THE CHARACTERS: In a scene late in the book when Tom and his resourceful and witty secretary are discussing the mystery of Case Rivers (the title character), Norah comes up with an outlandish idea of what might have happened and why Rivers has also seemingly disappeared. Tom says to her "Oh Norah! come off! desist! let up! Next thing you know you'll be having him in the pictures, for you never thought up all that stuff without getting hints for it from some slapstick melodrama." Norah replies, "Oh, well, people who are absolutely without imagination can't expect to see into a mystery!" That's exactly the kind of person Carolyn Wells would not want for her target audience. Imagination in abundance is on display in The Man Who Fell through the Earth (1919) perhaps one of her best detective novels. For all her talk of the differences between fiction and "real life" over the course of the novel the "real life" of her story is more colorful and bizarre than any real gritty urban crime that plagued early 20th century Manhattan where this story is situated.
Tom and Norah make a fine duo of sparring amateur detectives. Their scenes are sparkling with humor, affability and gentle jibing. Norah is the abstract thinker while Tom is the logical minded man, of course, and together they offer up some interesting ideas about who and how Amos Gately was killed in his private offices. But more interesting among the various mysteries is the discovery of some financial chicanery, possible blackmail and the unexpected revelation of a spy working for Germany. Then there is the title character and his own strange story.
|1st US edition, front cover|
(George H Doran, 1919)
Note the snowflakes!
Norah is sure Rivers has something to do with Manning's disappearance. Zizi is certain Rivers is Gately's killer. Tom and Pennington Wise disagree with the women and have their own ideas about who did what to whom. The reader is left to sort through the various theories, discard the red herrings, and pick one of the many detectives in this case with whom to side.
Among the handful of suspects one of my favorites in the first half of the book was Jenny Boyd, a floozy office worker -- a ubiquitous stock character in Hollywood movies of the 1930s and 1940s. Jenny is first described by Tom, our first person narrator, as "the yellow ear-muffed stenographer" alluding to her Princess Leia-style hairdo and goes on to detail her "cheaply fashionable" clothes and her irritating habit of chewing gum. She shows up to the police interrogation wearing a risque V-neck dress with a short skirt. Then he concludes his paragraph on Jenny with this hilarious sentence: "Her air of importance was such that I thought I had never seen such an enormous amount ego contained in such a small cosmos." Keep in mind that this cliched portrait of a not-so-bright secretary who thinks she's sexy was written in 1919! It always gives me a mild shock to encounter such early examples of character types we think were created much later in popular fiction and entertainment. Jenny, however, is not just present as a figure of ridicule, another Wells trademark. She is crucial in protecting someone hiding behind the scenes -- a surprise villain who opens up a whole new plot thread that only complicates discovering who killed Amos Gately and why.
|1st UK Edition (Harrap, 1924)|
A quasi-impossible murder, a mysterious disappearance, a possible kidnapping, an abduction, espionage, featuring a coded message with an odd method of decoding the cryptogram, and the mystery of identity related to Case Rivers are all met with intelligence and sometimes indulgent fantasy, which would later be the downfall of Wells as a mystery novel plotter and writer. Despite the tendency for characters like Norah and Zizi to dream up ludicrous theories this is one detective novel that Wells managed to concoct in its purest form.
Imagine reading this book when it first appeared 100 years ago and one can see why Wells was seen as a forerunner to what we now consider quintessential Golden Age detective fiction. She first employed all the conventions and motifs we now see as old hat long before the truly great writers re-engineered them in engaging and baffling mystery novels that soon overshadowed her work. Wells draws on previous writers for sure, notably Conan Doyle, and her frequent references to Holmes, detective story writers, and well known plot motifs show not only her vast knowledge of the genre but an obvious love and respect for the form.
One of the more interesting clues that help the team of detectives help learn more about Rivers is his habit of drawing intricately beautiful snowflake patterns. Zizi makes the observation that people tend to doodle while using the telephone and she discovers a doodle of a snowflake in a prominent place that reveals Rivers had to have been there. Finding the snowflake doodle in that spot leads Zizi to form a theory about Rivers possibly having murdered Gately. There is one brilliantly placed clue I completely overlooked that provides the solution to Case Rivers' true identity yet the reader is not even reminded of it until the penultimate page. Wells makes great use of seemingly mundane human behavior taken for granted in real life and then applying observations like Zizi's to her detective novel plot. It's both a refreshing and ironically eye-opening plotting technique that would become the standard of the incipient Golden Age.
|"Papier Poudré" brand powder-papers (click to enlarge)|
Wells was one of the most amazingly prolific writers of the early 20th century consistently publishing at least three or four books annually from 1902 to her death. She claimed in an autobiographical work, The Rest of My Life (1937) to have written 170 books, including 70 detective stories—"so far."
Pennington Wise & Zizi Mystery Novels
The Room With the Tassels (1918)
The Man Who Fell Through the Earth (1919)
In the Onyx Lobby (1920)
The Come Back (1921)
The Luminous Face (1921)
The Vanishing of Betty Varian (1922)
The Affair at Flower Acres (1923)
Wheels Within Wheels (1923)
And she edited the first best of the year annual in crime fiction, if I remember correctly.ReplyDelete
I somehow managed to overlook that Murder in the Bookshop was reissued by HarperCollins as part of their Detective Club reprints recently. Perhaps I could start there with Wells, since between you and Curtis I've been made very interested in her over the last few days...thanks for this, John, it's very much appreciated.ReplyDelete