.
News of his accidental heroism makes its way through the town and in a matter of days everyone is talking about "Detective" Terhune and his exploits. Alicia MacMunn is so entranced by the story of his thwarting of the thieves that she consults with Terhune to solve a mystery of her own. At an impromptu dinner party attended by Mrs. MacMunn, her daughter Julia, and friend Geoffrey Belcher Terhune hears the story of Mrs. MacMunn's bookloving father who was researching the genealogy and heraldic history of Bray-in-the-Marsh's noteworthy citizens. But a few months ago his impressive handmade history was vandalized. Someone stole the first 50 pages (consisting of family names ending in A through D) of the manuscript. Mrs. MacMunn would like Terhune to find out why and if he can to recover those pages.
Of course the thefts of the vault key and manuscript pages will eventually tie together in one of the most outrageously complex stories. Terhune's adventure will involve a trip to New York City and Albany, a professional criminal for hire, attempted murder on board a passenger ship, a mystery woman nicknamed "Blondie", an automobile accident that kills four people, and learning the true identity of a salesman who worked for a tire manufacturing company.
Apart from Terhune, Helen and Lady Kylstone -- our trio of heroes -- the story is populated with a large cast of stimulating characters. As with the best of these type of adventure-quest styled detective stories everyone Terhune meets in his travels has a noteworthy scene. A man with a scar who seems to be following Terhune will turn out to be not a villain but an ally while the tart-tongued cocktail guzzling vixen Julia MacMunn who at first Terhune dislikes intensely will prove to be one of the most resourceful and compassionate people he meets.Other notable characters include Det-Insp. John Henry Sampson who enlists Terhune as his unofficial assistant when he sees Terhune has an innate talent for police work and encourages him to delve further; Lt. Kraszewski who has two brief but excellent scenes in the NYC section; and Mr. Ramsay, Margaret Ramsey's father, who has quite a tale to tell that will provide Terhune with lots to mull over on his way back to England.
INNOVATIONS: The entire novel is one of Bruce Graeme's trademark experiments in narrative. Rather than following the standard formula of a traditional detective novel presenting the reader with a crime and having the detective sift through evidence and question suspects Terhune encounters a series of mysterious events that indicate a crime about to happen. Each new adventure leads him to one more clue to the true crime at the heart of all the various mysteries. Among the seven clues of the title are a gold fountain pen with a strange insignia, a cablegram from New York, a piece of paper with the name Blondie and an address, a statue of Mercury, and the intriguing life of Margaret Ramsey, Mr. MacMunn's secretary who moved to New York.
The book is an excellent example of a genre blending crime novel that mixes adventure thriller, quest story, detective novel and satire of English village life into one highly entertaining read. Graeme has a wicked sense of humor and the caustic wit that makes up most of the dialogue is a highlight. The dinner party, for example, during which Terhune learns of the manuscript and the missing pages is one of the funniest scenes in the book what with all the jibing and banter between bitchy Julia, her easily ruffled mother and sarcastic Geoffrey Belcher. Imperious and no-nonsense Lady Kylstone (who is also an American) has some great lines, too. Graeme's mature women characters reminded me of the matriarchs and doyennes of Rufus King whose older women suffer no fools gladly and speak their minds with blunt honesty.
QUOTES: Lady Kylstone: "Diana Pearson would prove a better source for information of that nature. She is a born osteologist where the metaphorical skeletons of the cupboard type are concerned."
Arnold Blye to superficial Julia MacMunn: "I thought you hated books. What are you looking for? A book on cocktails?"
Ursula Bloom, who after I trolled the internet for info I learned is the most prolific woman writer of the 20th century with approximately 560 works to her name and a handful of pseudonyms she used. One book discussed intriguingly was the bestseller of 1940 I Bought a Mountain. This is a memoir written by 21 year-old Canadian born Thomas Firbank describing how he bought a house and land in Wales and became a sheep farmer. It sold thousands of copies all over the world and supposedly made Wales a dream destination for anyone looking for the "good and simple life" that Firbank extolled so beautifully in his book.
EASY TO FIND? Well, what do you know? As of this writing there are absolutely zero copies of Seven Clues... available for sale from the usual online bookselling sites I regularly check on. But don't let that stop you. Worldcat.org tells me that there are two copies held in prominent US university libraries and four copies in UK and Irish libraries. Get a copy via interlibrary loan, why doncha? This is one of the most entertaining crime novels I've read this year. Had I the money I'd reprint this one in a pinch.
Seven Clues in Search of a Crime (1941)
House with Crooked Walls (1942)
A Case for Solomon (1943)
Work for the Hangman (1944)
Ten Trails to Tyburn (1944)
A Case of Books (1946)
And a Bottle of Rum (1949)
Dead Pigs at Hungry Farm (1951)
Please note that this list is the only accurate listing of Theodore Terhune books on the web. Elsewhere you will find lists with missing titles that do feature Terhune or incorrect books listed that feature a detective character other than Terhune.