Friday, July 12, 2019

FFB: The Man Who Fell through the Earth - Carolyn Wells

THE STORY: There's a load of mystery going on at Puritan Trust Company. First, lawyer Tom Brice witnesses what appears to be two men in a violent argument in the office opposite him shortly followed by a gunshot. Then a dead body is found in a secret private elevator. Then a young man disappears without a trace. Olive Raynor, the young ward of Amos Gately, the murder victim, is Suspect #1 in the eyes of lazy Chief of Police. But she'll have none of that. She may not have liked her "uncle" who acted as an ever watchful guardian but she would never have killed him. She hires Tom Brice as her lawyer and then suggests he hire a private investigator to look into the murder and find evidence to clear her name. Tom seeks out Pennington Wise and his spooky assistant Zizi and together they unravel the various mysteries including that of the amnesiac title character.

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!
Case Rivers is the name an amnesiac man gives himself as an alter ego while he tries to sort out who he is and what happened to him. All he remembers prior to his being pulled out of the East River nearly naked, wearing only ragged and torn underwear, is a terrifying fall. He is certain he literally fell through a hole in the ground in Canada and ended up in the frigid waters of the East River. Everyone who is treating him for his loss of memory and helping him to recover his identity knows this is absurd, that he must be speaking figuratively. Tom at first thinks Rivers might be the missing Amory Manning, Olive's supposed fiancé, but when he meets the amnesiac he knows they cannot be the same person for they look nothing alike. When it is discovered that Manning is working for the US government the idea of kidnapping suddenly enters the picture.

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)
INNOVATIONS: Well's typical formula is followed here with the amateur detective collaborating with the police in the first half, her series character (the supposed "star" of the book, but not so in this case) showing up just after the halfway mark, and the pros and amateurs teaming up to solve the mystery in the second half. Remarkably, this is the first Wells mystery novel I have read in which there are literally four different theories being played out between the pros and the amateurs. It's a daring way to deal with a detective novel plot and she artfully manages to juggle all the balls in mid-air dazzling the reader with a variety of solutions to the multiple baffling mysteries. There are plenty of unusual clues and more crimes than one ever expects.

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.

THINGS I LEARNED:  Another intriguing clue is a carriage check, a small card issued to hotel guests or theater goers that allowed them to get a taxi or carriage (back in the horse drawn days) and wait in a queue as they pulled up to collect their passengers. I only learned about these by intensive internet searching and picking up this stray sentence in an encyclopedia about vaudeville. The article addresses the short-lived Folies Bergere in Manhattan whose owners Harris & Lasky thought up "other little innovations for theatergoers, such as a call boy inquiring of patrons shortly before the ending of the evening whether they wish a taxi giving a numbered card to those who do, the card becoming the person's carriage call." An illustration of one appears in my copy of The Man Who Fell through the Earth (at right) which I guess must be a good facsimile of what one looked like. A big deal is made about the holes in the card, what purpose they actually serve I have no idea, but in the course of the story they have an alternate more sinister use.

"Papier Poudré" brand powder-papers (click to enlarge)
In their first search of the murder scene Norah and Tom find things the police have overlooked. Norah, truly one of the ablest of the amateurs in this novel, spots a slip of pink paper in the trash can and pockets it. Tom asks her what it is and she tells him to be careful as it might still have fingerprints. "It's a powder-paper. Women carry them -- they come in little books. That's one of the leaves. They're to rub on your face, and the powder comes off on your nose and cheeks."  The conversation then turns to a mystery woman who must have been in the room visiting Gately. Tom remarks in passing: "A bit intimate, isn't it, for a woman to powder her nose in a man's office." Norah jibes back, "Not at all, Mr. Old Fogey! Why, you can see the girls doing that everywhere, nowadays. In the street cars, in the theatre -- anywhere!"

THE AUTHOR: Among Carolyn Wells (1870-1942) first professions were librarian in her hometown of Rahway, New Jersey and a prolific poet and humorist. Her first published work -- "The Poster Girl" -- appeared in 1897. Her first novels starting in 1902 were aimed for children, specifically the popular girls' book market. she came to write detective fiction a bit late only after attending a reading of Anna Katharine Green's That Affair Next Door. Wells' first detective novel, The Clue (1909), featured her long running series detective Fleming Stone. In addition to Stone and Pennington Wise she created Kenneth Carlisle and Lorimer Lane who each appeared in two mystery novels. Writing in multiple genres, both non-fiction and fiction, her work appeared in both the slicks and pulps of her time. Many of her novels were first serialized in popular story magazines like Detective Story (published by Street & Smith) and Munsey's All-Story Weekly.

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)


  1. And she edited the first best of the year annual in crime fiction, if I remember correctly.

  2. 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.